Back to School
“There Isn’t Anything Too Hard for an Educator”
After a challenging year, educators across the country are returning to the classroom. We spoke to six about what they’ve learned, what they’re taking forward, and why they’re excited about the new school year.
Illustrations by Oriana Fenwick
Patrick Cady High School History Teacher, San Fernando, CA Cherish Pipkins Elementary School Principal, Lancaster, TX Ron Grosinger High School STEM Teacher, West New York, NJ Latonia Johnson Elementary School Reading Teacher, Lancaster, TX Osley Cook High School Music Teacher, Dallas, TX Melissa Wendorf Elementary School Teacher, Los Angeles, CA
Before the pandemic, elementary school principal Cherish Pipkins had a routine. She would stand in the foyer of Rolling Hills Elementary School in Lancaster, Texas, and greet her students one by one, offering high-fives, fist bumps, and hugs.
“I loved greeting every child,” she says.
In March of last year, however, COVID-19 brought those greetings to an abrupt halt. To slow the spread of the virus and protect public health, schools across the country closed their campuses and pivoted to remote and hybrid learning, a rapid and unprecedented disruption to the educational system.
As Pipkins worked to keep her staff and students safe and on track, adjusting to a challenging and stressful new normal that
educators ultimately met with courage and creativity, she found herself missing those small moments of personal connection with her students—moments that couldn’t be duplicated over a video call.
“I missed pulling them in close to let them know that you’re loved, you’re cared for,” she says. “I missed just being able to encourage them.”
This fall, school districts from New York to California are returning to full-time, in-person instruction. And while the ongoing pandemic means that things won’t be quite the same as before—Pipkins, for instance, plans to limit her greetings to elbow taps—educators and students largely will be back in classrooms.
To better understand the lessons frontline educators have taken from the last year—and what they’re most excited about moving forward—we spoke to six from across the country:
Question One What are you most looking forward to about the coming school year?
In the spring of 2020, closures affected
at least 55.1 million students in 124,000 U.S. public and private schools. Almost overnight, American primary education shifted online—and while many districts have since offered at least some in-person instruction, this fall will bring the largest number of students back to campus since the start of the pandemic. The kids. I miss them. I miss seeing their faces, seeing them come into the classroom excited, and then actually being hands-on to see where they’re struggling, and how I can help them in that moment. Virtual [school] was hard for me. I didn’t feel like I could provide that social and emotional connection that they need. In the mornings when I get to work, I generally have breakfast with my kids. That’s the time when we can really talk about what’s going on, how their morning is going, and what I can do to make their day better. If they see me eating breakfast, guess what? They’re going to sit down, join that round table, and have breakfast with me. That’s something I really look forward to every day. Latonia Johnson I love performing, and it’s the same with my students. I love teaching them and getting them ready for their next performance. In Texas, we are football, so performing [with our marching band] on Thursday and Friday nights is pretty much what we do from the end of August all the way through November—depending on how far we go in the playoffs. So every single weekend, that’s what we look forward to. We also have a winter concert in December and an all-city and region contest in the fall, where they get to play these really tough pieces of music. They have to individually go in and play and learn them. That’s my only chance to really teach them grace notes and certain other tougher things in music. Osley Cook Oh, man, it’s so cool when you teach someone how to weld something for the first time. You basically get to glue stuff with lava! When you see the look on their faces, it’s almost like if you are watching Tony Stark in Iron Man discover that he actually has the power to create something. That discovery process—and the camaraderie around it—is great. It’s so much fun. When the kids realize the power of creativity, I get chills. Ron Grosinger
Question Two What was remote learning like for you as an educator?
When the pandemic began, many educators had
little experience with remote learning. On the fly, teachers had to figure out how to instruct and connect with students through computer screens—a sudden and jarring transition from physical classrooms. I had to totally revamp what I was teaching in band. Normally, we have instruments in students’ hands. Day one, we’re learning music. We’re learning to really get to know your instrument. We had to turn it from a band class to a music theory class because we weren’t allowed to play instruments in person. And I couldn’t really check out instruments for students to take home. It wasn’t as fun for me—and I know if it wasn’t as fun for me, it wasn’t as fun for my students. It’s not normal for me to give a bunch of written tests in music. Your test is, ‘what are you doing on this instrument?’ Osley Cook I was working every single night till 10:00, 11:00, 12 o’clock at night. You have this fun activity you want to do that you’ve done in the past? Cool. But how do you make it digital? My whole weekends were spent making online activities, making online projects, digitizing everything, and making the schedule. Melissa Wendorf [Teaching] is like a comedian playing the room. When you’re going through a lecture or a discussion, your energy is being picked up by the students. You’re playing off the eye contact. Somebody looks confused, somebody wants to say something? That gives you energy. But when there’s no audience, like on Zoom, then how are you supposed to get a feel for what is going on? Patrick Cady
Question Three How did remote learning affect your students academically?
