Note: The coronavirus forced all of us to change our lives, often in dramatic ways. This article is part of a series about the people who pivoted in 2020.
Beth Alderson was attending a technology conference for educators in Raleigh when North Carolina confirmed its first case of the novel coronavirus.
She warned her husband that she would soon be teaching from home.
A week later, Aberdeen Elementary Principal Dante Poole called the school’s entire staff into the cafeteria. “I need you to wrap your brains around what’s coming,” Poole told them. “We don’t yet know how, but we’re going to make it work.”
Alderson’s job as a digital integration facilitator was to support the use of technology in classrooms throughout the school. But what if there was no one at school?
“It was like the bottom of your stomach drops out, because nobody was prepared for that,” she said.
Moore County Schools executed a staggered about-face to move teaching online in the weeks after schools around the state closed their doors to students. Disparities based on whether or not students had computers at home, or access to the internet in rural areas, became glaringly obvious.
“We had to completely change the way we did things overnight,” Alderson recalled. “We had teachers putting packets in mailboxes. We were going to make sure these kids got what they needed.”
But teachers work in a constantly evolving field, so adaptation is second nature. Moore County Schools used federal coronavirus relief funding to distribute Chromebooks to students in third through fifth grade and iPads to kindergarten, first and second-graders.
“We’ve been telling teachers this new way of learning is coming, you're going to have to get on board with it, and all of a sudden they had to,” said Alderson. “I feel like when people’s feet are to the fire, they rise to the occasion.”
Teachers spent the summer training for a new way of delivering school to their students: brushing up on the available apps and learning platforms, and reconsidering social and emotional learning in a world of social distance.
Like all public school systems statewide, Moore County Schools introduced an entirely virtual school program for K-12 students for the fall semester.
Holly Cirillo of West End Elementary teaches second grade through the district’s Connect! Virtual Academy. That’s a job she requested with immunocompromised family members in mind.
The deliverables of the profession may be wrapped up in students’ mastery of concepts in math and reading. But teachers know that can’t happen unless they genuinely connect with their students and help them learn to love learning.
“That was my biggest goal coming into virtual learning: to make sure they feel they’re special and an important part of something,” Cirillo said.
“I’m that person that's coming through the screen daily to work with them so I really want to make sure that they feel loved and accepted, that they experience kindness and compassion and they feel they are a very important part of our classroom.”
Cirillo guided her class in creating a “digital contract” to help them invest in their two-dimensional learning community and ensure that students feel as safe participating online as they would in a physical classroom.
Alderson, the former technology specialist, now teaches a kindergarten class through the virtual academy. She starts a typical day alone in her classroom with her assistant.
One student comes online, then another, until Alderson’s screen resembles an episode of ‘Hollywood Squares.’
“Oh, there’s Aiden, we’ve got Aiden coming in,” she says, before her voice reverts to the tone of almost superhuman cheeriness standard among elementary school teachers. “Hey Aiden! We’re working on some vowels, do you want to help us?”
But Alderson’s teacher voice conceals a longing for the old way of building relationships with her students: bear hugs, Band-Aids for scraped knees, and swooping to the rescue when a shoelace comes untied.
“As teachers, we thrive on kids. That's our job. Our job is literally kids,” she said.
“Now I’m a virtual kindergarten teacher. I don’t even get to see my kids. That’s been hard because as a teacher we thrive on relationships. That’s how we earn the kids’ trust and make sure they're learning at their best.”
Teachers have grown to rely on parents to make sure their children log in to class, and to learn the technology well enough to assist where needed. That’s led to a new appreciation for their students’ families as allies in their education.
“I see many different family members who are supporting their children: brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles,” Cirillo said. “I have grandparents that come to my meets. We all work together to support our children. That’s been a lot of fun.”
It’s that partnership that Alderson predicts will last longer than the coronavirus pandemic.
“In the past there’s been this disconnect,” she said. ‘You drop your kids off at school and the teachers do their thing, I think we’ve learned through COVID that can't be the case: we need to work together.”