School of Education alumni share secrets for teaching in a pandemic

Adam Durso July 27, 2021

Illustration of person standing on ipad flipping through pages

Joanna Sayed, MAT `20, was nearing the end of her student teaching at Hamden Middle School in early March 2020 when the call came down from the head of her math department.

Sayed was handed a content packet to distribute to students and told that her school, like so many others, would close for two weeks of sanitization as a measure against COVID-19. By March 13, Connecticut moved all pre-K to 12th grade classes to fully remote instruction.

Just like that, Sayed’s student teaching had officially ended.

“Different schools across the state had different expectations of our student teachers and some of us were actually running classes virtually at the time," Sayed recalled.

In June 2020, Sayed was hired to teach sixth grade math at Timothy Edwards Middle School in South Windsor, Connecticut. A combination of excitement and apprehension gripped her as she prepared to begin her career amid a global pandemic.

She began the year with a hybrid model of virtual and on-ground teaching. From the outset, poor visibility and student engagement were major challenges.

“We were in a situation we couldn’t control doing the best we could with what we had,” Sayed said. “I wasn’t sure what I was doing at first. Students wouldn’t turn their cameras on half of the time, and I didn’t see some of them in person for a long stretch.”

In between teaching algebraic equations at Timothy Edwards, Sayed did all she could to address the social and emotional needs of her students—all of whom were first-time middle schoolers.

“Middle school is a crucial time when a student’s sense of self and the relationships they develop are incredibly important,” she said.

Seeing her students in person only a few days a week made creating an environment where they could meaningfully connect difficult. While some students were already acquainted, others began the year among complete strangers.

Sayed recalled one female student asking another whom she’d never met to be her friend through e-mail. “That broke my heart,” she said. “For a long time, school just didn’t feel like school for them.”

Sayed set aside as much time as possible for activities and team-based projects that enabled her students to get to know one another better. Over time, she was inspired to see their comfort with one another rise.

“It was a testament to how socially adaptable and resilient they were,” Sayed said.

What's best for the kids

Meanwhile, Mike Syrotiak, MAT `17, a social studies teacher at Pomperaug High School in Southbury, Connecticut, was dealing with his own set of unknowns and anxieties.

“Some kids had parents working on the front lines, and others had after-school jobs in grocery stores they had to keep,” Syrotiak said. “We didn’t know who they were coming in contact with.”

Pomperaug divided its students into two pairs of cohorts — A and B, and C and D — which alternated between remote and in-person instruction throughout the week. Frequent schedule changes over the first several months of the school year had Syrotiak constantly revising and evolving his lesson plans.

“Five minutes was the difference between closing a lesson strong and running out of time,” he said. “But we dealt with it because, in the end, it’s about what’s best for the kids.”

As the year progressed, Pomperaug’s deep investment in learning technology enabled Syrotiak to deliver the best education possible.

Every Pomperaug student was assigned a Chromebook laptop. Their work was automatically linked to Google Classroom, through which Syrotiak could easily create, distribute and grade assignments. It also enabled him to clearly identify which students were struggling.

“I can give quality instruction and provide strong feedback from anywhere,” he said. “And going paperless meant that I didn’t have to spend hours in front of a copy machine.”

As part of a “paperless school district,” Timothy Edwards Middle School also enjoyed a deep well of funding for learning technology, Sayed said. After an initial adjustment period, her students “became pros” at using Chromebook apps such as ClassKick, a digital notebook that enabled them to do math problems on the computer screen with a stylus or their finger.

GoGuardian, a program that allowed Sayed to view her students’ screens to ensure they were focused on lessons and not social media, was particularly useful, she said.

“I could message them privately and nicely ask that they close YouTube,” Sayed explained. “I am so grateful that my district was able to provide these resources.”

Closing the digital divide

Jenna Malkin, MAT `17, a fourth grade teacher at Fair Haven School in New Haven, dealt with a widespread internet gap among her students in the early days of the pandemic.

Malkin recalled some students logging on to Google Classroom through a parent's cell phone just long enough to tell her they couldn’t access lessons or participate in class.

“At first, kids were able to use the Wi-Fi in a public library or in restaurants, but after several weeks, that wasn’t an option,” Malkin said.

The situation improved dramatically after start of the 2020-21 school year, Malkin said, thanks in large part to a partnership with Comcast, who provided free and discounted internet connectivity to schools such as Fair Haven.

“With multiple children logging on and parents working from home, some connectivity issues still existed, but any family who needs a hot spot in New Haven now has one,” Malkin said.

Unlike Syrotiak and Sayed, Malkin’s school provided virtual instruction only until Jan. 19, 2021. This made teaching 9- and 10-year-old students how to navigate sophisticated web resources such as Google Classroom, Google Docs and Jamboard, a digital whiteboard app, even more challenging.

“It was difficult for students at first, especially the non-English speakers," Malkin said. “I spent a lot of class time showing them how to locate tabs and open multiple windows.”

According to Malkin, a majority of Fair Haven School’s population are English-language learners. Language barriers sometimes made teaching, posting lessons and keeping in touch with parents remotely a challenge.

“So many of our families only speak Spanish at home, and when kids learn all day in English, it creates confusion and discrepancy,” she said.

