The difficult profession of teaching was made harder by the covid-19 pandemic, but there are some positives to come out of the crisis.
That is the conclusion of four award-winning classroom teachers from east, west and central parts of Arkansas who recently marked the two-year anniversary of the pandemic's beginning by talking about their work during the crisis and their views on the current state of teaching and learning.
The teachers' memories and observations, which were shared in interviews with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, included that:
• "It was a huge learning curve," Amy Farmer, Academies of West Memphis geometry teacher, said about doing both in-person and online teaching. "I don't ever want to do it again, but we managed to be reasonably successful given the stress we were under."
• "A lot of times we were coming to school and making paper packets that we could leave on a student's front porch or leave at the door of a building for a parent to pick up because learning from a computer isn't always the best option for all students," said Jessica Saum, a special education teacher at Cabot's Stagecoach Elementary.
• "With our younger students, I see a lot of behavior issues. I think it is the isolation, the lack of interaction outside the home. They get to school and they are overstimulated," said Rozanna Brown, a former fourth grade teacher and now an elementary school interventionist in Fort Smith, adding that "because of covid, I have in these past few years bonded more with parents and students than I have ever before."
• "We are in a mental health crisis like I'm not sure this country has ever seen, and it is definitely showcasing itself at school," said Allison Dolan, a social studies teacher at Springdale's Don Tyson School of Innovation.
Saum is Arkansas' 2022 Teacher of the Year. Farmer, Brown and Dolan were among the state's 12 regional finalists for the 2022 award.
The teachers received the state honors midway through the two years -- after on-campus instruction had screeched to a halt in March 2020 and resumed for the 2020-21 school year with more than 177,000 of the state's 473,000 public school students opting to learn remotely from their homes for at least part of the year.
As a result, the four teachers and many of their thousands of colleagues throughout the state not only taught in person but also took on the novel task of teaching online -- sometimes doing those things simultaneously. Teaching online is a practice that has continued in a more limited way in this school year.
The fact that Arkansas' schools were up and running in 2020-21 marked a contrast with schools in most of the nation.
And although open campuses were seen as risky and controversial at the time, the four Arkansas teachers said in interviews that, looking back, they are grateful that schools were largely open, shifting only temporarily to online instruction if illness and quarantines among students and staff members warranted it.
"I think we were insanely, insanely fortunate that in Arkansas, we were in school the whole time," Dolan said, adding that it was hard for her to watch schools in other states be closed for most or all of the 2020-21 school year.
"We had proven the model," Dolan said. "We have proven that you can be in school safely. It was hard to see that kids were missing out on that experience."
Saum said that because of Arkansas' open campuses, there wasn't "a horrible drop-off" in student achievement.
"As a state, I think we did a fantastic job keeping kids learning and having as many needs met as possible," Saum said. "That is really something to celebrate."
About 97% of eligible Arkansas students took state and federally required end-of-year exams last spring. Scores did fall in most districts when compared with 2019 scores, but not in all districts. State officials said the exams gave teachers a baseline for instruction this school year.
TECH ON THE RUN
The Arkansas teachers were interviewed via the Zoom online meeting platform -- now a common tool in schools and among the general public, but one of several electronic platforms that teachers, students and parents had to master on the fly at the start of the pandemic.
"I remember having my computer on a shelf and trying to have my screen behind me and trying to teach the way I used to," Saum said. "Then we had Jamboards ... that we could write on and the students [at their homes] could see and ... actively participate in virtual learning. But that was all something that we had to teach them to do. It didn't just happen. We had to invest time in teaching how to learn virtually -- so we could actually teach virtually."
Brown, who taught fourth grade at Fort Smith's Ballman Elementary last year, said she had pupils who had to be out of school for weeks at a time because of family illness or quarantines. She provided recorded lessons that can to this day be tweaked and used again. If her students were well enough, they could participate on Zoom in real time with their class.
"I would sit the computer on a desk or where I was, or I would just carry the computer around with me," Brown said of teaching. "I had installed a 'ding-dong' sound. The online kids would make it 'ding-dong' if I couldn't hear them over the other kids, and I would know they wanted to participate."
Farmer, an Algebra II and geometry teacher, drew on her experience as a home-school parent to help her remote students, who were having a hard time because of inadequate Wi-Fi and other issues.
Class assignments that called for the drawing and labeling of polygons were not conducive to typing on a keyboard, and so it became among the challenges she and her students confronted. Her remote students then and now typically print out paper copies of problems, complete them, take photos of their work and get them to her one way or another.
"I made lots and lots of videos and a ton of phone calls," Farmer recalled about teaching high school math online as well as in person.
Flexibility had to be her superpower, she said.
In time, the West Memphis district made Wednesdays virtual days, allowing most in-person students to stay home those days and enabling virtual students to visit school for one-on-one help. That was a move "that saved my sanity," said Farmer, who has about 110 students this year and much prefers traditional paper-and-pencil lessons.
