Teachers reflect on ‘surreal’ end to year

We reached out to teachers across Lincoln Public Schools and asked them to reflect on what many of them described as a “surreal” end to the 2019-20 school year. Here’s what they had to say.

Overall, what was the process like transitioning to remote learning?

Ellen Jorgenson, social studies, Lincoln North Star High School: “At first, there were a lot of unknowns. I felt uncertain what the process would look like, how to best teach my content area (civics), and how to balance accountability, structure and routine in the classroom with the uncertainty, anxiousness and trauma my students and colleagues felt. Similar to the uphill climb a roller coaster makes where the anticipation and fear build and build. Throughout the ‘ride’ there have been some highs, like seeing students attend Zoom hours just to say hi and continue to build positive teacher-student relationships. On a roller coaster I love the high points because you can see the whole park and picture. There have been lows, like a roller coaster where you suddenly are whipped in a different direction. In this case I have been frustrated about communication or simply miss the day-to-day interactions I have throughout a school day. And finally, the upside down twists and turns where you just have to stay positive and enjoy the ride as best you can.”

Alicia Davis, math, Scott Middle School: “Educators across the country stepped up in unprecedented times to be there for their students. I have never been prouder to be an educator. Transitioning to remote learning was an exercise in flexibility, but just as I encourage my students, I worked hard to make the best out of this new learning environment. The planning was intense, but the feedback from students about how well the structure we provided worked for them made the hard work worth it.” 

Annie McKeighan, fourth grade, Belmont Elementary School: “Transitioning to online learning was a challenge that needed tackling on many fronts. I was able to watch many different strengths come to the table within my team for how we could make it work for our students. My first priority was maintaining the relationships with my students. I've always found (as both a student and a teacher) that a student will work much harder for a teacher when the relationship is strong. So I knew I needed to reestablish that before I could expect them to begin work. Once we got the green light, I was busy filming a silly video with my cat, Ramona, which the kids knew of from my stories, and setting up student lunch dates on Zoom. Once relationships were reestablished, the learning was the next priority. My students were resilient with the online learning. They knew most of the learning platforms we started to use already, which made it easy for them to navigate once the learning began. After the first few clunky days, we were rolling.”

What were some of the challenges?

Chris Salem, social studies and economics, Lincoln Southeast High School: “Once we were made aware that remote learning would continue for the entire school year, the biggest challenge was all about engaging my students. I wanted to get my classroom content to them in a way that felt familiar to them; I wanted to make sure they knew Mr. Salem wasn't just throwing up his hands and saying ‘O, I can't do this remote learning thing, here are some worksheets.’ It was a really interesting process to step back and look at my courses and figure out what are the really important key concepts and skills that my students need to know to be successful in future courses and their lives in general.”

Emily Seifferlein, science, Science Focus Program: “Something that would normally take a half an hour, took a whole day or more. We would have to wait for emails to go back and forth or wait for the next scheduled Zoom meeting. Several times, I ended up calling students so we could discuss something in real time. I also was having to plan and implement all of the end of the year evening activities, like our senior research night (which we did via Zoom over three evenings), freshman orientation (Zoom), and our senior celebration (Zoom).  We also had to finalize our classes and schedule (which we do by hand) and then get kids registered into classes for next year - all remotely. Even though all of that was a challenge and sometimes very frustrating, it was fine, because it's my job and I love my job but like so many other working parents I was trying to do all this while balancing helping my own kids with their school work.”

Overall, how did your students and families respond?

Nikki Sheets, English, Dawes Middle School: “Dawes had a high percentage (92%) of families and students that engaged in online learning. I think like all of us, they struggled with the balance of home and school. Being able to find your own motivation, set your own learning schedule and maintain your roles within your family and in your home is a challenge, even for adults. So the fact that we had so many of our students pushing through these obstacles and continuing their learning makes us incredibly proud. Our students are scholars and learners - a pandemic can’t take that away.”

Becky Neff, math, Irving MIddle School: “Overall, students really rose to the occasion! Nearly all of my students were doing what they needed to. I was really impressed with their ability to adapt. It was kind of fun to talk to students and parents in the less formal Zoom office hours; I felt like I got to build more authentic relationships with some families that I saw regularly compared to normal, when I would only speak to them on the phone and see them at formal conferences a couple of times a year.”

Alise Pape, social studies, Lincoln East High School: “I believe students and families responded with so much efficacy, it was inspiring. They responded with kindness and grace towards me and my lesson plans. Seeing my students continue to pursue their own learning and education no matter what hurdles life threw at them kept me motivated to find different effective ways to deliver content. Students were honest and vulnerable with me about what they needed during this crazy time and as a teacher I think that is all I can ask for.”

Annie McKeighan, fourth grade, Belmont Elementary School: “Overall, my students and families were fantastic with remote learning. I found that students craved the same daily interactions that we had in the classroom and were willing to still put in the time even when it looked a little different. I've told my families a million times over how impressed I was with them and just how grateful I was to work with them. I know that parents want what is best for their children, and many found school to be of importance during this time. Families were very flexible, gracious and understanding.”

