Becoming a Teacher During the Pandemic
New corps members share their mix of emotions—from anxiety to hope—as they prepare to enter the teaching profession during a school year like no other.
This fall, thousands of new teachers will enter the classroom during one of the most tumultuous times in the recent history of education. For many, that means they will broadcast lessons from their bedroom or kitchen table.
For others, it may mean teaching while masked, to a classroom of similarly masked children. And for some teachers it will be a mix of both. Regardless of the set up, they all are entering the teaching profession at a time when the very notion of what school looks like has been flipped on its head.
So how are new teachers feeling about all this?
"There are so many variables layered on," says Michyah Thomas (Delaware '20). "First you're a new teacher. And classes are virtual—maybe. And then then there's a pandemic. You just have to smile through it and work through it and know that it's all going to work out exactly the way it's supposed to."
We asked new teachers—members of Teach For America’s 2020 corps—to share how they are navigating the uncertainties around the start of the school year, what they are doing to prepare, and their hopes for their students this fall.
What Will School Even Look Like?
Byron Dondoyano Jr. (Las Vegas ‘20) was inspired to join Teach For America because there is so little representation of men of color in early childhood education, and he is excited about teaching young learners in Las Vegas this fall. As an Asian American, he wants to be a role model for his students and bring more men of color into the field.
“I'm really inspired to go into the corps to use my lived experiences and my platform to fight for education equity, specifically in the world of early childhood education,” Byron says.
Like most schools around the country, Byron’s classes will begin online. He worries about his students having equal access to technology, and how working parents will manage.
“There are so many questions right now that need to be answered. I've made it my goal to not overwhelm myself by debating those questions,” he says. “I've had my focus on how to prepare for whatever comes to me and how to make the best of it.”
In the midst of so much uncertainty around what will happen with schools this fall, Michyah is also trying to make the best of things. She always wanted to be a teacher. Now, after four years of college, she is entering a profession that looks nothing like what she prepared for.
“This is not what I had in mind, but this works too,” Michyah says. “I think it has so much potential to be a really great thing if we do it right.”
While plans are still in flux, Michyah’s school will likely follow a hybrid model with one day of fully online classes. During the rest of the week, students will alternate days of in-person classes in small groups. Students who stay home on those days will learn online.
The school will require students and staff to wear masks on the in-person days. But there are still a lot of details that concern Michyah, such as wearing masks all day, navigating hallways, and managing lunch.
“There's a lot that is top of mind,” Michyah says. “But more than anything is my kids. And making sure that I'm the best that I can be for them. I'm just trying to go with it as I can. It's exciting, but also nerve wracking.”
Keith Miller Sr. (New York ‘20) faces similar uncertainty as he heads into his first year as a ninth grade living environment teacher in Brooklyn, New York. But it doesn’t cause him too much stress. He’s a retired Marine who spent 22 years in the military. It left him well versed in the need to “improvise, adapt, and overcome,” as a military slogan puts it. “We're very well organized as military members, but you don't always have all the information that you need to get started or you need to be prepared,” Keith says. He takes comfort in reminding himself the situation is new for everyone (not just first-year teachers): “The uncertainty falls on everyone across the spectrum.”
Will It Be Safe?
While teachers are deeply, passionately motivated to show up for their students and create a positive learning experience for them, many also feel deep concern for their safety. “I want to be the best teacher that I can be, but I also know that in doing that, I'm putting my own life at risk,” says Rachel Candaso (Eastern North Carolina ‘20).
Will teachers receive masks and hand sanitizer? There’s no single answer.
Rachel notes that North Carolina is providing five masks to every teacher and student. She plans to buy additional masks (for the inevitable moment when her mask, and her students’ masks, get lost) as well as hand sanitizer and other cleaning products. “I know whatever the state is providing won't be enough to get through the whole school year,” she says.
