by Terry Rogers
Milford School District will begin the school year in an all-virtual format with plans to transition to a hybrid format in mid-October. This has led teachers to not only develop additional technical skills but also to come up with creative ways to engage students who will not physically be in their classroom.
“As I prepare for virtual learning to begin, I feel like I am a first-year teacher all over again,” Lauren French, a 5th-grade teacher at Benjamin Banneker Elementary School. “No class could ever prepare teachers for this shift. We are learning as we go and soaking in as much information as possible to make this experience successful for our students.”
Jenna Conaway, who teaches 7th-grade math at Milford Central Academy stated that virtual learning was a definite curveball for her as a teacher.
“I spent most of the spring and even summer training myself in new ways to present material to students in an online platform,” Conaway said “I think the most difficult part of preparing for virtual learning is trying to find ways to reach all children and keep them engaged as well as create that teacher/student connection that is achieved by face-to-face learning.”
Elaine Norris, who teaches 2nd grade at Mispillion Elementary, pointed out that preparing for the upcoming school year has always been an exciting and busy time. She began preparing for school well before each school year began, sometimes at the end of the previous year and during her summer break.
“However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, preparing for this school year presents a unique set of challenges,” Norris said. “There is a lot of necessary training to be done in order to be effective in a remote setting. I have learned new computer programs and platforms such as Google Meet, Zoom, Screencastify, ClassDojo and even learned a few technical skills as I tinkered around with my Chromebook, desktop computer, document camera and more to be sure I can give the best teaching and learning experience to all of my students and families. Phew…that’s a lot! That is on top of the typical pressure I put on myself to give my best at all times. So is it challenging? Yes, but teachers meet those challenges head-on and overcome them with the support of our administration, support staff, families and the community. We are better together!”
Sharlitta Gilbert, an ESL teacher at Milford High School, did not find preparation for the new school year difficult at all, just different. At the end of the summer, Gilbert is normally doing professional development and training on how to bring better in-person lessons to students along with the latest techniques and strategies in education. Although she is still doing the training this year, they seem to be focused on virtual learning and how to teach remotely.
“Anyone who knows me knows that technology is not one of my strengths,” Kimberly Webb, a 4th-grade inclusion teacher, said. “I do believe that virtual learning has pushed me out of my comfort zone and made me a more well-rounded educator and person. It is my belief that virtual learning has brought us all closer together as we have had to depend on one another in ways we never have had to before. I must confess that my colleague and dear friend, Courtney Lee, has truly been my saving grace. She has spent countless hours exploring new technology platforms, assisting me with building my own class website and troubleshooting my many, many technology problems. There are many, many Courtney’s across Milford School District. I am proud to be among such professional educators!”
Webb also believes that COVID-19 taught her many important lessons but the most important was the need for flexibility in all aspects of her life. As a parent herself, she understands that the circumstances are far from ideal but if parents, teachers, and students remain flexible, working collaboratively, anything is possible. She encourages families to reach out with questions or concerns they may have. Webb believes that effective communication is the key to success for any relationship, even that of a family and educator.
“Our Buccaneers are resilient,” Webb said. “They (students) inspire us each and every day. I would encourage all Buccaneers to remain positive, engaged, and continue to work hard at achieving their goals. I recognize learning and school is going to look very different from years past, however, please know we are here to inspire, listen, educate and love. Together, we can and will do this!” Banneker students will be scheduled into two synchronous learning sessions, one in the morning from 8:15 to 11:15 AM and one in the afternoon from 12 to 3 PM. Students are only required to attend one session. Students who cannot attend during those sessions will be offered asynchronous learning opportunities on a case-by-case basis.
Gilbert suggests that parents be as patient as possible and understand that they are not alone in frustration with the virtual learning process as children, educators and administrators are also in the learning process with this type of education. She stated that teachers, administrators, and other support staff are available to help parents if they are struggling. Gilbert also encourages students to be patient and try to have fun during the new method of learning. Students at the high school are required to attend synchronous classes Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, learning in four classes each day with each class lasting one hour each.