Fair Haven instructed these students in both languages during the pandemic as part of the district’s Transitional Bilingual Education (TBE) program. Malkin taught language arts and other subject blocks in English, while a colleague later taught the same students in Spanish.

“Our goal was to have students proficient and literate in both languages, distance learning or not,” she said.

Malkin often assigned digital books so her students could record themselves reading. In those recordings, she consistently tracked improvements in fluency, speed and reading level.

“Their reading scores were exponentially better than where they were a year ago, and their writing ability improved as well,” Malkin said.

Teaching the teachers

As Syrotiak, Malkin and Sayed adapted to new teaching methods the first several months of the school year, Quinnipiac’s School of Education unveiled a revamped curriculum designed to be relevant to what its MAT candidates would be facing.

“What else do you do in a crisis situation but adapt to your student’s needs?” said Christina Pavlak, an associate professor of education and director of Quinnipiac’s Master of Arts in Teaching program.

During the summer, Pavlak and her colleagues enlisted a literacy specialist to develop orientation modules for Quinnipiac MAT students who were set to begin virtual teaching internships and other forms of field study in the fall.

These modules covered how to engage students online as well as which virtual platforms and apps, such as Google Meets and Google Classroom, the schools were going to use.

“We hoped this crash course would help them become as versatile and flexible as possible,” Pavlak said.

During the semester, faculty ran regular internship preparation seminars that featured local administrators, teachers and principals. An additional “Teachers Who Inspire” component, which included 10-15 minute videos of area educators and school leaders managing their classrooms during the pandemic, was also introduced.

MAT candidates later got to interface with these teachers one-on-one and even observe their teaching a few hours a week virtually.

“We gave students the opportunity to hear from experienced teachers who were successfully navigating similar problems in real time,” Pavlak said. “We could not have prepared them otherwise.”

Students also met regularly with one another and with faculty to discuss concerns, difficulties and what was working for them throughout their student teaching and internships. Fostering a close community, Pavlak said, was essential.

“It’s not always about the math and the reading,” she added. “It’s about taking care of people.”

Optimistic about the future

At Fair Haven, Malkin was less concerned with personal relationship-building and more with peer collaboration. Although Malkin taught her students how to use Google Docs for group projects, she worried that they didn't grasp the nuances of teamwork from a distance.

“The reason why adults were able to successfully work remotely during the pandemic is that they already learned how to work together in school,” she said. “Students at this age need to learn that.”

Malkin’s worries were assuaged when Fair Haven switched to hybrid learning last January. She reported no “first-day anxieties” among her students. When they entered her classroom, they related to one another as though they had always been there.

“They were just so grateful to be back and working with each other in person,” Malkin said.

At Pomperaug, Syrotiak’s students had big decisions to make about the next steps in their lives. They often turned to him for insights, encouragement and help with the college application process. These conversations were deeply rewarding for him.

“I wrote 15-20 recommendation letters,” he said. “It felt good to see real excitement from kids about getting into college.”

By April, Pomperaug and Timothy Edwards had returned to full-time, in-person instruction. Fair Haven finished the year with the hybrid instruction, and Malkin anticipates a return to live, full instruction in the fall.

“I can’t wait to spend more of my day teaching content to my students and less on how to use computer programs,” she said.

Sayed and Syrotiak also look forward to a return to normalcy. Their schools have sustainable plans in place to make Chromebooks and digital learning apps and programs permanent aspects of the daily educational experience.

“The technology makes learning so engaging for students, so the apps and programs definitely aren’t going away,” Sayed said.

The trio’s optimism for the 2021-22 school year — and beyond — is also tempered by reality. They know that, with so much time lost, educational gaps across grade levels are inevitable.

When Syrotiak thinks about what challenges he may face when younger students arrive to his classroom in a few years, he is optimistic.

“It’s easy to focus on the negatives, but I look at positives, as far as methodologies,” he said. “I think this is all going to pay off.”

Anne Dichele, dean of Quinnipiac’s School of Education, said the tremendous grit, flexibility and professionalism shown by teachers in 2020-21 will see them through all future challenges.

“This job, with or without a pandemic, is one of unexpected crises on a daily basis,” Dichele said. “In that daily scramble to cope and evolve, as long as you don’t panic, your students won’t either.”

Dichele believes that much was discovered in 2020-21 about what, structurally, does and does not work in our nation’s education system. She spoke to the efficacy of ‘looping’ — the practice of teachers remaining with the same group of students for more than one school year — in a post-pandemic world, and envisions less reliance on standardized tests.

Longstanding issues of educational equity for children — in poorer school districts, with special education students and English-language learners - that were exposed during the pandemic will also be addressed, she said.

“We’ll never slide back into what was considered ‘normal,’ and that’s a good thing,” Dichele said.

Quinnipiac’s MAT curriculum will also evolve to include units on educational technology, distance-learning techniques and other content areas. “Teachers Who Inspire” will become a permanent component and a ceremony is planned to honor those who participated.

For Pavlak, the real inspiration comes from the School of Education’s MAT graduates, who emerged from a trial by fire in 2020-21 with the new skillsets needed to meet the changing educational needs of all children.

“What they had to do this past year was an incredible challenge, and the amount of resilience they showed is groundbreaking,” she said. “They are prepared for anything in teaching now.”

Illustration by Brian Stauffer
Photos by Autumn Driscoll

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