In part 2 of our 5-part series, we continue to follow Chief Writer Allan Tellis as he explores the ways that the global COVID-19 pandemic is producing unique local impacts in the Denver region. In this second installment report, we learn about the ways many Denver-area educators are adjusting to the consequences of the pandemic to the practice of their profession.

Negotiating Self-Care

As schools move on-line, educators are learning how to navigate their careers and classrooms in significantly novel ways. Not only are the stresses brought about by COVID-19 taking a toll on their children, but the chronic uncertainty of these times is also making life more complicated for educators as well. Practicing social distancing has underscored how difficult it can be to experience social isolation for extended periods of time and in order to cope with our new social arrangement, educators are doing what they can to maintain the community. For instance, one group of educators still have a daily “vibe check” to make sure they all have an opportunity to observe their own emotions and ground themselves. His non-profit organization An anti-violence educator in Denver teaches youth how to handle emotions in a healthy fashion and that line of work can be quite taxing psychologically on practitioners who may experience vicarious trauma. Fortunately, these educators have access to mental health services in case they need to talk to someone in a professional capacity. 

Many educators noted that it can be helpful to talk to peers about the challenges of (and best practices for) navigating the world of virtual teaching. For one group of piano teachers, that means still creating space to communicate while observing social distancing guidelines. “This is really silly but we meet in a King Soopers parking lot every Sunday afternoon. We park our cars far enough apart and roll down our windows and sort of like shout at each other.” 

A piano teacher with more than a decade of experience says these exchanges with her peers are cathartic because they remind her that she is not at fault for not being perfect and not having all the answers as she begins to teach in a new way. After developing her teaching style around in-person teaching techniques for over a decade, the shift to virtual learning has come with some hiccups.

Since the workday no longer ends by changing locations, it has become increasingly important for educators to set personal boundaries to make sure they maintain a reasonable work-life balance. For some educators, that means turning off screens and not responding to emails on Sunday; for others, that means making sure they utilize their additional time at home to complete their graduate program. As one educator noted, “The workload has actually increased… I have a younger daughter, I still have to help her with her schoolwork as well.”

Long-term changes in education

COVID-19, despite some of the prevailing political rhetoric, will probably not only be impactful in the short-term, and educators are well aware of that. In fact, for one educator, who formerly taught math but currently teaches physical education, being home for several months and taking note of the ways in which a long-term turn towards virtual education could change his profession has caused him to consider a career change. He believes that even after a more than 10 year run as an educator, the transition to virtual education has been the hardest part of his career.

Nationally, the virus has dramatically disrupted the economy and the educational sector has not been immune to this downturn. One educator noted that his school made sure to communicate that the finances were in a good place. Knowing that his job was secure, during, and after the pandemic, has made the semester less mentally straining for him. However, he also noted that many of his peers that worked in administrative positions in other schools or were employed by the state’s larger districts were still uncertain about what these coming budget shortfalls mean for their futures. As a local anti-violence educator put it, “aside from fully essential roles, everybody is in a fragile place right now.”

A piano teacher thinks she’ll still be able to give around the same number of lessons even if the shutdown lingers on for some time. Although some parents are already requesting in-home visits, she says she won’t be ready to return to that style of the lesson until there are clearer guidelines about what precautionary measures will keep her and her clients safe.

Shift to fully online

Unsurprisingly, the biggest challenge COVID-19 has brought to educators is figuring out how to facilitate a high level of learning in a fully virtual format. While the transition to online teaching is not easy for any kind of educator, it can be particularly challenging in areas that rely heavily on tactile feedback. A music teacher noted that she has to come up with new ways of relaying proper tone because she no longer is sitting on the piano bench alongside students. In normal circumstances, she can help students understand what sound they’re looking for by playing arrangements properly and having students mimic those tones. Online interactions do not allow for that type of instruction, so she’s had to develop new ways and an “expressive vocabulary” to communicate these nuanced corrections.

Similarly, a physical education teacher noted that the shift to the virtual format means he now has to effectively communicate with hundreds of students at once about how to accomplish their physical curriculum. “Instead of having one class at a time you have an entire grade level at a time,” he said. For him, that means going from classes of around 25 students to groups of 150 students or more. He also noted that this process can be particularly challenging for students with special accommodations as they need specific instruction to meet their needs.