Like educators, students were unaccustomed to remote learning: prior to the pandemic,
fewer than 1 percent of American students in grades K-12 attended virtual schools full time. Students had to learn how to navigate submitting assignments online. And some don't know how to type. So, whereas before they could write three sentences quickly, now they're trying to figure out where the letters are on the keyboard. There was so much newness. Everybody had to learn new skills—technology skills—to make virtual learning work. Cherish Pipkins Some kids, when they went home—they checked out, man. They checked out. They stopped attending class. I had other kids who struggled in person but thrived online. Why? Think about what it is like in school. It’s like total chaos, like a traffic jam: beep beep, honk honk, hey you! There’s bells, distractions, the kid behind you tapping on you. It’s wild in the classroom. For some kids, that’s not good. They want to be home where they have a bubble, where they can focus. Ron Grosinger Adolescence and high school can be a brutal experience, as far as what kids say to one another. Think about a kid who may struggle with acne—well, [with remote learning], he doesn’t have to worry about that anymore and can just focus on being a student. I had three or four students per class like that. At first I had to ask them, ‘are you cheating?’ Because it was like night and day that they became such outstanding students. Patrick Cady One of the biggest challenges I had was parents working from home and seeing their students struggle, and then [the parent] saying, ‘hey, let me just give you the answer so you can get that ‘A.’’ That’s not helping them, because if you do that, I don’t know where their weaknesses are. I’m a parent myself. No one wants to see their child struggle. However, the way school works is that I need to see the struggle so I can provide the intervention the student needs so he or she can move forward. If I don’t see it, I can’t help. Latonia Johnson
Question Four How did remote learning affect your students emotionally and socially?
For children, the benefits of education aren’t purely academic. From classrooms to cafeterias to sports courts and fields, schools are places for social and emotional connection and growth. Conversely, a lack of social interaction can
take a toll on students’ mental health and emotional well-being. Remote learning affected the kids a lot. They would always say, ‘I miss my friends. I just want to be able to talk to my friends.’ When they came in for state testing, they had to physically come into our building. I had one student who was very interactive online, but when he physically saw my face, I had to ask him, ‘are you okay?’ He was just staring at me. He was like, ‘I’ve never seen you in person. You’re just been on my screen. You’re real.’ To him, I had been like a cartoon character or movie star on a TV show. Actually getting to meet me was a really big adjustment. Latonia Johnson I just think it’s better for kids when their teacher is close by—when they can feel the energy of a classroom, everybody’s working hard, when I can see my classmates raising their hand and hear their questions. Even watching my own children, who are pretty great students, there was still a disconnect. They miss the social aspect. I think there’s something about getting up, getting dressed, and going to a place. You’re more focused than rolling out of my bed and clicking, you know? Cherish Pipkins As a teacher, you don’t usually share a lot about your personal life. With Zoom, [students] are seeing my home. If I had my bikes hanging on the wall, they’re asking questions about them. When we did PE, I would let my dog come into the room. She knows how to jump. So if we were doing burpees, the dog would jump up with me. One of the kids decided that the dog was going to be our class pet. So we had a virtual class pet. That was really fun. Melissa Wendorf
Question Five What can educators do this year to help students catch up academically?
After more than a year of remote and hybrid learning, educators are concerned about
learning loss among students, particularly students from disadvantaged backgrounds. They’ve already lost a year. You’re not going to catch up in the first couple of weeks. So don’t put stress on yourself about meeting certain standards and teaching certain things. Take baby steps, and as [students] pick up skills, then you can add more. Patrick Cady I’m starting from ground zero. I’m saying, ‘Hey, I know you may have been in a band class the last two years, but I know you didn’t really learn what you needed to know.’ If you’re coming to me as a ninth-grader, I’m starting you as if you’re a sixth-grader. I’m going to teach you the total foundational music and just build up a strong foundation this first semester. And then, in the second semester, we can start adding a few performances. Osley Cook Now more than ever, you have to think about a student as a campfire. If you take a huge log and dump it on a fire and you try to light it, what’s going to happen? It’s not going to light. The log is too big. So then you start over by adding small kindling and it lights up right away. But you know that’s not enough to sustain a fire. So you have to put the larger branches next. Then you can put the log on. With kids, you’re trying to light the fire. So you need to teach what is needed at the time it’s needed. Too much information will actually smother the fire—and once you smother that fire, it’s hard to restart it. As a teacher, you feel pressure to cover all of your agenda. You’re like, “I have a curriculum, I have to get to my curriculum.” This year, it doesn't matter what curriculum you have. You have to be real careful about how you build up your fires. Ron Grosinger
Question Six What can educators do to help students catch up socially and emotionally?