Farmer, Saum and Dolan continue, in this current school year, to teach part of the day to a handful of students who need online, remote instruction for a variety of reasons.
Dolan, at the Tyson School of Innovation, teaches Advanced Placement Government and AP Human Geography online and U.S. History in person.
The Springdale School District for many years before the pandemic had provided computer devices to each student. And the School of Innovation had a virtual instruction program and strategies in place for engaging online students.
But that was for about 100 to 150 students, a number that swelled to about 4,000 in the 2020-21 school year, Dolan said.
"We had so many teachers that stepped up to the plate -- ones who probably preferred to teach in person but were willing to help out," she said, adding that many teachers and students have since returned to more traditional schooling.
The state's largest district has about 400 virtual students this year.
"One of the things the country has learned is that virtual learning is not for everyone. If you don't have the drive [for school] when you are face to face, you are really going to struggle to have the drive when you are on your own," Dolan said.
"We have to talk to parents to say that if you are going to go virtual, you are going to have to help with engagement; you are going to have to take on a larger role in making sure kids are doing their assignments."
Dolan also said that education innovation "doesn't mean computers" and that efforts are made to engage students in learning away from their devices.
But at the same time, technology is here to stay in education, she said, and students have learned to be flexible and to be able to pivot to online platforms and work successfully with others who aren't just sitting in front of them.
That skill is one positive to come out of the negatives generated by the pandemic, Dolan said.
CHANGES HERE TO STAY
Education Week, a national news publication about elementary and secondary education, reported in March that having a computing device for every student and online platforms for assigning and completing schoolwork were among practices that will be used beyond the pandemic. Flexible learning time such as longer school days and summer instruction, databases of lessons, mental health support such as additional counselors and social workers, and the ability to quickly set up online classroom meetings and town-hall sessions are other features likely to be sustained.
The four Arkansas teachers agreed that the pandemic has changed teaching and learning in big and small ways.
Saum said she previously grouped her elementary pupils at tables to promote collaboration, and the children would cycle through "centers," or themed activity areas, in her classroom.
But social distancing to limit the spread of covid-19 meant individual, separated desks for each child and far fewer activity centers where children could congregate.
"I didn't like it at first," Saum said about the desks, but she has now concluded that students need their own space, their own materials and the responsibility of taking care of it all.
Having fewer activity centers in the class has also become a positive for student achievement.
"It made me be much more intentional about what we were doing and the materials we were using with students. The things they are doing supported their academic goals better. We have had more academic growth and success," Saum said.
Brown, whose first and foremost goal as the Euper Lane title I interventionist is to have no child slip through the cracks, said technology is being integrated into instruction more than ever:
• Fort Smith kindergartners are taught to show a picture of a log-in code to the computer camera to access their online lessons.
• Lessons -- including videos -- are placed on the Schoology electronic platform for all grade levels. And students have choices on how to show what they have learned.
• A new literacy curriculum features both textbooks and online access.
• Software for teachers allows differentiation of lessons to best address the range of skill levels among children in a single class.
"If there are a variety of skill levels in your classrooms, you can manipulate the program and assign kids different assignments so they master the skill they need," Brown said.
Farmer said her math instruction has become more individualized in the wake of having some students learning in person and others online. She's changed how she evaluates student learning -- be it in the classroom or elsewhere.
"My skills have really been sharpened in terms of seeing 'what' my students are not understanding and 'why' they are not understanding," Farmer said, adding that in math there are different ways to look at a problem. "I'm more open-minded in what I'm looking for."
HOW ARE THE KIDS?
Farmer also said her students seem to be returning to a more normal state of mind. Earlier, they seemed "starved for interaction," "socially malnourished" and "out of practice" with school norms such as raising their hands to speak, she said.
"They were happy to be back, and we were all really happy to have them get back in front of us," she said.
That return to campus is with and without masks, Farmer said, adding that she hasn't seen any stigmas attached to decisions by students to wear masks or not.
"Sometimes someone wears it one day and not the next and then wears it the following day. Most of them want to have a mask with them [even if not wearing it]," she said.
As for achievement, Farmer said her students are enthusiastic about learning, trying to catch up and rising to the occasion. She said she is watchful for skill gaps but feels progress is being made.
"I don't know how that will show up on the ACT [college entrance exam]," she said. "I'm sure they will take a hit like any school around the country will. I do feel we are pushing ahead and making progress. I feel hopeful and optimistic for my students."
Dolan said the Springdale district has hired academic interventionists to help fill in gaps in student skills, particularly in reading. Summer school that is funded by federal covid-19 relief money has been another significant strategy to address achievement gaps in Springdale and elsewhere.
Still, covid-19 has taken a toll.
Asked how her students are doing, Dolan responded: "We are struggling. This is definitely one of the hardest years." She added that she sees the nation experiencing a mental health crisis. That is evidenced by anger and frustration among students and others who have been scared by the pandemic and scarred by the losses of family members to the illness.
