DAVIS COLUMN: Even in pandemic, we need to connect
Teachers call it shopping the classroom. When one teacher is leaving, other teachers grab stuff they can use. Melissa Szymanski’s room was the Rodeo Drive of classroom shopping, the Fifth Avenue of fifth grade. By the time I made it down the hall, the room was picked clean, but Melissa had set aside some items just for me. There were things she knew I loved and one piece that confused me: an ugly, wooden star. The wood was unfinished and dull with some bits of glitter inside. Too big to be a Christmas ornament, too small to hang on a door, it was not attractive in any way. I wondered why in the world my friend with impeccable taste had hung on to that wooden star and why she wanted me to have it.
Turns out, that star was more than a decoration. It was a tangible representation of what all good teachers do. That ugly, wooden star symbolized human connection, plain and simple. Melissa is the kind of teacher who looks past test scores and performance and really gets to know her students. That’s what all good teachers do. They figure out what makes a child sparkle. What makes them shine? What gets them excited about learning? Good teachers find the glitter inside each student.
Melissa Szymanksi, Former science teacher at Hammond School
Connection during Corona
Melissa has an exceptional gift for connecting with students, most good teachers do, but that’s a challenge this year. 2020 finds some schools with face-to-face instruction, but masks make it hard to read expressions. Plexiglass dividers are important, but unnatural. Social distancing literally keeps us at arm’s length from each other. Zoom is better than nothing. At least teachers can share content and communicate in real time, but forming relationships with new students through a laptop screen isn’t easy. Some schools will simply pass assignments back and forth via e-mail. All content. No human interaction. That’s tough on everyone.
I’m at a school that gives students the option to attend classes in person or via Zoom. I do think that’s the best-case scenario for families, but it’s a back-to-school like nothing I’ve ever experienced.
Every day is a testament to the leadership and planning that went on this summer. Every day reminds us of the importance of flexibility. All teachers are first-year teachers in 2020. Every day, I’m implementing new methods. Every day, I figure out how to be a little more efficient. Every day I’m amazed at our ability to adapt. Every day, I am tired and a little rattled, but proud. We are figuring it out, best we can, and getting the job done.
Classroom or production studio?
Before school started, I had to select the best camera placement for my virtual students. In all my years of teaching, that was a first. Was I in my classroom or a production studio? I realized I was entering a time where classrooms are a little of both.
I placed the camera on my window sill, taped down the cords, and ran through a few minutes of some lessons. Could the kids read the material on my board or would it be better to screen share? Would the microphone pick up my voice if I walked to my wall map? Would we still be able to play Kahoot? I went home totally overwhelmed and full of self-doubt.
The next day, I walked in and saw my Melissa star, my reminder from a few years back of the importance of human connection. I knew what I needed to do. I took off my shoes and climbed up on a chair. I placed the star right beside the classroom camera. Much better.
We have entered a new era of education. No denying that. Classroom cameras and programs like Zoom allow students to have the best possible situation from the safety of their homes. I’m thankful for that technology. Plexiglass and masks and six feet of separation make my classroom as safe as possible for my face-to-face fifth graders.
But even with all the new technology and all the additional safety protocols, a teacher’s job hasn’t really changed. Teachers need to connect with students.
Teaching in a pandemic is hard, really hard, but even in a pandemic, we must remember the lesson of the star. We must try our best to really get to know our kids. We must try our best to look inside each student. Now more than ever, we must look for the glitter, the thing that makes them shine. Just like that wooden star.
Tammy Davis is a writer and teacher. Visit her at www.tammydavisstories.com.