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Q&A: Challenges Faced by Special Area Educators

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Center for Responsive Schools asked two special area educators about the particular challenges they are facing during this time of the coronavirus while adapting to the changes required during COVID-19. Katie Baron teaches Family and Consumer Science at Trailside Middle School in Ashburn, Virginia. Mindy Ryan has been a school counselor for twenty-five years in Fairfax County, Virginia, and currently works at Dranesville Elementary School in Herndon. We asked them about adapting to the changes of distance learning, the challenges they faced as special area educators, and how they plan to approach the coming school year. (Note: Their responses have been edited for length and clarity.)

Q. What are your goals and hopes for this school year, 2020–2021, regardless of whether it is in person, remote, or a mix of both?

KATIE: Obviously, my hopes are to be able to see my students daily, in person! However, because we might still be engaged in distance learning, I find myself having similar hopes and goals that I’ve had each and every school year—to build relationships with my students, find creative ways to teach the content that I feel is so important for our students, and to have fun with them.

MINDY: To create a caring culture within each classroom whether it’s from home or in the school building. To get to know each student a little better by creating engaging lessons that focus on the student’s social and emotional being. As a counselor, I want to make sure that families know that I can still support them remotely with one-on-one sessions and by sharing valuable resources with them for whatever needs they have during this uncertain time.

Q. How do you re-imagine teaching and learning for the 2020-2021 school year?

KATIE: I think creativity and flexibility on both my part and the students’ will be key in the coming school year, regardless of where learning happens.

MINDY: I imagine that we will be back and forth between in-person and online learning until the end of this coming winter. I think we might start back at school with restrictions and safety measures put in place. Then, if and when positive COVID-19 numbers spike, we could be sent home for virtual lessons until conditions improve. My hope is that a vaccination comes out before the end of the year and we start back in the school building in January of 2021.

Q. How do you plan to rejuvenate before the upcoming school year?

KATIE: Self-care. Work–home life balance is something I’m always working on and will continue to do in the upcoming school year.

MINDY: I work out multiple times a day for brain breaks. I sit outside in the sun to reflect, I meet with my friends as much as possible to share our feelings, and I read to relax.

Q. How do you recommend students, families, and colleagues rejuvenate for the upcoming school year? 

KATIE: My advice is to take time to do something you love with the people you love. Turn off the TV, spend time outdoors, exercise daily, and try new things.

MINDY: Do something they love! You can always make yourself happy when you chose to do something that makes you happy. I choose to do one thing that makes me happy every day. I can always make time for it.

Q. What is something that you’ve learned about yourself as a special area educator this year? Is there anything you’ve learned about yourself on a personal level?

KATIE: There’s often a stigma associated with being an elective teacher because it is very different from the core classes. However, it was both fun and satisfying to watch families take the extra time and interest during the pandemic to teach their children the same life skills we teach in our Family and Consumer Science classes. I’ve always believed that my content is probably one of the most important classes my middle school students take, but it was nice to be publicly valued. I didn’t realize that as a teacher, and I needed to hear that.

MINDY: It is hard to be a school counselor from home, but showing love to those who need it is easy to do online and helps the students that I talk to. They know they can still reach out to me for a virtual hug. On a personal note, I have become a better baker because I have time to watch my baking to make sure it is just right. The gift of time is the silver lining of COVID-19. I also learned that I can find two hours every day to be active and still work and take care of my family of five. 

Q. How did your relationships with families change over the course of the past school year? What did you learn from student families this year or discover about them?

KATIE: As a middle school special area teacher, you typically don’t have much interaction with your students’ families. You might occasionally get a response from a newsletter, but not much else. During the pandemic, though, I’ve had so much more interaction with them. I’m not sure if it’s the content—after all, cooking a meal with your child can be a lot easier than helping with algebra—or if it’s the fact that families just have more time now. I’ve absolutely loved the increased communication. Our school is very diverse, and it’s been so much fun learning more about their customs, meals, traditions, and work ethic, for example. Because our students are doing everything from home, I feel I’ve gained exposure to more of this than I normally would have during a typical school year.

MINDY: At first, I didn’t feel that families reached out to me as much because they might have felt that I couldn’t really help them from home. However, after I started getting in touch with them by Google Meet, texts, or Google Voice, I think they found our conversations valuable and helpful.

