By Estelle R. Brown
Four new middle school teachers started the school year with high hopes and big dreams, ready to establish their classrooms, teach dynamically and build community with their young students through daily, face-to-face interaction. Instead, they have encountered empty classrooms and computer icons rather than students’ faces. All recent graduates from Kent State University at Geauga’s Middle Childhood Education (MCED) program, Jessica Gaia, Emma Urban, Matthew Utz and Stephenie Keller share their stories of first-year teaching from the COVID classroom.
Geauga County native Jess Gaia teaches math at Maple Heights City Schools, having earned her degree as a 30-something mother of three.
Eager to make a positive impact on her future students, Jess threw herself into the challenging MCED program at Kent State Geauga. She points to two instructors who best prepared her for the challenges ahead: program coordinator and associate professor Robin Dever, Ph.D. and mathematics instructor Henry (Hank) Hoover.
“I learned so much about teaching and best practices in education from Dr. Dever,” Gaia says. “She challenged me in ways that I never wanted to be challenged in, however, she helped to shape the type of educator that I am becoming and I am forever grateful for that.”
Gaia adds, “Mr. Hoover is singlehandedly the reason why I am a licensed math teacher. Mr. Hoover helped me every step of the way. I am eternally grateful for him.”
Despite this excellent foundation, Gaia says the realities of contending with an extended pandemic are taking a toll on both students and teachers.
“I have nothing but great things to say about Kent Geauga, but I don’t think they could have prepared us for all of this craziness, even if they knew it was coming,” she says. “We are navigating uncharted territories and trying to do the impossible. Even the most seasoned teachers are struggling.”
“I try to put a positive spin on everything and I like to say that I know no different than COVID teacher life. I take it in stride and do the best I can. I have become well-versed in interactive activities for an online learner and have done my best to make it engaging.”
This is a far cry from Gaia’s vision of a perfectly laid-out, lively classroom with bright colors, rustic decor and engaged students. “Unfortunately, I am met with utter silence, during both live instruction and solo time. The sad reality is that my students have never met me and I have never met them, in person. I only know them as an icon. It’s a tragedy and I hope that one day this year that I will be able to meet them.
“These students need accountability, plain and simple. In my district, there is no camera protocol and therefore, none of them turn it on. They do not respond to me, half of the time I don’t even know if they are there. We have daily struggles with students turning in assignments.”
Gaia shares that her most rewarding moments are the personal ones that she shares with her students. “I spend our time trying to get to know them, beyond their icon, what their interests are and what they look forward to in life. This is what matters right now, them having a connection with a trusted adult and interacting with a teacher beyond the daily rigor of online learning.”
“I have had two days with students since school started. It is a great feeling for me to see that my students instill their trust in me, even though they only know me over a computer (and five hours of being in-person).”
Emma Urban teaches math and science at Girard City Schools. She says, “I chose a teaching career in middle education because I love how quirky that age group is.”
She found Kent State Geauga to be “the perfect fit” for her, due to the short commute from home, its affordability and small class sizes. She was in the midst of student teaching when the pandemic hit.
Crediting instructors Dever, Hoover and Dr. Jay Jahangiri, Urban says, “I feel like my courses at Kent State Geauga prepared me for learning new technology and adaptability, whereas my student teaching experience at Berkshire helped me with online learning. I was forced to figure out how to utilize Google Classroom and various platforms to ensure my eighth-grade science classes were still learning. Since I was able to learn about this myself, it gave me an advantage since the district I am at now is 100% virtual.”
Her COVID classroom is not exactly the crowded, social scene she had anticipated. Her otherwise empty classroom is furnished with 10 desks equipped with sneeze shields to allow for proper social distancing… but all instruction has been conducted remotely for the past three months, due to rising COVID cases. Remarkably, Urban says that she has shared only two face-to-face instruction days with students since school started.
“The challenges I am facing now that we are 100% virtual is students not completing their instructional videos that I film for them and then doing poorly on the assignments,” Urban says.
Beyond the academic struggles, Urban says, “I see SEL (social and emotional learning) as my students’ primary needs during this pandemic. I am trying to take a step back from shoving work at them and taking into account their home lives.”
Despite this daunting set of challenges, Urban presses forward, publishing her own EdPuzzles to engage her students in learning new material, then following up with Google Forms, trying to bridge the gaps in online learning.
Despite the virtual divide, Urban finds a way to build rewarding relationships with her students. “It is a great feeling for me to see that my students instill their trust in me, even though they only know me over a computer (and five hours of being in-person).”
