Teaching in the year of Covid-19

China Middle School teacher Ron Maxwell with part of his daily uniform. (contributed photo)

by Jeanne Marquis

Covid-19 has created unprecedented times in our schools, full of challenges for parents, students and teachers alike. I had the opportunity to interview one of our local seasoned teachers, Ron Maxwell, a science teacher with China Middle School, who gave a frank look into what it is like to teach during this era of Covid. Although we may be seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, it is important to document what our teachers are going through during these extraordinary times.

Ron Maxwell said he had no experience teaching remotely before the pandemic. In late August at the beginning of the 2020-21 school year he was told the school was offering remote learning for some students using Google Classroom. So as Ron put it, “We kind of learned as we went because this was a brand new thing for most of us.”

“There’s something magical about a face. Our brain gets so much information from the entire thing. That’s what we’re missing the most. There’s a connection. It’s also half the communication.”

As every teacher did across the nation, Ron had to adapt his teaching methods as well as his classroom organization. He had to protect his students from a contagious virus, while at the same time connect with them inside the classroom and through his laptop screen.

Ron explained, “My philosophy has always been hands-on, so a lot is experiential. Most of my grading happens with what we do in the classroom and I use homework sparingly. We do a lot with lab reports. I set up stations in the classroom, and they run from here to there as they work in groups. And, of course, everything that I’m describing now went out the window.

“This school year all the things that I’ve been practicing and perfecting needed dramatic changes to be possible. We’re doing an electronic learning target right now where they’re learning the difference between series and parallel circuits. Over here, I have three bins of wires and bulbs and batteries, none of which I can use because I can’t put them down for the kids to use and then put back in the next group because of the sanitation.”

Sanitation became an essential part of the 2020-2021 school day to keep both the students and the faculty safe, adding another layer of complexity and stress. “Now I’m literally spraying down my classroom every time a class leaves. So imagine the bell rings. They all get up. They’re packing up. They’re chatting. They’re decompressing, and they’re leaving right? That is, if I can get them to leave, because they are junior high kids. We have to watch them to make sure they’re staying this far apart and they’re wearing their masks. Then I have to lock the door and spray everything down. So in essence, that’s what happens in that two minute time between classes.”

Another challenge to the 2020-2021 school year was learning how to connect with students through laptop screens. As a veteran teacher, Ron knew how to set guidelines upfront. To be counted as present in class as a remote student, Ron told them he needed to see their faces, not the ceiling or blank screen. That was a non-negotiable rule. He said in the beginning he had a few students who were reticent about showing their faces. Each morning as their faces popped up as they joined the class, he greeted them with a “hello that says I see you, you exist and you mean something.”

For the most part, Ron’s remote students are fully engaged, “I may just have the best students. Maybe that’s why or maybe the answer is sometimes their parents on the other end, and I can hear them in the background laughing at my jokes.

“I’m deeply appreciative of all the support the parents give us. We couldn’t do our work if they weren’t doing theirs. I’ve said things have changed for me but things have changed for them, as well. Now, if you were to drive by the school building around 7:15 a.m., you would see the line of cars start. They wait in line sometimes for as long as a half an hour to drop their kids off and pick their kids up. I couldn’t imagine that. Parents, who used to be a two-income household, now they’re a one income household because one parent has elected to stay home and look after the kids. Yeah, and there are single parents of our students holding down a job, helping the kid appropriately attend classes, making sure they figured out how to get internet at home to deal with this. The community has really stepped up. We are blessed to have the support that we have. I’m proud of them as much as I am of my colleagues.”

Ron Maxwell expressed so openly what a challenging academic 2020-21 is for teachers, ed techs, students and their parents to balance safety, learning and technology. It’s a year where challenges are being met and adaptations are ongoing through human resilience and cooperation.

At the end of the interview, Ron said the one thing that he misses from the pre-Covid days that he will never take for granted again is seeing his students’ faces and he explained why: “The other day, I realized something important. I am looking solely at their eyes now. Yeah. And if I walk by them outside on the playground, I don’t know my own students. Oh my gosh. Because with their lower faces open, it changes who they are. It does. So, what do I miss the most? Yeah. I miss the faces.

“I have a student who had several older siblings, and I taught most of the kids in the family. She looks just like an older sister until the first time I saw her out there. [Outside at recess.] I was just amazed because she’s entirely her own person, of course.

“There’s something magical about a face. Our brain gets so much information from the entire thing. That’s what we’re missing the most. There’s a connection. It’s also half the communication.”


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