How to Teach in a Pandemic
How one teacher, Belville Elementary School teacher Kristen Allen, connected with her students during the school closures of COVID-19.
Teachers face classroom challenges every day, such as meeting individual student needs, working late hours to prepare lessons, dealing with budget constraints, managing disruptive behavior or getting parents involved. But perhaps nothing has ever tested teachers and school districts like the COVID-19 pandemic. That was especially true for Kristen Allen, first grade teacher at Belville Elementary in Leland. She juggled homeschooling her own first grader, attending to her 3-year-old child and preparing and teaching lessons online. Oh, all while pregnant!
“It was a struggle for sure,” Allen says. “In fact, this has been one of the hardest things in my teaching career so far. Luckily, my husband works until three and then he took over when he came home so I could get things finished up and have a little free time.”
Allen says she just had to keep in mind the reason she became a teacher in the first place — to change the next generation for the better — and to believe that she could do it.
In her second year at Belville Elementary, Allen has been a teacher for 10 years. Previously, she taught at Douglas Academy in Wilmington, where she was named Teacher of the Week by television station WWAY. For the recognition by her students and peers, Allen was “humbled,” but hopeful that she made a difference and “wanted them to feel love from a place that they are in for 40 hours a week.”
On what inspired her to become an educator, Allen gives the credit to her own kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Pulos: “She made me love to go to school. From then on, I loved school.”
Allen always knew she wanted to work with children and initially planned to be a pediatric nurse, but as she learned more about the medical profession, she says she was not prepared to handle all that was required in the field. So, she considered what else she could to help children. She became a teacher.
That personal connection with teachers is something students missed while schools were closed because of the novel coronavirus. But switching the learning environment to Zoom, a video conferencing platform, has proven a valuable way to keep students engaged.
Allen connected with her students three times a week for 30 minutes at a time. She included mini-lessons and read-alouds. To keep them motivated, she included fun activities like a home scavenger hunt.
“A lot of them got excited and wanted to know what our next lesson would be, and I told them it’s a mystery,” she says. “It encouraged them to come back for the next lesson.”
Even the electives teachers and assistant principals joined in with lessons in art and music and a mystery Zoom class.
Sometimes the lessons were as simple as having a conversation just for socialization, so students knew someone was there for them. Allen admits that not all students come from nurturing backgrounds, so the love and hugs they receive from a teacher are important. Showing love virtually is just as important.
With the learning environment forced online, teachers like Allen found themselves in the role of student. They were trying to learn the new technology and figure out processes as they went along, all while trying to help their students and parents understand the platform. “It was been a challenge, but I can’t thank my coworkers enough for walking me through it,” Allen says. “And kudos to our parents and students who caught on so quickly.”
In addition to weekly online lessons with students, Allen participated in staff meetings and webinars through Zoom as well. She gives ample credit to the Brunswick County Schools administrators who were partners throughout the ordeal and “put their trust in all 80 plus of us,” she says.
As things have rapidly changed, education in the future may be looked at in terms of pre-COVID and post-COVID teaching methods. But to Allen, there are some things that will remain the same. The rewarding parts, like watching students grow — coming in at the start of the year with little reading skills and leaving the year at a level nine or 10 or walking them through a math activity and witnessing that moment when it suddenly clicks. There is also the challenging part of teaching that Allen worries about: “Did I hit all their needs? Did I do the best I can for each individual child?” All those concerns are wiped away when she sees the progress her students make, knowing she “taught them skills to get them to the next level.”
Something else has changed for Allen in the time of COVID-19 — she will no longer take for granted getting up and going to work every day.
“Being able to be in a school environment and share adult conversations and see my students, I miss it,” she says. “I miss having a routine and a strict schedule.”