By Wendi Husley
One of the hardest challenges our teachers and students face now is learning to be successful in the virtual world. No one was prepared for the drastic changes this pandemic thrust into our lives. In education, before the pandemic, the latest information available was added to the curriculum — but how we taught remained relatively unchanged. We may have added new technology, but the classroom was generally the same. Students still sat at desks or tables, teachers still led the class, and class was contained within four walls with distractions at a minimum.
On March 18, 2020, that all changed for our school — and education will never be the same.
Administrators and teachers worked together to devise the best plan for the upcoming school year, knowing we would have some virtual students while the majority would be traditional in-class students. Little did we know how those numbers would affect the way we taught and the limitations we would have to overcome.
Some of our struggles revolved around limited technology for our virtual students, necessary instructional changes, parental involvement, outside distractions and concern for our students, who were struggling with the overwhelming isolation of quarantine. It felt as if we were flying a plane as we were still trying to build it. It was stressful, to say the least.
I have never been so proud of our staff. Through all the changes, not one teacher said, “I can’t do this.” They’ve done everything we’ve asked of them and much more.
Engaging students when they are not in the classroom was tough. We did not want to rely on a computer program to teach our students, which meant they would have to be present for instruction daily. We were not ready to sacrifice the benefit of the experience that happens when students bond with their teacher. That relationship is highly beneficial to their growth and success. That meant the teacher had to overcome obstacles like sound and internet connectivity problems, outside noise distractions, login issues, secure testing worries, virtual assignment complications — the list goes on. But through all that, our students and teachers showed so much resiliency.
Meanwhile, the parent communication system our district uses was working overtime. Our teachers always have had great success in communicating with parents. One of our district’s most important goals is to work toward building lasting relationships with our parents and students that span long after graduation. This year, that has paid off. Our parents are very supportive of what we are working toward accomplishing. It’s not perfect, and there is still a lot of work to be done, but communication is key to our success. Our counselors and teachers listen with the intent of understanding the problems our virtual learners experience. Together, we work to find solutions that fit those needs. Sometimes solutions are out of the box, and it takes a little help from outside agencies to make it happen. You must have an open mind and be willing to say, “That will not work, so let’s try this.”
We are now distributing computers to all of our students so they can use them at school and home. We have increased our bandwidth so there are fewer connectivity issues. We are providing hotspots to our students without internet access at home. Working for a school district that took an aggressive approach from day one of the pandemic has allowed our teachers to teach. By starting with a robust virtual learning plan, we have been able to keep students safe with reduced class sizes and robust cleaning protocols.
Our students’ futures are at stake, and we are not willing to sit back and wait for this to pass. If I can give any advice, it would be to listen and be open-minded when working on a solution. Include your teachers in the planning process. Their insight is invaluable. Be positive, be compassionate and be a problem solver now more than ever. For teachers, I would add be aware, be consistent during this time of chaos and change and just be there. Your students need you. You may be the lifeline they need to make it through another day in these very uncertain times.
To parents, I would say take the time to talk and really listen to your child. They are trying to be strong, but inside, they are scared. Give them your attention. Talk to their teachers. Check on their grades. Watch their attendance closely, and talk to them about their struggles. Make sure they know you care.
My advice to students is to reach out when you need help — to anyone for any reason. Stay strong and focused on the goal of finishing strong. You are not in this alone. We all are struggling with this in one way or another. Never give up.
This year has given new meaning to our motto: “Admiral strong.” I firmly believe after this year we will be stronger than ever and better educators for our future students.
Wendi Husley is assistant principal of Gulfport High School. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.