Make it memorable: 6 ways the pandemic changed my teaching

Most teachers would agree that teaching over the last two years has been challenging. That may even be an understatement. We navigated uncharted waters and pushed ourselves to accomplish the unthinkable. Even with many things “back to normal,” we are still feeling the effects of COVID-19 in our school worlds.

As I reflect on the two years of pandemic teaching we have braved, I would venture to say that, through this adversity, I have grown to become a better educator.

How it all started

Let me rewind to the beginning of the pandemic in March of 2020. I will forever call this the lost spring.

I teach at Discovery Elementary School in Ashburn, Virginia, and was having a wonderful year with my special education inclusion classroom, learning a great deal from my special education co-teaching partner. Our class of second-graders truly felt like a family. Our students cheered for and looked out for each other. If one student was feeling defeated or frustrated, soon after you would hear another classmate sharing words of encouragement or giving a hug. Likewise, if a student had an accomplishment to share at morning meeting, the entire circle lit up with smiles of praise and encouragement.

As I reflect on the two years of pandemic teaching we have braved, I would venture to say that, through this adversity, I have grown to become a better educator.

When our district shut down, I mourned the time lost with my amazing group of kids. Of course, we did our best on weekly video calls and with weekly assignments, but I craved the feeling of community that being inside our classroom brought. I missed coming up with tangible lessons and activities that would make my students excited to learn. I missed not being interrupted by broken internet connections or confusion about which button to press to come off mute.

I spent that initial lockdown period on my parents’ farm in Pennsylvania. While teaching remotely, I missed the hands-on, interactive teaching that I loved so much. I started exploring my parents’ land and realized how much I could teach my kids from right there in my backyard. That summer, I started a video series that highlighted different topics on the farm, from beekeeping to composting to gardening. I truly credit this project as my saving grace. It kept me connected with the passion I felt for giving memorable and authentic learning experiences.

Moving forward

In late July 2020, we finally heard the fate of the upcoming school year. Everyone was to start virtually, with some classes returning to school on a hybrid model at some unknown point in the school year. Given this news, I made a promise to myself: whatever the 2020–2021 school year was to bring, I was going to make it memorable for my students. I suppose it would be that whether I wanted it to or not, thanks to all the rules, restrictions, and inconsistencies that were to follow. But I wanted my students to remember it for other reasons. I wanted them to walk away from second grade exclaiming, “Best year ever!” despite all the challenges faced. So, what did I learn on my journey to making it memorable? Here are my top six lessons.

1. Family partnerships are the foundation

Family partnerships have always been critical to student success, but in the time of global crisis and divide this couldn’t be truer. With so many unknowns, communication and collaboration with families became a lifeline. I learned to lean on parents and other caregivers more than I ever had before. We collaborated on video calls and discussed ways to support learners. Whether it was regarding academics, social skills, or mental health, these partnerships were—and still are—the foundation of student success.

2. Create meaningful and engaging experiences

Through the pandemic, I have learned to tap into student interests more than I ever had before. I have found that any lesson or unit can become more meaningful and engaging if you find the right way to frame it.

When our district shut down, I mourned the time lost with my amazing group of kids.

We put in time at the beginning of the school year, and throughout the year, to really get to know our students. These relationships are the foundation for planning and creating meaningful experiences that will engage our students’ interests.

Our school is also lucky enough to have access to various robots (think Sphero) that we can utilize to tie in our computer science standards. I have found that with most, if not all, of my students, I can give them a robot with an authentic content-related task, and they are focused and exceed the expectations every time. Whether it is tapping into students’ love for Mario, allowing them to “taste” series books at Starbooks, or hearing about the wildfires in Australia and facilitating an intensive project to raise money and send funds, there is always a way to tie in content to make it more relevant for our students.

3. Keep them on the edge of their seat

I do a lot of professional reading, so I credit some amazing books (Personal & Authentic by Thomas C. Murray, The Wild Card by Hope & Wade King, Teach Like a Pirate by Dave Burgess, just to name a few) for inspiring me to take risks and get creative. I have learned to be my goofiest self with my students and to not care if I look stupid. This is one of the best lessons I have learned because not only does it engage students, but it allows us to laugh together.

I have also learned that dressing up and transforming a lesson or room into a rigorous learning experience can be an impactful way to engage students. During distance teaching, I once stepped away from my computer to transform myself into a granny to teach grammar. While I was away changing back into Miss Warner, I overheard my kids unmuting, giggling, and saying things like, “Wow, Miss Warner likes to surprise us,” “We never know what she is going to do next,” and “We must always be ready!” That video call recording is one that I will save on my phone forever.

4. Utilize technology as a powerful tool

This one almost feels like a given. Technology was our only choice for a while during the pandemic. And with that non-negotiable came a great deal of fast-paced learning for us teachers and for our students.

While staring at a screen all day was not my favorite, I did come to appreciate the flexibility and versatility that came with teaching online. We learned to utilize digital content that we might not have used pre-pandemic. We created visual slides to help guide and pace lessons. We recorded video lessons that kids could go back to and access later to review concepts. We learned to facilitate all kinds of digital content, so students were able to share thoughts and learn in new ways.

All the resources and tools we were thrown into during distance teaching are still being utilized in the classroom to enhance our students’ learning now that we are back in person. Although stressful at the time, our technology crash course is something that made me a better teacher and I am extremely grateful for that.

For help finding the right tech for your classroom, see “75 digital tools and apps teachers can use to support formative assessment in the classroom” and “How to pick the right digital tool: Start with your learning goal.”

5. Reflection is the key to growth

Teaching virtually forced my team to take a hard look at the content units we had been using for years and adapt them to meet the demands and needs of our students. This was by no means an easy task, and if you ask any of my teammates, they’d say it felt like we were working from scratch. This process showed me that it is okay to let go of past lessons that may have once worked but no longer serve a purpose.

While we are still far from our old ‘normal’ in many ways, I hope we can all remember that every challenge can become an opportunity.

We realized it’s okay to adjust parts that weren’t super engaging or meaningful. It took a lot of reflection, honest communication, and collaboration to make lessons that fit our kids’ needs but it was so worth it. We might not have realized it then (okay, we definitely didn’t), but this helped our team grow leaps and bounds in our collaboration and planning practices.

6. Meaningful connections mean everything

This is something I knew long before pandemic teaching, but the past two years have only confirmed this belief further. At the end of the day, kids learn best when they have meaningful relationships with their teachers and classmates.

The classes I had during the pandemic will forever share a special bond. They experienced the ups and downs of the pandemic together. They built trusting relationships, took risks, were brave, and learned together. Despite everything that was thrown at us during distance and hybrid learning, our kids were flexible, enthusiastic, and determined to make it a great year.

I hope someday, my pandemic students will look back on their second-grade experience and remember the strong support system they had that got them through an odd time. Moving out of the pandemic, meaningful connections will continue to be the most vital part of my classroom. A strong classroom community makes each kid feel significant and provides them with a sense of belonging, the ultimate goal.

Let’s remember the good stuff, too

As I finish dumping all of my thoughts from the past two years, I want to leave you with a favorite quotation by Anthony J. D’Angelo: “Develop a passion for learning. If you do, you will never cease to grow.”

My passion for learning and my mission to “make it memorable” helped me grow through this pandemic. While we are still far from our old “normal” in many ways, I hope we can all remember that every challenge can become an opportunity.

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