Teachers across the country had schedules and classroom routines upended last month when the global coronavirus pandemic made its way into the United States while students were planning their spring breaks and the final stretches of the school year.
“This is unusual,” says Anne Gutshall, chair of the College of Charleston’s department of teacher education. “You may have had a class that was meeting a few times a week, but then you went on spring break, and you just never came back.”
While students have had to make the leap to online learning, educators have also had to adjust to online teaching. Fortunately, South Carolina’s education community has come together to share information, lessons, activities, and more with students and other educators around the state.
Though, the abundance of material doesn’t make the more nuanced challenges that come with online-only education any easier. Access to technology has been a major sticking point since the onset of the pandemic, and teachers are weighing situations that face their students.
But, the relationships between teachers and students are just as important as the course material in some cases. For Kendra Pennington, a middle school special education teacher in Myrtle Beach, relationships are everything.
“With special education, it’s kind of like a puzzle,” she says. “You have students with learning disabilities, and those aren’t going away. So, figuring out that one strategy that is going to give them a mechanism to overcome it — that’s the exciting part.”
Teaching through a screen, Pennington says, is much less personal than what she and her students are used to. Sitting beside her students and helping them one on one is not an option right now, making it even harder to build those personal relationships.
“I’ve been telling people that it’s so much harder because there are two sides of teaching,” she says. “There’s the teaching, the discipline, and the standards. But then, you have the side that’s the reason we all go into teaching, and that’s the relationships.
“It’s nothing but academics now,” Pennington laments. “It’s just different through a screen than a kid coming in and hugging you. The teaching is good, but the reason for teaching is what we’re missing out on right now.”
She isn’t alone. SC For Ed representative Trever Etminan says as teachers finish up instruction, they get to those light-bulb moments with students where everything clicks, and now due to the separation, he may be missing out on them.
“I feel like I could speak for a lot of teachers by saying a lot of the challenges we’ve been facing with online instruction have really started to take their toll on me and my relationships with my students,” Etminan says. “We feel like we are almost being cheated out of time with our students.
“How do you replicate that online? How do you replicate congratulating a student for their performance in the school musical? Or talking about a great sports win?” he wonders. “For me, that’s my biggest struggle as a high school teacher, I feel like I’ve lost that.”
The passion teachers have for their students makes it easier to see things from other points of view and ask tough questions, like, for larger families, is it realistic for multiple children to complete a day’s worth of schoolwork on a shared computer, especially if parents are working from home, too?
“I find myself thinking about the many what-ifs when I’m planning lessons now,” Etminan says. “I’m truthfully, deeply concerned about what resources, what access they have available to them at home.
“In most cases, if someone submits something 100 percent complete, and another student submits something 50 percent complete — maybe 50 percent completion is just what they were able to do with their resources and time and everything else going on in their life,” Etminan sighs. “Maybe that student’s 50 percent was their 100.”
To Etminan and other educators, there is concern for equity and access for their students. They have been given the tools, resources, and the knowledge to reimagine their instruction for just about any circumstance, but they can’t control what level of access the students have available to them.
“This is about giving students the best experience we can provide, maintaining these relationships with students the best we can, overcoming adversity the best we can,” Etminan says. “We are coming to the grim reality that an equitable environment for learning right now is just not possible.”
Despite the challenges, the fact that online learning has progressed so far so quickly has made good education at least partially accessible to far more people than what would have been possible only a short time ago.
“I think we are really lucky to have had this pandemic during this age of technology,” Gutshall says. “I guess we would figure it out — I think that some people really just like hanging out at their house and learning that way, but most of us want to learn together, in person.”
Gutshall and her faculty were more than up for the challenge of online teaching. To them, online education is just another tool in the box to share with the future teachers in their classrooms.
“My impression is that we are all very much hoping that we see our students in person again,” Gutshall says. “It gives me the clue that people don’t just love being online all the time, because learning is a relationship and a social activity.”