Teaching During a Pandemic: Part Two
Updated: Feb 3, 2021
By Jennifer Ersalesi
Teachers in every school district across the country 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, also from different grade levels to learn more 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 Teacher, Lincoln School), Mrs. Margaret MacFadyen-Doty (English Teacher, Union Middle School), Mr. Christopher Viola (Science Teacher, Union Middle School), Ms. Sarah Rylick (Third grade teacher, Washington School), Mrs. Theaudry Mayfield (Third grade, Lincoln School), Ms. Stephanie Smallstey (Math Teacher, Rutherford High School), Ms. Brianne Mahoney (Physical Education Teacher, Pierrepont School), Mrs. Danielle Angelson (Kindergarten Teacher, Kindergarten Center), Mrs. Bernadette Minervini (First Grade Teacher, Washington School), Ms. Chelsea Leary (Social Studies Teacher, Rutherford High School) and Mr. Matthew Vaccaro (Fourth Grade, Pierrepont School).
TIR: Can you tell us about one or more ways that you have assisted your students through this very different, difficult time?
Tom Potor: The way I have helped the students is to try to teach class as normally as possible. They are all masked up, but I have made adjustments within the guidelines to allow the students to enjoy Physical Education as much as possible. The students have been great. They have made the school day easier for me as well.
Margaret MacFadyen-Doty: One of the most consistent ways I have tried to help my students is to remind them that I am here at all times and that I am available for them, even if it goes past "office hours". I try to get them to understand that this is not "the new normal". It is a hiccup to our normal. Things will not always be this way and we can get through this together. I also remind my students that they are not in this alone and that we are all working through this together. Finally, I am trying, alongside my colleagues and co-teachers, to keep to the way I usually teach: with humor and brain breaks and sharing sessions and taking advantage of "teachable moments". And when things get messed up because I didn't schedule something right or I didn't share the right way in Google Classroom or the attendance didn't post when it was supposed to, I try to take it in stride and tell my students that it is no big deal. This is all brand new and we are all going to make mistakes.
Christopher Viola: I changed many of my group projects into individual projects. For hands-on building projects I decided to come up with ways students who are home, can use recyclable materials. In class, there is never a shortage of supplies such as tape, cardstock, glue, etc. To allow for fully remote students to build projects for the elective, Amusement Parks & Bridges while home, I encouraged students to use recyclable materials they can find in their homes. This would lessen the need to spend money on supplies that are unique to the elective.
I also hand-delivered half-built projects to students. Students who were in the hybrid model did some outstanding work on site. When we switched to fully remote to close out marking period 2, I decided to personally deliver the almost finished projects and some extra supplies to each students' home so they can complete their work.
For each of my classes, I have created many short video tutorials on how to complete a lab, project, or assignment. In addition to explaining each project, I felt that supplementing verbal and written instructions with short videos that the students can watch and rewatch would be helpful. This helped close some of the communication gaps. Using FlipGrid has been beneficial for allowing students to post videos of their projects in order to "present" to other students.
Sarah Rylick: This year we are trying to be incredibly cognizant of our student’s social/emotional well-being. I know that if this has taken a toll on me, it has certainly done the same for them. We’ve been focusing a lot on stress management in the classroom since the start of the school year. Each day the students get two breaks; one recess and one mindful moment. We try to get outside for recess, and during the mindful moment, the students can choose whatever activity they feel will help them get focused and ready for the next lesson; sometimes this includes drawing, reading, or a movement break with Go Noodle videos. We also spend one day a week having an open dialogue about how we’re feeling. On these dialogue days, I share how I’m feeling with my students, and I also discuss what strategies I am going to use that can help me feel prepared and ready to tackle the day ahead. The students will then do the same, and as a class, we determine what tools we’re going to use that will help us to feel our best. These include deep breathing exercises, meditation, movement breaks, music, etc.