Elsewhere in the state, in Charlotte, where Emily Duval (Charlotte-Piedmont Triad ‘20) begins teaching in mid-August, the initial plan was to kick-off the school year by having students pick up textbooks, laptops, and other essentials for online learning in the school building. But when the school district realized that wouldn’t be safe, they shifted to an online first day of school. Teachers, though, may still need to show up in the classroom—at least initially.
“A lot of people, myself included, are really worried about if it's even safe to sit in my classroom by myself wearing a mask or not wearing a mask,” Emily says.
Tywanna Webb (New York ‘20), who will be teaching math and science to eighth graders, says her Brooklyn school will be providing sanitizer and masks. “It's really my hope that every school provides that to the teachers because learning can't happen if the environment is not safe for everyone, teachers included,” Tywanna says. “It's difficult to show up and be your best self when you're worried about catching something or you're worried about putting someone else at risk.”
Juggling New Teaching Environments
There are still a lot of unknowns, but Michyah has a clear vision for her classrooms—both the in-person and virtual versions. She’s gathered maps and colorful posters to decorate the walls of her in-person classroom. For her virtual classroom she’s picking out Zoom backgrounds and a Bitmoji avatar for all of her virtual accounts. Above all, she wants her classroom to be a calm, safe space.
“The theme that I have from my classroom is the eye of the storm,” Michyah says. “I want my kids to know when they're with me—if they're in my classroom in person or they're in my class virtually—there's a lot of stuff that's happening out there, but everything is good right here.”
Byron is also thinking about how to make his virtual classroom positive and welcoming for his students. When asked about engaging young learners online, Byron pops open a chest and pulls out a large puppet of Ernie from “Sesame Street.” He says Ernie was a helpful sidekick when teaching students remotely during summer training. Byron has even perfected his ventriloquist act. His lips barely move when Ernie speaks.
“My roommates can hear me using my Ernie voice, but the kids love it,” he says. “With early childhood education, there's a huge focus on social-emotional learning, and educators are going to have to find ways of translating that into an online environment, which is very hard.”
For Byron, that means keeping close tabs on student mental health and wellness, helping students learn how to regulate themselves in an online environment. Even teaching them the little things, like pressing mute and using a mouse.
With two weeks to go until her first day in the classroom, as of late July, Rachel remained uncertain if she’ll be teaching online learners as well as in-person classes, given her school’s hybrid model. “I'm in this space where I don't know yet what's going to happen,” she says. Her response to the uncertainty? Focusing on the things she can control: She’s adjusting her learning environment plan from summer training to fit both virtual and in-person classrooms. She’s creating journal prompts for students, adding resources to her Bitmoji classroom, brainstorming different discussion boards to offer on Canvas, and figuring out how she can shift classroom circles (a community-building technique) online.
Her goal is to give students the support they need, providing a space where they can talk, vent, and share their feelings. “That's really what I'm looking forward to, is just creating a space where my students feel safe enough to show up and be their most authentic self.”
Building Relationships From a Distance
All the teachers we spoke with are creating plans for teaching to potentially go remote at some point during the year. While Tywanna’s school was initially planning a hybrid model (three days in-person learning; two days virtual learning), her gut told her that learning would wind up fully remote. And her gut was right: Her school recently announced that all academic classes will be taught remotely.
She’s devoting time to looking for online activities, icebreakers, and games that will help build her classroom community in a virtual space. And, she’s eager for feedback, so she can adjust her teaching strategies as the year progresses. She’ll be sending students weekly surveys where they can provide feedback.
To help foster community, Tywanna also plans to reach out to parents and guardians and share positive feedback regularly. “I don't only want to be speaking to parents when something has gone wrong. I want them to be able to celebrate their students with me,” she says. And she wants to bring joy into her classroom: “I plan to have some time for us to just have fun together,” she says. Those surveys will also ask kids to share music, social media videos, and so on that she can bring into the virtual space.
Giselle Mendoza (Los Angeles '20) will teach special education at an elementary school in Los Angeles, 10 minutes away from where she grew up. Her school will start with remote classes and pivot to a hybrid of in-person and virtual instruction once coronavirus cases are contained in the area. She's thinking about her own experience with "Zoom burnout" and how to keep her students engaged while in front of a computer screen.