“The challenge now has been finding ways to keep the students socially distanced, while keeping them engaged. While the subject matter is important, I feel as though the students’ social emotional health has been the primary need.”
Matthew Utz is a long-term substitute teacher for seventh-graders at Twinsburg City Schools, licensed to teach math and social studies for grades 4-9. During the COVID crisis, he has been able to teach face-to-face with small class sizes of eight students at a time.
He says, “I chose middle school teaching because I’ve had an interest in teaching since eighth grade, when I would help my twin brother in algebra. Also, I want to directly make a positive impact on the lives of others. I feel as though even after I pass away, I have the opportunity to live on within the lives that I have touched. Students in middle school are still forming who they want to be and I feel like I can have a positive influence on that.”
A transfer student, Utz says that he chose to attend Kent State Geauga after spending two years at the Kent campus. As a Geauga County resident, he pursued his major closer to home, while also benefitting from less costly tuition and more scholarship opportunities.
Utz recalls, “The staff was great and I built great relationships with my classmates. Dr. Dever, Dr. Sabol, and Tim Bowens are all amazing instructors that motivated me to think about teaching outside of the classroom, which was the first time that had occurred in my life. Mr. Hoover inspired me the most. I was able to student-teach with him as well (only for a week and a half prior to the shutdown last spring). He has pushed me the most and I am lucky to have had him as a professor.”
Utz feels that his training prepared him as well as it possibly could have for these unforeseen challenges posed by the pandemic. “Bottom line, I still have to find ways to engage the students. I’m adapting to using the technology, but the goal is still the same,” he says.
He anticipated simpler challenges for his first year or two of teaching, centered around mapping out and planning the curriculum. Thanks to curriculum support from a fellow seventh-grade teacher, Utz says, “The challenge now has been finding ways to keep the students socially distanced, while keeping them engaged. While the subject matter is important, I feel as though the students’ social-emotional health has been the primary need.”
Utz is grateful for the relationships he has been able to build with his students. “As I am currently transitioning to a different group of students in the building, it is rewarding to me hearing the students wish that I was their full-time teacher.”
“I was saddened at first when I first walked into my classroom, knowing there would not be any physical students in the classroom for weeks and even months. But I have grown to find that creating a safe learning environment for my students relies more on the relationships I create and the support I offer than it does on the physical classroom environment and decorating.”
Stephenie Keller teaches at Geneva City Schools, with an academic focus in language arts and mathematics. This fulfills her lifelong calling, as she decided to be a middle school teacher when she was in the fourth grade.
After attending Kent State’s Trumbull campus her freshman year, Keller transferred to Kent Geauga due to its small class sizes, affordability, and “because it was the closest regional campus where I could complete my MCED major.”
The exceptional faculty at Kent Geauga inspired Keller to the next level. “Working with Mr. Hoover throughout my last two semesters was a game-changer when it comes to following my passion for teaching. Mr. Hoover is a perfect example of someone who loves what he does. His love for teaching radiates off of him as soon as he enters the room.”
Upon graduation from the MCED program, Keller says that she felt “100% completely prepared to begin my teaching career. But when it came to starting my first year of teaching during this pandemic, I felt lost.”
“There was no way for our professors to know a pandemic would be around the corner, so they had no way of knowing they needed to prepare us for it. I felt confident in my knowledge of using technology in the classroom, but relying on technology in a completely remote learning environment was definitely an unexpected challenge. I feel as though the courses at Kent State Geauga prepared me to be flexible and to adapt to unexpected situations, as that is a common skill needed in order to teach middle schoolers. But as far as distance learning and alternating learning environments, I have found myself stumbling through the changes alongside all of the other teachers in my district. Overall, no one was really prepared for this pandemic, not even the veteran teachers and administrators. But I think it has allowed us all to become better teachers than ever.”
Keller had expected a “much smoother” first year of teaching. “I envisioned the day that I would finally have my own classroom and how I would spend so much time perfecting the classroom environment for the students to be able to learn best. I was confident that if I had any struggles, I would have a textbook or notes from my college courses to refer to that would help me overcome the struggle.
“But instead, I have found myself constantly planning, revising and adapting, as this pandemic throws new challenges at me every day. I was saddened at first when I first walked into my classroom, knowing there would not be any physical students in the classroom for weeks and even months. But I have grown to find that creating a safe learning environment for my students relies more on the relationships I create and the support I offer than it does on the physical classroom environment and decorating.“
Keller agrees that it is challenging to build student-teacher relationships through the screen, but “I still gain satisfaction every time I see their faces in Zoom, asking questions and doing their best to make it through the school year.”