Towards the end of the previous academic year, Clutch MOV examined how teachers were attempting to keep students engaged during the first months of the pandemic. At the time, we were in the midst of a statewide discussion on how to “flatten the curve.” Here we are, however, nearly a full year later, still trying to get that darn curve to settle down. Through it all, teachers are still struggling to keep students engaged. The operative word in that previous sentence is struggling.

While there is no single answer to the question of how school systems have proceeded through the 2020-2021 school year, almost all have endured some combination of remote and blended learning. In Wood County, as schools have just returned for the first time this entire school year to all students attending at the same time, the county administration has allowed four distinct options for students attending school. They may attend face-to-face, of course. They may also participate via distance learning with teachers who are assigned to give instruction on Microsoft Teams. The third option is to work remotely on a state-provided curriculum that is almost completely automated. Students work at their own pace and only have contact with a teacher somewhere in the state via messaging.

The fourth way for students to do school is to participate in remote learning during which they remain in their assigned classes and do the same assignments as their peers who attend face-to-face. This means students are doing their assignments on Schoology with no direct instruction. For the teacher, this leads to more time putting more thorough assignments on class pages than normal and more time answering questions. And if those students fail to keep up, it falls back to the teachers. Did you message them? Did you message their parents? Did you call? Do you have a paper trail to verify your actions? Did you not do a home visit?

Mary Blaker, PHS (Michelle Waters)

And all of that is over and above planning, teaching, and grading, and usually – by necessity – is done outside their regular contracted hours. Most teachers take as a matter of course that they’ll work more hours than they’re paid for, and most handle it without much trouble or hoopla. But this year, the stress levels have ratcheted up even higher and it feels like every eye in the community is upon them. In light of all this, how are teachers coping? Well, as with most situations and most groups, it depends on who you ask. But the answers teachers gave indicate one thing: people who have more effective coping mechanisms will obviously weather the situation better.

For Mary Blaker, who teaches English at Parkersburg High School, she knows she’s struggling when she finds she’s used up all her patience on her students. “Sometimes I find myself getting a little ‘short’ with adults – this is me being emotionally stressed by the pandemic.” When this starts happening, she knows it’s time to take a step back. She copes by doing activities she enjoys, like reading, knitting, crochet, golf, and kayaking. She also has dinner with friends when the weather allows them to maintain social distance outside.

I haven’t had the opportunity to build classroom community relationships with my students or truly feel like I’m making a difference between blended learning and remote learning schedules.

Paige Burner, Neale Elementary

Mary’s brother Jeff, also at Parkersburg High School, exemplifies teachers, like many, missing out on some of the joys that would ease the tension of a stressful job. “The biggest issue that I ran into was getting married during the pandemic – it was a mess. My wife and I ultimately had to scale down the size of our ceremony and move the location.” He said despite those issues, the ceremony turned out nicely.  They originally postponed their reception, turning it into an anniversary party, but have now decided to cancel altogether because things still don’t look like they’ll be safe enough. Like his sister, Jeff de-stresses by playing golf. He and his new bride Kate, who also happens to teach at PHS, have gotten to travel. “My wife and I did get to go to the beach and spent a lot of time at our cabin in northern PA where we could socially distance from the rest of the world.”

Jeff Blaker, PHS (Michelle Waters)

Some have been forced to start their teaching careers during the pandemic. Paige Burner, who teaches first grade at Neale Elementary, was actually still a student when the virus hit and only began teaching this past fall, having missed much of her final semester and graduation. “Before I knew it, a pandemic had stolen away the recognition I had worked so hard for; an achievement of a lifetime gone in the blink of an eye.” Beyond that disappointment, Burner has had to try to teach first graders in a circumstance that is, to wildly understate the situation, less than ideal. “I haven’t had the opportunity to build classroom community relationships with my students or truly feel like I’m making a difference between blended learning and remote learning schedules.” Her main coping mechanism is turning to family and friends for support. Another real positive in her life has been getting a puppy. Professionally, she’s turned to her fellow first grade teachers and administrators. “It has honestly been a learning experience for us all,” she said.

Most teachers are convinced connecting with students is vital to effective education. Distance and blended learning have made that a challenge. Mary Blaker has tried to overcome this challenge by being more available to her students in non-traditional ways and by networking more with colleagues. “More than anything I feel like teaching has now become a 24-hour-a-day job,” she said. She feels like she has to be in teacher mode nonstop, as she finds herself sending and answering messages, making and uploading videos for students to view, creating more thorough assignments for remote students, organizing daily folders online, and reaching out to colleagues for ideas on how to deal with different situations.  “It just never ends.” For her, the result has been less joy in her job.

I have adjusted my methods and provided more assignments for the students to show that they understand the material.

Jeff Blaker, PHS

For Mary’s brother Jeff, the challenge has been finding different ways to let students demonstrate comprehension. “I have adjusted my methods and provided more assignments for the students to show that they understand the material.” Because his class is normally lecture- and discussion-based, he has had to find other ways for students to not only take in the content but also demonstrate that they’ve grasped it.

Paige Burner, Neale Elementary (Michelle Waters)

Paige Burner feels her students need her to be a positive in their lives. “These kiddos need an excited and passionate teacher now more than ever; they pick up on attitude and vibes their teacher displays, so even if I’m frustrated, they can never see that.” She also strongly believes her students, who are bearing more stress than five- and six-year-olds should have to, need school to be in person. Distance learning just doesn’t work for her students. “It was never meant to be used as a platform for foundational education or true social communication.” She believes it works for supplementing in-person classes, but is wholly lacking as the primary platform for students as young as hers.

Most in the profession agree on one thing: things will never go completely back to normal, or at least not to the normal most of us grew up with. While education has grown and evolved over the centuries, this pandemic has forced cataclysmic change almost literally overnight. And, in some ways, that’s a good thing, according to Jeff Blaker, in that it has pushed almost all districts to go to 1:1, or providing a computer or tablet to each student for their exclusive use.

That used to be rare; I think that will become more popular in future years.

Mary Blaker, PHS

“We can really allow the kids to do a lot of awesome things with videos, activities, and just learning in general that may not have been possible because districts were hesitant to go make the leap to purchase technology at a 1:1 rate.” Mary Blaker sees those changes being permanent as well, and also believes this situation has forced school systems out of the we’ve-always-done-it-that-way rut and possibly killed off some sacred cows, so to speak, even something as seemingly simple as scheduling. “I have a lot of seniors only attending part of the day, just taking the classes they need to graduate. That used to be rare; I think that will become more popular in future years.” 

Most agree that technology is a fine tool, but don’t believe it will ever replace the impact of a caring, creative teacher. “Technology is beneficial,” Burner said, “but it will NEVER replace a passionate teacher in front of child supporting them, guiding them, and ultimately helping them find themselves and become confident in their own abilities.”