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Starting Out from a Distance: New Teachers Discuss the Trials and Triumphs of Virtual Learning

by Devin Taylor

One of the greatest things about Spero Academy is the foundation it provides for new teachers to launch their teaching careers. Behind our mission to provide individualized, compassionate year-round learning are the secondary goals of creating space for educational innovation, assessment, and professional opportunities for educators.

Over the years, we have watched many educators move through their education, building their own unique foundation of professional principle and personal ideals.  

It means a lot to us to be a part of the new teacher’s journey. Playing a supportive role in this transition is one of the ways that Spero Academy promotes growth and development of staff and students alike. We’d like to think we’ve gotten pretty good at it, but this year presents a whole new level of challenge and uncertainty.

As we transition to our hybrid model, welcoming students back for part-time onsite learning, our main concern is safety and proper use of shared spaces. In an effort to maximize space and promote social distancing, classrooms are left largely unpersonalized, affecting one of the major hallmarks of the first-year teacher: setting up that first classroom.

When teachers picture their new students entering on the first day, they imagine, in each area, what their students will do, what they might achieve, and the experiences they will have together. Painstakingly, they organize and design the best learning environment for their students. 

As with most aspects of daily life in 2020, this school year is different. Spero’s newest teachers must create their ideal classroom online and in the minds of their students. This strange and monumental task comes with no blueprint for educators to follow, and only those currently tackling this task can truly speak to the experience.

For this reason, we turned to two of our new teachers, Deeqa Hussein (PLS 5) and Jeanne Hodgdon (ASR 4). Both began their work at Spero Academy as paraprofessionals last year. Here’s what they had to say:

When you imagined your first year of teaching, what things were you most excited about? 

D: I was most excited about meeting students and families in person of  course. And setting up an inviting and inclusive classroom environment for my students. 

J: Meeting the students and finding out what motivates them as well as finding different ways to teach them. How they learn is how I learn everyday to make each student a better person. I love the challenges the students bring into the classroom. I love the uniqueness. In a way, we are all  trying to invent our own lightbulb. We become better because of our challenges.

As a new teacher, what are some of the challenges in beginning the year under Distance Learning?

D: As a new teacher under Distance Learning, the biggest challenge has been not having that initial face-to-face interaction with my students and families to build rapport. 

J: I adapt my teaching to what the student needs at each moment while keeping the content. It is hard to adapt virtually. You can’t grab manipulatives or use various virtual or spatial strategies on a whim. For visual/spatial learners, the virtual experience is almost too much and if you change up the teaching tactic, the student is lost and you feel out of control. 

What are some adaptations you’ve used to overcome these challenges?

J: Our morning meetings have a routine to ease the students into the day with small windows of connection questions to learn tiny bits of information about each other.  There is a different question each day where the students see how each of us are the same and how we are different.  We share what we like, strategies for calming, what we are good at, etc. 

What are some strategies you are using to get to know your new students and help them get to know you? 

D: One strategy that has worked for our team is using Bitmojis to add a bit of fun to morning meeting slides. It shows students that their teachers can also be fun and silly. Another strategy is incorporating media that your students like into activities. For example, if a student likes the Disney film Cars, you can use a slide decorated with these characters or add gifs.

J: We have one-on-one learning Zoom sessions with the students to find their specific skills and challenges. We have recently started a Social Zoom time where the students’ personalities have started to shine which shows how our kids feel respected and accepting of their classmates and staff. 

Close collaboration of educators and specialists is a distinguishing feature of the learning model at Spero Academy. How is your classroom team supporting each other through the challenges of virtual learning?

D: Our team supports one another by having open and honest communication. There is a lot going on in the world right now. I think it is important for us to feel some sort of comfort and support in our work environment whether in person or virtual. When we are feeling our best then that is reflected in the work we do for our students.

Are there any positives to come out of the Distance Learning experience?

D: It’s not all too bad. I have learned so much more about new applications and technology. You have the opportunity to get creative with content creating. For example, incorporating student interests in online activities or using videos they like during morning meeting.

J: Working [and] going to school, as well as maintaining a five-person household has given me a sense of pride in what I have found myself able to do. My own children are proud that I am a teacher and have somewhat stepped up to help out at home. I have found amazing talents around me at Spero. Because of that I have been able to push past my tendency to live on my own island and ask for help. I am so grateful for the support and patience of everyone at the school and their immediate willingness to help and share resources. I have also found a strange love/grumbling tolerance with technology. I dig my feet to learn new technical strategies in how to teach or ways to find or sort resources or data. Once I learn it, I can’t believe I’ve lived without it. 

As an educator, do you have a personal mantra or favorite quote that is central to your approach?

J: Chadwick Boseman put it perfectly at a backstage press interview in 2019, “I feel that I’m living my purpose. But the thing about purpose is that it unfolds to you more and more everyday. You could be living in what was revealed to you at a particular time, and then you might get stagnated because there’s more that you’re supposed to do. It doesn’t just stop as you do one thing. I think it’s about being open to what you’re supposed to do at this moment and not getting stuck in the past. Purpose is not related to career. It’s related to what God put inside you that you’re supposed to give to the world.”

D: A favorite quote of mine is by Alexander Den Heijer, who said,  “When a flower doesn’t bloom, you fix the environment, not the flower.”  This quote is a powerful reminder that when things are not working with a student, you ask yourself what can I do to make it work? Do I need to change my teaching strategy, adapt the learning environment, and so on. It also instills the need to be flexible in teaching; you have to be willing to try different things to make it work.

From our beginnings, the faculty and staff of Spero Academy have defined ourselves by our willingness to acknowledge what doesn’t work and to try new things to find what does. Currently, our team is putting this ideology to work on a whole new level. It’s safe to say that the Spero Spirit has been tested more in the last six months than in any previous school year, and yet this is true of so many of our trusted mainstays, that it only serves to further the point that we are in this together.

To our newest Spero students: Welcome; we can’t wait to get to know you. And to our newest Spero teachers: Congratulations; we are lucky to have you on our team!