"I'm thinking about how to still be live with my students, but not to a point where they're just so tired and they're not even paying attention," Giselle says.
She hopes to include a lot of sensory activities to try and break up her class time.
"Embedding a lot of breaks or fun games, like getting up and stretching with music," Giselle says. I want to try to make this environment a little more pleasing for them."
When it comes to building relationships with her students, Emily feels some trepidation. There are so many moments throughout the school day that can't be replicated online.
“All the little times for connecting with students in between class time—seeing kids get off the bus, passing them in the hallway, or lunch duty even—are just not going to happen.” Now, she’s thinking creatively about how she’ll form connections, considering holding online office hours and trying to up her social media savvy.
“I'm really trying to focus on from day one still finding ways to show them that I care and to try to connect with them and their families,” she says.
“The world is craziness right now, but I want my kids to know when they're with me—if they're in my classroom in person or they're in my class virtually—there's a lot of stuff that's happening out there, but everything is good right here.”
Every Day Brings a Mix of Feelings
For Michyah, entering the teaching profession in the midst of a pandemic feels overwhelming. But she is also buoyed by positivity and her excitement about her students. She’s eager for the opportunity to learn from them about what worked or didn’t work this spring and to bring her best self.
“I'm terribly optimistic about everything that's going on. Because there is no other option but to be optimistic and do the best that we can with what we have,” Michyah says.
Keith also has mixed feelings when he thinks about the school year ahead.
“I feel honored and privileged, and at the same time, I feel hopeful. I’m entering on the cusp of change,” he notes, thinking about the antiracism movement that’s forcing more awareness of systemic racism. But he’s also stressed—not for himself, but for his students.
“I'm an adult, it's one thing to have to go through oppression, discrimination, injustice, but for kids, they need protection, and they need safety. They need superheroes and champions,” Keith says.
And Keith firmly believes that students’ needs could be supported—with some effort. “[Our country has] all the resources, we just don't have it in our heart to really cure the inequity. That's what's stressful,” he says.
As the school year begins, Giselle knows her students will need space to continue processing the impact of the pandemic, and the ongoing conversation about racism. Her school has made it a priority to incorporate more of these conversations in the classroom.
“That's a big thing that my school is doing now, making sure that we have anti-racist teachings in the classroom and building community circles where children can talk about actual real life issues that are happening in the world,” Giselle says. “Instead of just pretending that it's not there, actually talking to them about what's going on in the world and how we can make it better.”
While Byron is excited to begin teaching, the inequities that have disproportionately impacted students of color—which have only worsened during the pandemic—keep him up at night. As he looks to the future, he’s thinking about how he can help lead systemic change.
“My long-term passion is to have a seat at the table when this nation comes together and decides we want to prioritize our youngest and most vulnerable children,” Byron says. “Now with coronavirus and the shifting political landscape that might come a lot sooner than I had expected.”
Feeling Hopeful, Despite It All
In the face of all these challenges—a pandemic, a country actively confronting its own racism, and an unclear sense of what the first weeks of the school year will look like, let alone the whole year—these incoming corps members remain hopeful.
There’s no denying this is a terrible situation, Emily says. “Everybody knows that but I'm hoping that through it, we can learn to work together in ways that we haven’t done before and we can learn to support each other in ways that we haven’t done before,” she says.
And Tywanna is prepared for uncertainty ahead. “I'm resilient, I see that the students are resilient. We're going to roll with the punches and it's going to be a great school year no matter if it's online or it's for in-person,” Tywanna says.
None of these corps members anticipated embracing online learning, donning masks daily, or any of the other challenges large and small that accompany teaching during a pandemic. But all are prepared to face this moment.
“I get to be a part of helping, supporting, educating, empowering, and getting kids off into the world that may one day find the answers and solutions that this world needs. That's motivating enough,” Keith says.
We asked students and parents to tell us how they are coping with all the uncertintities about heading back to school this fall. Here's what they shared.