MCPASD Educators Share How Teaching Has Changed During Pandemic

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By: 
Lauren Lamson

MIDDLETON–To get ready for her classes each morning, MHS English teacher Kris Cody-Johnson settles into the workspace she’s set up in her basement, pulls up a greenscreen curtain as a backdrop, onto which she will cast a photo of her classroom, and starts a Zoom meeting. This is how she opens the door to her classroom before the bell for class rings this year.

But before she does this, Cody-Johnson spends her morning responding to emails from students and colleagues, grading, and doing prep and planning.

Glacier Creek sixth grade math teacher Amy Imoehl goes to school to start her day in her classroom. “I get my computer on and check my email, which to be honest I usually check at home in the morning before I even get here as well. Depending on what kids were working on in the evening, I sometimes can head something off before they’re waiting too long for me to get into school,” she said.

Teachers in all grade levels in the Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District are spending even more time than usual working behind the scenes this year in the virtual format. In addition to grading and prep for each class, they are figuring out different ways to teach online, communicating with students outside of class time, and spending more time meeting with other teachers to tailor their curriculums around the online format.

The school day runs from roughly 9 a.m.-2 p.m. for all grade levels, and teachers spend almost all of this time in Zoom meetings.

Elementary school begins with a whole-class morning meeting and then breaks off into Zoom instruction in small group and one-on-one sessions all day, West Middleton third grade teacher Cassandra Brandt explained.

“The most challenging part is that you can’t really leave at two or three o’clock and be done. I’m back to back [Zoom meetings all day], so I’m not able to do any video recording or any other things besides being on videos until two o'clock. I go home or stay here [in my classroom] and I’m recording lessons. The other big thing is, they send in their assignments and we give feedback on those,” Brandt said.

Some teachers are working from home, while others are working in their empty classrooms, but all of them are putting in time at home late into the night after the school day ends. For Cody-Johnson, more time is devoted to prep and planning for teaching in a different format.

Imoehl repeated this sentiment, saying that teaching virtually reminds her of being a new teacher. “Even though I’ve taught this curriculum before, I have to deliver it in a totally different way. I understand what I’m teaching, but I have to recreate it each week,” she explained.

“It’s definitely been a different way of planning than it has been in the past…to have to really think about what’s important in the curriculum and what we want students to know and be able to do,” Brandt said.

Teachers have less time with their students this year, so they have to put much more focus during class time on priority standards that the district developed, which outline the main skills students should have at the end of each year.

Imoehl teaches math, which has a spiraling curriculum that touches on topics to start and comes back to them throughout the year to expand on them. That is different this year. “I’ve gotten a lot of feedback that math is going well this year, and I think part of that is because we are really focused. The things I’m going to test them on, the things I want them to know, that is what we are practicing, instead of having all those extra topics mixed in,” Imoehl said.

Cody-Johnson teaches an AP course, so follows the AP units and standards. “We are trying to navigate knowing that students are working at less capacity,” she said, but she still has to get through the content. As of now, the college board has said the test at the end of the year will not change even though many schools are online. Cody-Johnson is balancing covering all the content so students will have a chance of getting college credit on the exam with understanding the circumstances of this year. “I want to prepare these kids because I know it has really real consequences for them. And I know that I have to temper my expectations and be kinder with feedback because it's just harder to navigate emotional resilience in general.”

Finding that balance is the focus of many Zoom meetings between teachers throughout the week. Collaboration has been more important this year than before. In middle and high school, this is mostly between teachers within a subject area or grade level. Special educator Emily Langland, who teaches at West Middleton, explained how these meetings go for elementary school.

“The teachers do a lot of collaboration with different support staff, so speech, special education, and ELL, to make sure that the lesson that they first give through the video is as accessible as possible for everybody. Doing a lot of that collaboration is much more intensive in this setting because you have that one video shot,” Langland said. 

Teaching in the virtual classroom is difficult. Cody-Johnson was a bit emotional when she talked about missing seeing her students in person and knowing how they were doing. “I miss feedback loops where, if you'd walk into my classroom, I would know from your body language and your voice where you're at, and I don't in this world as much. So, I don't know your emotional health as well in this world. And also, I’m an English teacher. We prowl. That’s what we do. We're constantly walking around, looking at how you're interacting with texts, what you're writing in your notebook. I can't see that. And so, everything is a little bit more frustrating.”

Imoehl said that for middle schoolers as well, it can be hard to know if they are understanding content or not. For various reasons, many middle and high school students don’t have their cameras on in class on Zoom, so teachers can’t see many of the students' faces. “In the classroom, if I’m teaching something and I’m getting looks of confusion, I know that I should slow down or rephrase what I’m saying because I get that feedback. It’s really hard to say what I’m saying and not see any faces because I don’t know if I should move faster or slower,” Imoehl explained.

When students have their cameras on, teachers can see when they’re done processing and can gauge the pacing of their instruction based on that feedback.

After a day of Zoom instruction, many teachers have adjusted their schedules this year to include meeting with students outside of class to make sure they are understanding content. Many have also changed their schedule for grading.

The grading is more constant this year, Imoehl said. “Assignments get turned in all the time,” she explained. “I’ll have five kids turn it in this day and four the next day. I have to grade every day, whereas before, an assignment would be due on Thursday and I would collect it. I would have a big pile, but once I was done with that, I would have a little bit of a break before my next collection, so to speak.”

For elementary teachers like Brandt, time outside of the school day is also spent recording video lessons for students to watch during the day. Teachers at other levels are also recording videos for students to watch as part of asynchronous classwork and homework.

While teachers have adapted well to the changes this year, they also understand that for various reasons, some students aren’t able to access or follow along with the content they are covering.

Teachers know that online isn’t the best format for most students, and for some more than others, Langland said. They will be aware of that next year. “When we have new students in front of us, every year, no matter what the situation, we meet them where they’re at, and then we work together to make a plan. We don’t ever have a baseline of students coming at the exact same level every year,” Langland offered reassurance.

Teachers, students, and families are doing their best to make this year work. Brandt noted that much of the work teachers are doing this year isn’t seen, but parents should know that teachers are “working overtime, they’re taking it home with them, and that they’re trying everything that they can to engage students.”

This is a frustrating time, “Everybody's doing the best that they can,” Cody-Johnson said. That includes students, teachers, administrators, and parents. “That doesn't mean that we shouldn't look at how we're doing and always strive for the best, but of all the times to treat people with kindness and to say everyone is trying to do the best that they can, this is the best time to do that.”

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