Q. In what ways have students or a particular student surprised you this year?

KATIE: Middle school students often get a “bad rap.” People say to me, “I don’t know how you teach middle school . . . that has to be the worst age.” Yes, there are challenging moments, but overall I love this age. I shouldn’t be surprised, but I truly was blown away by so many of my students checking in and wishing my family well during the pandemic. They weren’t being prompted. There was genuine care and concern in the sweet messages they sent. 

MINDY: Students have found a way to connect online even if they have to hold their young sibling in their lap and listen at the same time. The students showed that they cared about their education and their connections with their classmates.

Q. What is one way you took care of yourself personally this year that supported your professional work?  How has your art, craft, and focus area supported you?

KATIE: Switching to morning exercise sessions was life changing. Yes, it was hard to wake up early, but my days went so much smoother when I did. I was more energized and definitely more patient with my students. It was also a way to engage with them, too—sharing how many miles I walked or ran that morning, or what kind of workout I did, was, I hope, modeling a healthy lifestyle for them as well.

MINDY: By creating a happy and balanced schedule for my family. We have painted a lot.

Q. Is there something you did to support colleagues once remote learning was put in place?

KATIE: Frequent check-ins! My team and I connected all the time, sometimes through scheduled meetings and many times through quick text messages. When the world as you know it suddenly changes, it is comforting to keep as much normalcy as possible, and that’s just what we did. 

MINDY: I have sent text messages and reached out and called colleagues. I feel like I have helped them most just by listening.

Q. Can you share one way that you adapted Responsive Classroom practices from your physical special area classroom to distance learning?

KATIE: Building strong, positive relationships with my students was a big part of my day while we were in school, and continuing to focus on that during distance learning was just as important. Being real with my students. Sharing what life was like at home with my two teenagers during this time was an easy way to connect.

MINDY: I always started my lessons with a quick share, when everyone has a chance to talk about our topic of discussion, and when everyone has a voice.

Q. Was there a particular challenge you encountered this year that you successfully navigated? What got you through?

KATIE: This year I was asked to take on an extra block, which means I lost a full planning block and taught without a break on “A” days. At first, it seemed totally doable, but within a few weeks, exhaustion set in and I became overwhelmed. I’d make it through the day, but then I would come home and my family would feel the brunt of my frustration. My team helped me brainstorm (and advocate for myself!) and I slowly implemented some changes. Simple changes, such as changing the block when I introduced new content, proved to help immensely. By the time I got to my last block on “A” days, I would have already taught the material six times that day and worked out all the kinks. A happy teacher certainly led to happier students.

MINDY: Counseling students from home is tough, and the wait time was difficult when doing one-on-one sessions remotely. It was also sometimes difficult to get in touch with certain families.

Q. Can you share some ways that you infused your special area into distance learning? What benefits did you see as a result?

KATIE: Family and Consumer Science proved to be very easy to infuse into distance learning. Some competencies were challenging to incorporate (such as sewing), but most of our content revolves around life skills. My students loved trying new recipes at home—homemade pizza dough, banana muffins, even homemade play dough to help keep their younger siblings entertained. The students really enjoyed it. The whole family seemed to benefit from my students tackling new skills at home. My students became more confident and their parents became aware of their capabilities.

MINDY: The students loved my weekly counseling lessons or when I popped into their virtual lessons. This made them still feel very connected to me and they always shared.

Q. What are your favorite virtual-friendly ways to bring your special area subject to home learning?

KATIE: Our very first virtual lesson was one of my favorites: we had a kitchen scavenger hunt. We were reviewing kitchen measurement and I prepared a series of clues. The students had to find things in their pantry that were a specific weight, a tool that you would use to measure, something used in baking that contains eight tablespoons. It got the kids up and moving, involved a competitive factor, and most of all had us laughing. Another fun session was a Kahoot on “Rethinking Your Drink,” where we compared the sugar content of favorite teen drinks. That was definitely an eye-opener for everyone.

MINDY:

  • Make it fun
  • Keep it moving fast
  • Don’t talk too much!
  • Really listen
  • Let them talk!

Q. Complete this classic Responsive Classroom reflection in any way you see fit: “I used to think ____. And now I know ____.”

KATIE: I used to think teaching kids remotely would be impossible, especially with the majority of our content/curriculum being collaborative and hands-on. Now I know it just takes a little more creativity, flexibility, and thinking outside the box. Nothing will replace in-person learning, but you can still be impactful from a distance.

MINDY: I used to think that strong relationships with the students would be hard to keep in distance learning, but now I know that I can build relationships with students both virtually and in person.


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