“My advice for parents is to just breathe,” Norris said. “In fact, “Just Breathe” by Jonny Diaz is one of my favorite songs in the morning as I get ready for the day. This is a challenging time for us all. Your teacher has children and lives similar to yours and we understand. Just know that we are in this TOGETHER! There are no mistakes, just an opportunity to learn as we go. Parent/teacher communication is essential to getting through remote learning and this COVID-19 pandemic. My advice to students is that even though this is not a “normal” school setting, they will be expected to take this “new way” of learning seriously by taking ownership of their learning and pride in their work. Students need to be mindful of their screen time and make the learning portion of it priority. Be sure to get a good night’s rest, breakfast in the morning, and be prepared with materials and supplies, ready to go. Also, expect to enjoy their teacher and classmates in a new way. “You’re an All-Star, get your game on!” Another favorite by Smashmouth.” Norris explained that her students will be expected to attend three-hours of synchronous learning which will include “brain breaks” and “movement breaks.”
Conaway stressed that communication is critical for success during the virtual learning period. Parents should keep an open line of communication with the student and their teachers. They also need to be willing to share any concerns they have or any struggles they are seeing with their child.
“I know this is going to change the way students see education,” Conaway said. “The best advice I can offer them is to embrace the change and stay positive. They need to be willing to participate as much as possible in online learning. This includes the mandatory online sessions as well as the help sessions that will be provided. Students need to be brave enough to ask questions when needed and, at times, advocate for themselves if they are struggling. Teachers are here and willing to work with students as much as possible, you just have to be willing to let us know you need support. The more you participate, the better your learning experience will be.” Milford Central Academy students will be required to attend synchronous learning twice each week for every class. Each of the session is 45 minutes and there is an additional hour built into each 45-minute session for any additional support students may need.”
French, whose students will also participate in three-hour synchronous learning classes each day, pointed out that this is all new for teachers and administrators.
“First of all, it is okay to struggle,” French said. “I would be shocked if it went perfectly. My main piece of advice is to communicate with your child’s teachers. We’re here to help. Communication is key. As for students, they should embrace this unique and memorable time in their education. This is history in the making. One day, our students are going to tell their kids about this experience. My hope is that students come to class with an open mind and are ready for a new mode of learning.”
Both French and Norris explained that the technology aspect of the virtual learning was the biggest challenge for them. Gilbert struggled with how to adequately meet the needs of students whose first language is not English using a virtual format. She believes the district has come up with some great processes and procedures to be sure students who are not fluent in English receive the support they need academically, emotionally and physically. Conaway, who admits to being someone who likes to plan ahead, struggled with the unknowns for the upcoming year. She felt the administration did an excellent job keeping teachers up-to-date and supporting them throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. She did point out that there are still some unknowns that need guidance from outside sources other than school administration. Webb, also a planner, agreed with Conaway.
“Everyone is different,” Webb said. “Everyone has experienced their own set of challenges. For me personally, my biggest challenge has simply been the uncertainty that these times have presented. Anyone who knows me knows that I am a planner and I love a schedule. I have had to quickly adjust to not necessarily knowing what each new day will bring. While this has been a struggle, some days harder than others, this has allowed me to develop into becoming a more flexible mother and educator.”
All of the teachers were able to find some exciting and fun aspects of the new learning format. Webb enjoyed connecting with each member of her family with hopes of scheduling personal appointments as well as how to distribute instructional material. She found that while this year will be different than others, she, like all educators, anticipates a strong opening to school and is hoping to put the last six months behind her. Gilbert has enjoyed learning new technology that will make virtual learning interactive and engaging. French loved collaborating with her colleagues, stating that she learns something from them every day. She believes they have pulled together as a team and knows they will be a source of support throughout the process. Norris has enjoyed watching teachers, staff and administration get so excited about creating Bitmoji Classrooms.
“It is fun,” Norris said. “It is so easy to go down that rabbit trail. It is also funny to watch the excitement of us when we figure out how to create a lesson in our Google classroom, or when we Google meet with each other to test our presentations, video and lighting for the camera. It takes a lot of time and effort for administration, teachers and support staff to pull this off. We are going to do our very best and with the support of families and the community, we got this!”
Conaway also found the collaboration with her colleagues to be the best part of planning the new virtual school year start. She feels that virtual learning is forcing her to grow as an educator and find new ways to mee the needs of her students, enjoying learning about new online programs that are designed to further engage students.
“While we all recognize it will be like no school year before, we are all anxiously awaiting the arrival of our students,” Webb said. “They are the reason we selected this profession and continue to do the work that we do. Prior to March 13, 2020, our last day of school, I truly believed I was part of a school district that was strong and student-centered. But now, as we embark on the upcoming school year, I am certain. #Milfordstrong. #Milfordproud.”