"I think there is a lot of anger, just in general, in our country and probably in the whole world," Dolan said. "I think education is a lot like health care in that we are taking the brunt of it. I think that is where you are seeing a mass exodus of teachers."
Education Week reported that 43% of 15,000 teachers surveyed nationally by the American Psychology Association said they wanted to quit the profession after the 2020-21 school year. That was fueled not only by stress but also by threats and acts of violence by students, parents and even work colleagues, the report found.
MENTAL HEALTH HELP
"I think it would be awesome to find a way to help teachers [give high school] students access to technology apps that help promote mental health awareness," Dolan said.
"These could be housed on their Chromebooks or iPads so they are available to students at any point throughout the day, whether they are at school with us or when they are at home."
Teachers do get training on how to address students' social and emotional needs, Dolan said, but teachers need more time to sit and be able to build those elements into lessons that are specific to their courses.
Curriculum planning, however, competes with other demands on teachers' time.
"We as teachers also need to model self-care to students," Dolan said. "We have to walk the walk."
Elementary school pupils have missed out on social experiences and the learning of social skills during the pandemic, Saum said. That is partly due to their limited access to traditional pre-school programs.
"I think it is important for teachers to remember we aren't getting the same students we got pre-March 2020," she said. "There are going to be some social and emotional deficits that we are going to have to fill."
Saum, her school and her district tried to meet student needs for interaction.
When covid initially closed schools, Cabot teachers formed a parade of cars through the city to wave and show support to their students.
When covid prevented the annual participation in the Special Olympics last year, Saum's school had its own Olympics and sports day.
Earlier this year, a ballerina from Ballet Arkansas taught a virtual dance lesson.
"We projected her on a wall in the gym and we had a ballet class," Saum said.
And Thanksgiving meant a family-style meal in Saum's classroom, with the stressing of manners regarding the passing of food, staying seated at the table and helping with the cleanup.
Brown saw the pandemic isolate and depress students, some of whom presented behavioral problems because they were so overstimulated by their return to school.
The Fort Smith School District is piloting the Capturing Kids' Hearts program out of Texas as a way to structure conversations among teachers and students about behavioral standards without penalizing the students, Brown said.
Behavioral problems are decreasing, she said.
"We talk about how to treat others," Brown said. "And teachers, instead of getting angry when students don't follow procedure, we just say: 'Hey, you are not in trouble, but what were you doing? What were you supposed to be doing? So what do you think you can do the next time?' and 'Now that I know you know how to do this, I'm going to expect you to do this. If you don't, there will be a consequence.'"
PARTNERS, NOT ENEMIES
Brown said she has thrived during the pandemic because she likes challenges and has relished the stronger ties she now has with parents of students and with her colleagues.
But she also said there are teachers who have been overwhelmed by the work of incorporating technology into teaching and creating lessons for virtual instruction.
Parent expectations have also become a challenge, she said.
"When covid first happened, people were saying: 'We love teachers. You all are angels.' Now it's like we are the enemy or something, but we really are not. We all have the same goals and desires for our kids. We want to see them succeed."
Dolan said she sees a lack of public trust in teachers and schools, and she understands what teachers are thinking as they tally up the hard days of classroom work and consider career changes.
"In this market, there are a lot of jobs available, and teachers can make quite a bit more money doing something else. I don't think the grass is greener on the other side, but they are willing to take other positions that still have issues but also higher pay," she said.
Teachers need to be confident in their abilities and skills, Dolan said, adding that many teachers in communities such as Springdale have multiple degrees and college credit hours in addition to the degrees.
"We are the experts in this area. Parents need to trust us that we are doing what is best for their child ... in the classroom," she said.
"We are not trying to push anything on them agenda-wise," Dolan said. "We are trying to make sure that when they go forth into our country that they are going to do a really good job. They are the ones who will be taking care of us."
Farmer said she and her teacher colleagues are showing up every day to do the job they know how to do.
"We are positive," she said. "We know things are going to get better. This is our job. We roll with it."
Farmer said her concerns with the state of education are twofold -- young people are shying away from teaching as a career because of the work and salaries, and student attendance is a nationwide issue.
"I do think parents need to be aware that we need the kids to come to school and to come as often as possible," Farmer said.
Saum said teaching was difficult before the pandemic and that covid made it even harder, but teaching kids to succeed is also profoundly gratifying.
"What I hear from teachers is they desire to be treated like the professionals they are.We want our experiences and expertise to be respected," Saum said.
She said she hopes that parents and teachers will work as enthusiastic, motivated partners to benefit students.
"It's really good to see us getting back to normal -- and not the old normal," Saum said.
"We have the opportunity to fix the things that were wrong and embrace the things that were right. I'm really looking forward to that. Our students deserve it, and they are ready for it, too."