Teaching During a Pandemic
By Jennifer Ersalesi
Teachers in every school district have spent the last four months of the 2019-2020 school year and a little over five months of the 2020-2021 school year facing challenges unlike any they have ever known throughout their careers. With doses of compassion, flexibility, innovation, creativity, and perseverance, teachers throughout the Rutherford School District have transformed their teaching to reach their students remotely and in socially distant school settings. This is Rutherford interviewed a number of teachers at various grade levels, including specialist teachers, to learn more about teaching during a pandemic. Each week a different interview question and responses will be published on This is Rutherford.
The following teachers were interviewed: Mr. Tom Potor (Physical Education, Lincoln School), Mrs. Margaret MacFadyen-Doty (English, Union Middle School), Mr. Christopher Viola (Science Teacher, Union Middle School), Ms. Sarah Rylick (Third grade, Washington School), Mrs. Theaudry Mayfield (Third grade, Lincoln School), Ms. Stephanie Smallstey (Math, Rutherford High School), Ms. Brianne Mahoney (Physical Education, Pierrepont School), Mrs. Danielle Angelson (Kindergarten, Kindergarten Center), Mrs. Bernadette Minervini (First Grade, Washington School), Ms. Chelsea Leary (Social Studies, Rutherford High School), and Mr. Matthew Vaccaro (Fourth Grade, Pierrepont School).
TIR: What has been the most challenging part of not being able to teach the way you are used to (in the classroom, mask free, not concerned about 6-foot distance, etc.)?
Tom Potor: The most challenging part has been the unknown. The planning idea for lessons is very difficult. I have always been used to setting up lessons with continuity from one week to the next. We are unsure if tomorrow we will be in person. I have changed my thought process. I just take it day by day and try to teach as much as I can for that day. We have been very lucky at Lincoln School, we have only had two and half days of Virtual Teaching for the school year. The students that are in person, have been receiving full-days of education since day one.
Margaret MacFadyen-Doty: Being stationary is the absolute worst! I love being able to walk around my classroom when I am teaching. I think it is important to be "close" to my students and sit down sometimes to have one-to-one conversations with them. I also think that movement keeps my students on their toes. By "following" me, they are getting different perspectives on the classroom, making eye contact with other students, and hopefully being kept alert throughout the lesson. I also love to have my students move around individually and in groups, change seats, work in the hallway, or just get comfortable while reading. The idea of staying in one spot and just staring at the computer is torture sometimes. And if I feel this way, I can only imagine how my students feel! True learning comes from experiencing a moment that allows us to commit new knowledge to memory, and working through a screen seems to limit these opportunities at times.
Christopher Viola: The most challenging part of teaching with social distancing is the inability to have team projects or group work where students need to be within 6 feet of each other. In several of my classes, the entire curriculum is based on teamwork and collaboration. Due to mask-wearing and social distancing, these types of projects need to be modified or removed. It has been a challenge not only to scale down a large project into a project that can be done individually but to also make sure the new individual project still addresses most of the concepts and learning goals as the original group project.
Recently teaching has been a challenge whether it be for teaching hybrid students or fully remote students. When students are in a classroom and you look out to a room full of 20 students, there is a certain togetherness. This togetherness is missing with online learning. With much smaller class sizes and each student maintaining 6 feet of distance while wearing masks, the social aspect of learning is decreased. While presenting online to students, I feel that I am presenting the material the best that I can, however, I am constantly asking myself this question: "are the students learning from me?"
I always took for granted the ability to make eye contact with all students in a classroom. I also took for granted the ability to circulate to parts of the classroom where I can assist all students while being within less than 6 feet of them. The verbal and physical cues are not always there when looking through a computer screen. In class, I have a better grip on the level of attention students are paying to the lesson. Class discussions and conversations also seem to flow much better with on-site learning.
Sarah Rylick: I am so grateful to be back in the classroom with my students this year, but it has certainly come with its fair share of obstacles. I foolishly thought that the masks were going to be our biggest challenge but boy was I wrong. I knew that teaching would look and feel very different, but I don’t think any of us could have prepared for the challenges this school year would bring. The COVID restrictions were easy enough to adapt to (i.e. the desks in rows, smaller class sizes, social distancing, etc.) however, I didn’t realize how significantly these restrictions were going to affect my ability to teach. We’ve had to reimagine many of our lessons that typically require cooperative learning. Keeping the students engaged in such a restrictive environment has been the most challenging. Although we’re making it work the best that we possibly can, it’s still a struggle to know what could be. As teachers, we put pressure on ourselves to give our very best to our students, and it’s been difficult to accept that it’s just not always possible this year.
