As an elementary school educator, Kelly Herring has always worn many hats in her third-grade classroom — instructor, storyteller, encourager, referee — to name a few. As the COVID-19 pandemic began sweeping across the globe last year, Kelly, along with millions of teachers across the nation, added another title to her resume: frontline essential worker. Seemingly overnight the stakes were raised, and everything about her work and classroom changed.
“The hardest part of this whole situation has been not being able to teach the way I always have but trying to still stay the teacher I’ve always been,” says Kelly, in her sixth year at New Providence Elementary School. “I’m a ‘warm and fuzzy’ teacher, but I can’t hug them, and we can’t sit around on the carpet together. It’s tough.”
However, simply having students back in her classroom this semester, after months of online-only teaching, was a welcome change for Kelly, who was named a 2019-2020 Lexington County School District One English Language Arts Model Classroom Teacher.
“They’re the most resilient; it blows my mind,” Kelly says of her students. “They’re just so thankful to be back in the classroom, they don’t complain at all. And I’m getting more creative as the weeks go on.”
For many of Columbia’s teachers, the biggest challenge in this new phase of education has been cultivating creativity in the physical and virtual classrooms to keep students engaged and learning while maintaining physical, mental, and emotional health for all.
Kelly has become innovative with movement in her classroom. For example, she often hangs story problems at stations around the room, instructing students to walk individually through the classroom, stopping at the next station to solve a problem. She encourages them to move around at their desks as needed, and even Kelly tries to move through the room while reading aloud to her students, keeping a safe distance while helping each student feel a bit of her presence. She also encourages students in her virtual classroom to use digital breakout rooms to “move” in and out of different conversations with their peers, simulating a round robin style carpet discussion they might normally have in person.
“I find that movement helps keep them focused and feeling more ‘normal’ in the classroom setting,” Kelly says. “Our counselors have also been super supportive; they’ve planned social and emotional activities focusing each week on a skill or word that we discuss, which opens conversation and helps students process everything.”
Pinkie Adams is a school counselor for pre-K through fifth grade students at Catawba Trail Elementary School. She says movement has become an even more critical way to keep students in a positive mental space during the pandemic. Pinkie starts many in-person and virtual classroom presentations with a bit of exercise, including deep breathing, sometimes stretching, and dancing. She then asks students to check their heart rates and note how their bodies and minds are feeling. All of this is intentional in helping students develop healthy coping strategies for the stress they encounter daily in their classrooms and home lives.
“We talk a lot about how we feel in our bodies and how we can use ‘speed up’ and ‘slow down’ strategies,” Pinkie says. For example, “If you’re feeling mad and your body is feeling ‘fast,’ what will slow us down? Maybe some yoga breathing. Or if we’re feeling tired, we don’t need to slow down, we need to get up and move.”
When it comes to meeting one-on-one with students, rather than meeting in an enclosed office, Pinkie now spends the session walking around with them on campus talking discreetly through issues and questions in an effort to keep students healthy.
“This has been hard on everyone, and my role is meant to be proactive, to give students a safe space to talk through everything that’s happening, at school and at home,” Pinkie says. “But really, our kids have been incredibly resilient in handling all the changes; it’s been amazing to see.”
Seismic Technological Shifts
For nearly every educator across the Midlands, technology has played a critical role in the transition to virtual and dual modality, or hybrid, classrooms. In many cases, it has allowed teachers to flex their creative muscles further than ever before.
Richland Northeast High School English teacher Samantha Rainwater is one such educator who has wholeheartedly embraced the challenges that come with expansion of technology in her classroom.
“As a millennial, I’ve never felt too out of my element with technology, but at the beginning of the year, there was such a high demand to present resources digitally, it was overwhelming,” Samantha says. “So, I decided to pick a few new tools, get really good at them, and trust the process, trust that it will translate to quality lessons for my students.”
Each school day, Samantha sets up her workstation with three computer monitors, each handling various tasks and threads for her as she walks her ninth and 10th graders through lessons. While she gives instructions to students sitting at desks in her physical classroom, a dozen or more are sitting in front of laptops in their homes around the school district tuning in simultaneously. Needless to say, Samantha has become a master multi-tasker when it comes to leading digital presentations, monitoring students’ virtual chats, and facilitating stimulating discussions between virtual and in-person students.
“It’s going well, but by the end of the day, my brain is fried,” she jokes. “I don’t even want to look at a computer screen anymore.”
For Samantha, who was named 2020-2021 Teacher of the Year at Richland Northeast High, expanding the use of technology in her classroom has allowed her educational creativity to shine through. Last spring, when schools first shut their doors, Samantha immediately set up an online blog for her students to process their English lessons.
“As we were going through this historic event, blogging was creating primary sources of this moment, and I was able to teach online discourse in a way I’d never done before,” Samantha says. “It made it easier to teach students about audience and purpose, and their writing became a lot more authentic. It was really meaningful for all of us.”
Samantha has also used technology to expand students’ options when it comes to projects, from creative video submissions to research topic and resource diversification.
“I’ve tried to incorporate so much more choice into how students can show me they have mastered a skill or concept, and that has increased engagement,” she says.
Much of this comes with teaching digital etiquette and ethics, which has been a fun challenge for Samantha, who also serves as the school’s Model United Nations adviser and considers many of her lessons a hybrid of English and civics topics. Combining these two passions has been one of the highlights of her growth as a teaching professional during the pandemic.
“Teachers are doing a lot of work that’s really phenomenal right now,” Samantha says. “Teachers are not just impressive because they’re devoted and work hard, but many are skilled at the art and craft of teaching. The more we celebrate teachers for being experts versus just being martyrs, the better.”
Serious About Fun
One hour spent in Spanish teacher Nicole Mesimer’s Dreher High School classroom shows she is obviously not about to let a pandemic steal her teaching joy. One minute she’s leading students through karaoke conjugations; the next, she’s excitedly flinging euros at the computer screen when a virtual student “earns” the cash with a correct answer.
“I’m high energy, and honestly, that’s where I thrive,” says Nicole. “I love creating new things and trying to get buy-in with my students. The more theatrical, the better!”
When it comes to teaching teens, Nicole says keeping them motivated to learn virtually has been critical when they could all too easily hide behind a turned-off laptop camera. She engages students with online Spanish language games and requests to “draw” their answers digitally to share. Some mornings she plays silly songs for students to sing along with while they wait for others to get signed in from their homes, and other days she has conversations into the camera with an alpaca puppet perched on her flexed hand. Around her physical classroom, Nicole has hung authentic art, displayed whimsical stickers, and affixed pictures of famous Hispanic figures like Frida Kahlo and George Lopez on plexiglass dividers between desks.
“You have to have a sense of humor,” Nicole says, “but the students have been really encouraging. One even told me recently, ‘Your energy and dedication means a lot.’ And 16-year-olds don’t compliment you, unless they truly mean it.”