A math teacher acknowledged that he has had to adjust his expectations and become more realistic about what he wanted his students to accomplish during this time. Instead of grading harshly and having the same accountability standards he holds under normal circumstances, what he wants to see from his students now is a high level of engagement. If he can conjure up sustained effort from his students, they will be more likely to stay on a progressive trajectory for the development of their math skills. He says he’s especially focused on making sure his eighth graders get a significant amount of work turned in as they have to be able to transition to high school next semester. As opposed to having his students meet synchronously, he posts video lectures and allows students to work at a pace that works best for them and their families. He also has the students set up times for open hours in which they can virtually pop in and ask questions as they see fit. 

One educator suggested that the hardest task during this transition has been finding the sweet spot in terms of workload for students. He says as educators, they have often been trying to negotiate between meeting the needs of parents who are clamoring for more work because their children are consistently out of tasks, and making sure students and families don’t feel overwhelmed by the amount of work assigned. He notes that he’s intimately aware of the pressures outside of completing their schoolwork that many students are facing. Currently, nearly 40 million people are unemployed throughout the country and many others have their livelihoods in limbo. These conditions can make it difficult for students to focus on their school tasks as there may be more pressing issues in their households. 

Even with proper adjustments, distance takes its toll

From his perspective, a school-based violence prevention counselor noted that he has developed an even more profound sense of urgency in providing students the social-emotional tools they need during this pandemic. There has been a significant rise in issues like substance abuse, child abuse, and domestic violence during this shutdown, and some of the children he works with are burdened with living in difficult circumstances. 

A physical education instructor noted that one of those great strains for him at this time is not being able to be there for students that are experiencing hardship, stating “We end up parenting somewhat. We’re with some of these students a lot more than their parents for sixth months out of the year.” He is hopeful that this period of time will serve as a wake-up call for some of his colleagues. As a black male, he feels he was more aware of some of the inequitable conditions students face outside of the school, but many of his colleagues were not quite aware of how a concept like inequity materialized itself. Those educators can now see how difficult it can be for students without adequate resources and who also have to navigate difficult environments to succeed. 

Anecdotally he noted how recently, the wi-fi went out in the Green Valley Ranch neighborhood for quite some time, meaning students in that area were suddenly unable to complete their work. This incident, he hopes, will give some of his colleagues the opportunity to understand the challenges some students face as some of them do not have access to the internet at all. 

“The rest of my colleagues have been opened to the reality that a lot of our kids are dealing with at home and I think that they’ve learned, that for a good majority of our kids, their lives are pretty tough. We’ve witnessed some crazy things via online with parents, even at home, and kids having to deal with some pretty tough stuff even while we’re online with them,” he said.

Another educator noted that he had been surprised by how inaccurate his intuition has been about which students would succeed and which students would struggle. Going into the shutdown he had some feelings about which students would have an easier time navigating the online school work, but what has occurred has actually been the reverse of what he expected to happen. Some of his stronger students are really having a hard time staying on track and completing coursework, while some of the students who appeared to be less engaged have done quite well during this time. 

“It’s been different struggles for different students. I have some really strong students that are struggling with staying motivated and keeping up with work on their own and not having teachers be their teachers every day,” he explained.

A piano teacher noted that she has some concerns that some students may not be able to maintain their commitment to music lessons during the shutdown. She has found that some students, particularly those that are very physically inclined, are having a tough time making it through their lessons. In normal circumstances, these are the students she would have to take a lap around the living or do some jumping jacks. Without that physical release, these students are struggling to stay focused and seated for significant amounts of time.

She says students are also experiencing burnout due to an abundance of screen time and she’s noticed that having to focus on screens for so long is especially difficult for some of her younger students. “Kids are exhausted. We have known for years that too much screen time is not a good thing and kids are tired. I would say especially my middle schoolers, so focus is less,” she said.

Parents have noticed this as well, and some have requested shorter lessons than usual to help their children maintain focus.

Overall, educators seemed to be quite impressed with the way their students have handled the shutdown. “Young people blow me away with their resilience. We have really compassionate and humble people,” one educator noted.

Despite the feelings of isolation, the number of contact educators has been able to have with students has served both themselves and the kids well. A piano teacher noted that her relationships with her older students had in some ways deepened in the era of social distancing.

“I have a group of high school girls that I’m able to pour into both musically and talking about social life and good social media standards and just regular life things. We’ve actually had normal life conversations within the piano lessons and I feel like I’ve been able to pour into them.”