Ellen Jorgenson, social studies, Lincoln North Star High School: “I think overall responses varied from family to family because this event has affected all of us both on a unique and individual level and in a unified 'togetherness.'  In so many ways we have this shared experience, however, I have students who have been very resilient and others who are struggling each day. I've had students directly affected by COVID-19, and others just bored at home and ready to ‘get back to normal.’ I had students who weren't fans of school share how much they missed the classroom, and athletes shared they would never take advantage of another practice again. I think what will be most important when this is over is that we never forget how much we missed human to human interaction, community and the little things.  Practicing gratitude now will help us get through this moment in time, and practicing gratitude in the future will help us never again take advantage of all we are privileged to have.” 

Do you think there will be things you learned from this experience that you will take back to the classroom?

Marta Bukowski, math, Dawes Middle School: “I learned about new tools within programs that I was already using or was hesitant to use. I learned how to organize my Google Classrooms more efficiently, for students and myself. I think the biggest takeaway for me was that my department's collaboration grew even stronger, so I'm excited to see what we can do together when we are back in the classroom.“

Maggie Eisener, art, Arts and Humanities Focus Program: “Yes! I had a student that early on was talking about the struggle to establish a routine for themselves, but that they felt like this time would push them to become a more independent learner because they couldn't immediately ask for help. I thought about this a lot and I strive to make my classroom a place where not only students can have more choice, but that they are also responsible for seeking out information with guidance. It is easy to rush to a student’s side when we are in the classroom to try to troubleshoot what the struggles might be (not that the troubleshooting always arrives at a perfect solution, either), but when a student is entirely on their own with instruction and has to navigate their work time without the routine and structure of a school environment, things can look quite different.”

Emily Seifferlein, science, Science Focus Program: “I think I will use Google Classroom more. I had used it in the past but it wasn't a main part of my teacher toolbox. It was good to have the practice and to be able to play with more possibilities for turning in assignments and communicating with students. I also learned more about recording my lessons and being able to store and access them in a place like MyVRSpot.  I know that seems ‘elementary’ but I tend to learn new technology best when it's a necessity - and it certainly was a necessity. These skills have always been something that I've wanted to try out but I never really managed to dedicate the time prior to remote learning. It always seemed like there was other stuff to spend my time on - but now that I really needed it, I pushed myself to learn more.” 

Liz Holdren, fifth grade, Everett Elementary School: “I will teach the kids (and possibly parents) more of the technology piece of the classroom, so that if this happens again they are prepared. Also I have had time to really get familiar with online resources that I hadn't had the time to explore before.”

Alicia Davis, math, Scott Middle School: “Remote learning really put a spotlight on how many different roles educators play in any one day - it's about the math but it's also about so much more than that. We are extremely privileged to cross paths with our students’ journey for the brief but vital time that we have together. I get to walk alongside my students as they develop perseverance to tackle difficult tasks, display empathy for others going through a difficult time, realize that making mistakes is not only acceptable but valued in the learning process and continue to grow into the person they were meant to be. I will return to my classroom with an increased awareness of how important our work is to developing the whole child.”

Alise Pape, social studies, Lincoln East High School: “I believe this experience reaffirmed that as a teacher one of the most important values you have to learn is flexibility. Our mission is to help mold students into the brightest, happiest and most well-rounded versions of themselves and this experience presented us with a new challenging way to do that. I like to think I am a better teacher as a result of learning to deliver content in a different mode.”

What was it like to not see your students in person and be able to connect with them like that on a daily basis?

Emily Seifferlein, science, Science Focus Program: “One of the things that I didn't expect was the feeling of disappointment I would have if they came to the Zoom meeting but had their camera setting turned off - which I totally get. Maybe they had just rolled out of bed or their room was a mess and they didn't want to share that with the world. But seeing their name on the screen was not the same as seeing them in person.”

Chris Salem, social studies and economics, Lincoln Southeast High School: “This was certainly the hardest part of remote learning. As a teacher, building and continuing to build relationships and connections with my students is the root of what I do. Those daily interactions mean so much, it was tough to have that not a part of my everyday experience. It really makes me realize how important those simple hellos or laughs and smiles with my students are.”  

Alise Pape, social studies, Lincoln East High School: “It was incredibly difficult to fill the void left by not seeing students every day. I always tell my students that they are the best part of my job. The light, love and laughter that they bring with them into my classroom everyday is the reason I love what I do and is irreplaceable. So being without them is incredibly sad. Yet, I know it was worth it to keep them safe and healthy! Overall, remote learning has made me grateful for the connections and relationships I have with my students.

Nikki Sheets, English, Dawes Middle School: “The students I knew needed that extra help, that extra set of eyes, that extra push and motivation while working, didn’t get that piece like they did in the classroom. Yes, I made phone calls. Yes, I left lots of feedback on assignments. Yes, I encouraged them to attend Zoom lessons and office hours. But it’s not the same as sitting down next to a student and working with them. I miss working with them.  One of the reasons I love teaching is the relationships you build and the connections you make with these students. It’s these things that inspire them, that motivate them and help them become the best possible versions of themselves as individuals and as students and scholars. It’s also these things that are the hardest to maintain when you don’t get to see their faces every day.”

Published: May 26, 2020, Updated: May 26, 2020

Emily Seifferlein, Science Focus Program