Lonely and isolated, many students stuck at home have faced unprecedented
emotional and mental health challenges. You need to get to know your kids as people, not just as students. Do they have brothers and sisters? Are both parents in the house? What do they do for fun? Are they involved in any sports teams in school, or in a play or anything like that? Forget the academic stuff. Get to know them on that personal basis first. Otherwise, there’s not going to be any connection. Patrick Cady Typically in the first week of school, you’re really not focusing on academics as much as you’re focusing on getting to know your neighbors, getting to know your class, getting to know your teacher. And I think this year, there needs to be an even bigger focus on that—not worrying about making sure that when Monday comes around, you immediately jump into the math book. It’s making sure kids feel comfortable in your classroom and that they’re comfortable with their classmates. If they’re comfortable in this setting that they’re not used to anymore, then they’re more likely to thrive in the classroom. Melissa Wendorf
Question Seven What did you learn about using digital tools over the last year, and how do you plan to use them in the future?
national survey of public school leaders found that one in five have already adopted, plan to adopt, or are considering adopting virtual school as a permanent offering. And by one expert estimate, the number of school districts nationwide that provide all of their students with computers or tablets has increased from 30 to 80 percent. Traditionally, we’ve always thought that technology was for secondary or upper elementary [students]. I think we’ve learned that technology is for everybody. No matter if you are general ed, special education, pre-K, all the way up to our seniors in high school, everyone can use it to learn. And it’s critical for every child to be able to have their own device. Cherish Pipkins I really dove into finding virtual field trips. The kids love them. In California, we teach about the mission system as part of our [state] history. We went on a virtual field trip to a mission, and the [tour guide] literally had his tripod and [tablet computer] and took us around the entire building. It was pretty cool! We also did a tour of the U.S. Capitol building for our fifth graders learning about the government and U.S. history, and had someone live with us answering [students’] questions. Melissa Wendorf During COVID, I originally started with putting up video lessons—watch the video, answer questions. I quickly lost the group. This is old school, one-way communication. If you stand there and say, “all right, class” and you just lecture, they’re going to zone out. Students need to interact. They need collaborative work. When you’re in the classroom, they can see what you’re doing. They interact with you, and they see [other] kids working on stuff. If you have a collaborative platform online, you can recreate the community experience from the classroom. So what I want to do [in the future] is have virtual communities. I don’t want students handing me their work. I want them to put it in the cloud and [other students] get to see it. For example, I can have five students working on the same vehicle virtually using CAD [computer-aided design], which is just a modern version of hand-drafting or blueprinting. And this is amazing, because when we have meetings, I can check and say “Okay, Jim, did you work on suspension? Let me see.” And then Alex is like, “Hey, maybe I could help Jim with that because it doesn’t look like that's going to fit. Let me see it work.” And you can actually see the pieces move. Ron Grosinger
Question Eight What changes from the last year would you like to see carry forward?
The once-in-a-lifetime disruption of the pandemic is creating and accelerating transformation across American education, with many educators seeing an opportunity to rethink and reimagine the way they teach, work, and ultimately serve students.
I think teachers have realized that digitizing assignments is not just beneficial for kids. It’s beneficial for us. If I’m able to make a digital test through our website where I don’t have to grade every single thing, it’s so much quicker. Or essays—[instead of] the huge stacks of papers that I would bring home, all I have to do is bring my laptop. There are [digital] tools where you can give suggestions to the kids as they’re working on assignments, which not only did I use, but also had them peer review with each other, so they were editing on their friends’ pages and giving suggestions. And why can’t kids use an online site instead of their math workbooks so they aren’t having to bring their textbooks back and forth every single day? In this day and age, we’re going away from using pen and paper for things in the workforce. So why aren’t we doing it as much in the classroom? Melissa Wendorf If there’s any teacher or school out there [reading] this, I would say embrace online teaching as a community building tool. Education is not one size fits all. Some students thrive online, just like some people like to read books at a quiet beach and others like to play in snow. There is room for both. Ron Grosinger The comment that we heard over and over again [from parents] was, ‘I didn’t realize how much work you all did as teachers!’ We heard it countless times. We started having parents drop off desserts, bring donuts. They just wanted to show their gratitude and appreciation. It was amazing to see my teachers and staff be recognized for the work that they put in. It was really refreshing. So one thing I learned, and this is honest and sincere, is that there isn’t anything too hard for an educator. We are, like, figure-it-out-type people. Just give us a moment and we’re going to start scribbling out solutions. We’re going to brainstorm. [During the pandemic,] our innovation went to another level. We were coming up with ways to keep our students and our parents with us. I think that gave us more confidence. And it bonded people: Okay, we’re going to figure this out together. Cherish Pipkins