Laurie Gilbert, who has taught for 30 years, shares what it is like to start the new school year, from the perspective of a veteran teacher.
Laurie says, first and foremost, “I am happy the students are back!” While teaching and learning went as well as it could in the spring, teaching via Zoom makes it difficult to connect with students and know they are “with you” as the teacher. At times, it is hard to hear each other through the masks, though students are learning how to project their voices. This is especially true for the 6th grade students, acclimating to a new school (and Middle School in general) while wearing masks and keeping 6 feet apart! Laurie remarked that the entire 6th grade is now on campus together, and it has been great to see them bond together as a class.
According to Laurie, the teachers try to do as many activities as possible that they have done in previous years. Despite the Middle School camping trip not happening, Laurie has seen her students gradually learn to work together as a team, learning to break down social barriers in the classroom, while still maintaining safety measures in place due to COVID-19. “Our students are using microscopes and learning tools to ‘do’ Science, rather than just read about it!” She sees this hands-on experience as essential to the learning process in STEM. Because of class size limitations, like all Menaul School teachers, she has adapted to unique conditions; she has two groups of students (making use of an adjoining overflow space) as well as synchronous online learning.
As an example of the routines in Laurie’s classroom, the students drop off their backpack at a cubby area. They pick up their supplies, which includes basics as well as STEM gear such as safety glasses. Each student has their own personal hand sanitizer, to use before and after activities (or more often). “They are so good about doing this!”.
With the current conditions, teachers work harder to facilitate the connections that normally happen naturally and quickly due to reading one another’s facial expressions. Laurie is used to her 8th grade students being comfortable and “out there” in how they express themselves, but this year they seem quiet and subdued; she considers how to draw them out, and what she needs to be doing each day to energize them.
As a message to parents and guardians navigating the beginning of the school year during COVID-19, Laurie advises that it is important to make life as normal as possible for the kids. Social interaction is as important as the in-person academics. She wants parents to know that she feels it is a wise decision to put their students in school because “what we are doing is working”. She has noticed that there have not been any discipline issues; students feel that it is a privilege to be in school, and it shows in how they wear their masks and do their part to stay safe. Parents and teachers are in a partnership to make this work; what parents are doing to guide students at home is making it possible for students to be here learning, as well as playing outside in the campus commons.
The next new challenge will be academic support, which has always been built-in to the Middle School schedule. Some students will be online, and others will be present in the classroom, all getting that one-on-one attention from the teachers. “I envision it will need some tweaking!” Laurie says. The communication between teachers has worked well and she is grateful for the parents’ support as teachers navigate this new educational landscape.
Veteran teachers like Laurie are valued and relied upon as mentors to other teachers, a significant example of their dedication to teaching as a craft and to their students. This is a time when even they feel they are starting all over again!