Theaudry Mayfield: What I have found extremely challenging is not being able to engage and interact with my students in a small group setting like in previous years. It is heart-breaking to explain to 8-year-olds that certain classroom activities are not allowed this school year. I miss the little activities that would bring joy, laughter, and a smile to a child’s face. For example, just reading a book and sharing the pictures or photographs while my class is sitting on the rug listening during shared reading time. Also, having the children play math games with a partner to learn certain math facts that were taught that day. Children can learn a lot from each other by working closely with their peers at a table and doing teamwork projects for science lessons. It is challenging now, but I look forward to the day when engaging and interacting together can resume safely.
Stephanie Smallstey: Students learn best in my class during collaboration and group work. In previous years, my classroom was set up with desks in groups of four, flexible seating such as bean bag chairs and high top tables. The desks even had whiteboards on their surface! Now, besides the empty chairs and desks, the classroom setting is quite different. The desks being six feet apart allows for minimal group work and student interaction has drastically diminished. In addition, my attention is now split between students in-person vs. online, causing only half of the amount of time to help each cohort.
Brianne Mahoney: Being a Physical Education teacher, I have had to completely rethink the way I teach. It has been interesting trying to find ways to follow the curriculum while engaging at home and in-person learners. For me, I started with safety and the guidelines and worked from there. My co-teachers and I now have a system place that works very well. We are able to have the students go through a warm-up, skill focus and yoga cool down. We even live stream our classes when we are indoors and outdoors for our at-home learners. When students are in person, they remain 6 ft. apart with their masks on. This has been the biggest change because a lot of the activities we used to do: soccer, basketball, volleyball, etc. have been altered but we are still able to teach the content the best way we can for all learners while remaining safe. I think being creative, flexible, and consistent is key.
One thing I would like to mention is how resilient our students are. They have accepted all of the modifications made to our lessons. This is especially true of our 5th and 6th graders who might be used to our Physical Education program a certain way. They have accepted the changes and even embraced them. I am so proud of our students.
Danielle Angelson: The most challenging part has definitely been the limitations on how I provide social/emotional support for my students. As a virtual teacher, I have not seen my 21 Kindergarteners face to face. I love to see their faces in our zooms every day, but it's not the same as hugging them every morning. Teaching children has always meant so much more to me than just simply teaching. I enjoy watching my students grow, I love to hear about their weekends, and I look forward to seeing their families at drop off. Being face to face with my students helps me understand who had a rough night's sleep, who is struggling with pencil grip, who is falling behind in math, and who may be experiencing challenges at home. I miss laughing all day with them and celebrating all of their successes in and out of the classroom. My biggest fear of teaching virtually was not being able to connect with my students or gain their trust that is required in order for them to find joy in learning. I do believe that my students have gained my trust, and for that, I am so grateful. While this has not been an easy year, I am so incredibly proud of my students for all they continue to do to show me that they care.
Bernadette Minervini: Before the school year started, the most challenging part was adjusting to the classroom and the set-up of furniture due to social distancing rules. I entered my classroom and felt so many different emotions. Student desks were set up in rows. Extra tables, used for guided reading or for small group work, were removed. The rug where children would normally sit on for whole group lessons was gone.
Since movement beyond their desks is limited, something as simple as a read-aloud can’t take place without some form of modification. Normally, children would come to the rug, sit with their classmates, listen to the story and ask/answer questions. Now, children stay at their desks, and books are presented via the SMART Board and document camera, a video found online, or I may walk up and down the aisles so that the illustrations can be viewed by all as I read the story.
Small group instruction does not take place and that makes teaching beginning readers extremely difficult. Although technology provides us with online reading materials, I feel children still need to hold books in their hands. Guided reading books can not be shared on a daily basis. They need to be set aside and quarantined for a period of time. I can hand out leveled books to each child and these books are kept in individual student book bins. Students use these books to practice reading on their own as well as reading time with me. I am also printing and photocopying books weekly so that students have access to more leveled books. The amount of time spent reading with each child never seems to be enough. I always question myself and what else I can do to meet each child’s needs.
Chelsea Leary: The most challenging part is not being able to have classroom discussions and serious conversations with all of my students in front of me. In a normal year, we spend a lot of time discussing readings, engaging in Socratic seminars, and participating in debates. Finding creative ways to still engage in these discussions has been a challenge this year, but we are finding creative solutions!
Matthew Vaccaro: The most challenging part of not teaching the way I used to is having all of my students in one area to enhance learning. I love interacting with my students and working collaboratively to solve problems and getting to know each other. Having some virtual kids and having two cohorts where students aren't always together makes it challenging to have a real classroom environment. I also enjoy having fun and laughing in my math classes, and not being able to see the kid's emotions and expressions through their masks changes the classroom atmosphere.