Theaudry Mayfield: One way is greeting the students with a happy “Good Morning” and doing routine activities to make sure each day is as normal as possible when the children walk through my door. The student’s health and safety are my major concerns every morning and providing an environment where students feel comfortable. Each student sanitizes his/her hands daily throughout our school day. We have a morning and afternoon water break which allows students a chance to take a break for 5 to 10 minutes without wearing their masks. During this difficult time, I use breathing techniques and positive mantra phrases to help my students feel calm and reassure them we are all in this together. Teaching mindfulness activities to help the students relax and focus more on what is positive and less on negative situations. My top priority is paying close attention to the needs of my SEL (Social Emotional Learner) students. It is important for students who have these emotions (i.e. anxiety, nervous behavior) to talk to someone about how they are feeling during this difficult time. I have class discussions to help address different issues and the school counselor is available to assist as well.
Stephanie Smallstey: I think just reminding students that this pandemic is temporary. The struggles we are facing today will only continue to provide us with the strength to get through the many more obstacles we will face in our lives. I think now more than ever, students need the encouragement that everything will eventually be alright. Staying positive, providing students with optimism, learning new ways to keep students engaged through the virtual world, while most importantly finding ways to put smiles on student's faces (even if we can't see them with the masks.)
Brenda Mahoney: In general, just forming and maintaining connections with my students I think has really helped. Being a special area teacher I am in the unique position where I teach our students through the 4th, 5th, and 6th grades. I try my very best whether we are on Zoom or in-person to check-in and ask them questions about how they are doing, this helps to keep a sense of normalcy. Normalcy is something that I have strived to keep for my students the best I can. At the end of last school year, I wanted to keep our Fitness Day tradition alive and was able to work with our PE teachers in grades K-8 in creating a district-wide field day. It was done virtually but it created a sense of community and normalcy for our students. This year I continued with this idea by still implementing our school-wide yoga program. This has been something we have done the past two years and while it might be virtual this year, it is something familiar for our students that they truly enjoy. Not to mention all of the great benefits that come along with the program. In times like this, mindfulness and stress management are so important for us all.
Danielle Angelson: I have assisted my students in many ways through this difficult time. I have scheduled private zooms with students who seemed to be having a rough day. I have written letters and mailed them to student's homes to remind them how proud of them I am. I have purchased supplies and extra work for students who could not afford their own. I have dropped off lesson plans and classwork at student's homes when I realized they were out of ink and were showing up to class unprepared. Aside from assisting my students, I have also made every effort to assist their families. I have watched them struggle, listened to them cry, guided them through the challenges of virtual learning and technology, and have made no judgments. They have all been so supportive and have also been able to get a glimpse of my struggles as a working mom. They have offered kindness and appreciation and I couldn't have made it through this year without them.
Bernadette Minervini: I think helping them to understand what it means to “go with the flow” has been at the core of our experiences this year. My class knows things are different this year and at times students will ask questions about how things would be different if the coronavirus wasn’t here. For example, if the virus wasn’t here what would our classroom look like, how many classmates would we have, would we work with partners, etc. They’re curious and aren’t afraid to ask questions and be honest about how they feel. My class has also experienced being quarantined twice this school year, and being flexible has helped everyone remain calm in those situations.
Chelsea Leary: This year is challenging for our students academically, socially, and emotionally. I have tried to be very accommodating to the needs of my students. One of the things that the students seem to benefit from most, is the use of office hours, breakout rooms, extra help, and one-on-one time. When we have full class zoom classes, it is hard to build personal relationships with virtual students. Meeting with the students individually has been one of the ways to alleviate this problem. Showing flexibility in planning based off feedback from my students has been even more important this year than ever.
Matthew Vaccaro: As educators, our job is always to be there for our students; they are like our own children. I try to allow students to talk to me about things going on and give them a safe space to laugh and enjoy some normalcy again. I think getting the kids to smile is important because, without happiness and laughter, things can get gloomy. Nothing beats a child's happiness.