With classes online or 6 feet apart, these teachers are still teaching their students in an A+ way.

Randy Pettway
Vestavia Hills Elementary Dolly Ridge Fifth-Grade Traditional Teacher

What does your classroom setup look like this year?

The teaching profession comes with challenges and triumphs, and right now we are in the middle of the challenges and working toward the triumph. So when you step into my classroom, the desks are configured similar to the ways they were last year, but a main differences you will see are the plexiglass screens that are dividing the student tables. Since I have a large classroom to begin with my tables have always had nice space between then, so that didn’t have to change that much since we were aiming for at least six feet apart.

What silver linings have you seen this year?

One thing I have seen magnified is the way students bring their hand sanitizer and wash their hands and sanitize their areas. Those are nice life skills for us to have to begin with. I would also say they are holding each other accountable. For instance we might be working on an activity, and one student might see another not having their mask on properly. They have really stepped up and called each other on certain things that might arise.

You also say students are learning to make better use of technology. Why is that important?

It seems to be the direction our society is going in terms of how to use technology and how to make sure you have the digital footprint and reputation out there.

How do you think the circumstances of this school year are shaping students?

I think many of them are learning the purest form of adaptability. They have a choice in front of them whether to accept the challenge and see to overcome it, or crumble underneath it. It’s been a pleasure to see them face those challenges head-on and seek to overcome them and help others to overcome them.

What has been challenging?

In a normal school year my students would be able to see my facial expressions when we get to a funny part of the school day. However, these days they are having to listen more intently to hear my voice behind my mask and face shield. One thing I have implemented more is being more willing to repeat certain things.

What do you think will stick with you the most from this school year?

I’ll remember the resiliency it takes everyday to not only educate but also to give each student the quality of attention and character education they need in order to exist and thrive.

Carrie Cearlock
Vestavia Hills Elementary East Second-Grade Virtual Teacher

What has teaching virtually been like overall?

When they asked me to teach virtually it wasn’t on my radar, but I felt such peace about it and that these kids are supposed to be mine. I talk to these families constantly because we have to be such a team. I have four kids myself, so I have empathy for parents trying to do this at home.

What does your day look like with a virtual class?

I have my class split into two groups on Google Meet, and we do a read aloud and a number talk and daily oral language and catch up with each other. I pull a small group a day—we split into five groups—and we target a reading or math strategy. We do optional enrichment activities in the afternoon. For example we did an animal research project and a place value spreadsheet, and we are about to start some spider research.

What have been some silver linings in this experience?

As a teacher I feel like I have had a lot of opportunity to get to know my students’ families, and we have had more time to get a better picture of the child. For the parents, even though there are challenges, they are getting time with the children that they would have never had. When you calculate the days before they go to college, it’s a lot less than you think, and it goes by so fast.

What’s been challenging?

When I can’t fix a problem my student is having because they are not in the physical space for me to help them. There are some things that are great learning experiences working with partners and groups that we can’t do virtually too.

You work on a team with virtual teachers in second grade in other Vestavia schools. What has that been like?

That has been amazing! You would feel very isolated without that. We bounce ideas off each other constantly and text throughout the day to solve problems. We can use each other’s strengths. Some of us are more comfortable videoing ourselves reading, and some are more skilled in technology. I have learned so much technology wise from other members of our team.

What lessons do you think you will take with you from this school year?

I am definitely more confident in technology and will use that more in my classroom. I want to be as connected with my families whether we are in person or virtual. You get such a better picture of a child when you connect with your families.

Amy Cook
Liberty Park Middle School Sixth-Grade Math Teacher

What changes have you made to your classroom to adapt to the pandemic?

I have shifted completely to a paperless classroom. Although this is not a new concept, it is uncommon for a math classroom. The students do have their composition notebooks, but we have eliminated making copies to reduce handoffs between people. This has been quite an adjustment, but the efficiency and convenience of having everything electronic have been wonderful. 

How has the pandemic caused you to grow as a teacher?

My knowledge of digital resources and curriculums expanded tremendously throughout this process. If you had told me 27 years ago when I first started my career in education that I would be teaching students virtually with digital curriculums, I would have thought we were in a science fiction movie.

What has been the most difficult part of teaching during the pandemic?

The challenge of not having all of our students at school on a daily basis. We are a family at LPMS. It does not feel complete when we have a portion of our students in the classroom while others have opted for virtual learning. I am hoping many of my virtual students return in January. I miss the high fives, the hugs and their sweet faces. I don’t think I will recognize my students when we eventually don’t have to wear face masks.

How have your students impressed you this school year?

I have witnessed patience, flexibility and partnership amongst students, parents, teachers and administration that is truly inspiring. We are so thankful to be in the school building everyday so that we can feel a sense of normalcy while maintaining education for today’s youth. Some days after I teach a class, I sit back and remind myself that the students I teach are only 11 and 12 years old. Their determination and effort to have a safe environment at school so that we can continue working together in the building is amazing.

What new classroom methods will you keep after the pandemic is over?

I started making weekly videos called Weekly Updates with Mrs. Cook. It is a short 5- to 10-minute video I make every Monday to summarize our week ahead with parents and students. I share any classroom announcements, assessment dates and school activities with everyone. I have received so many emails thanking me for making these videos. The parents have communicated that it makes them feel connected to our classroom and reassured that their child’s education is continuing to grow and flourish during these unusual times.

Ben Osborne
Vestavia Hills High School Freshman Campus Social Studies Teacher

What has been the most efficient thing you have done to teach during the pandemic?

I have begun a YouTube channel and film videos of myself teaching the lesson so we have less in class contact. It helps the kids since they can watch it again if they need to. I would like to spend some time next summer making better videos that I can use in the long run. A lot of us have also started using programs like Canva to give online creative assignments. That said, I look forward to returning to some things as well. Tests are a nightmare to give in this environment, and I am looking forward to an old-fashioned in-class test.

What has been the most difficult part of teaching during the pandemic?

Teachers are always changing and innovating our practice, but there are things that work well and are ready to go year to year. A lot of that is out the window. Almost every lesson has to be new and unique. I probably spend four hours a weekend minimum working on school. In the past it was a lot easier to separate home and work life. It is very hard now. It strains our lives in major ways.

How has teaching like this shaped you as a person and as a teacher?

This year of teaching has given me more of a willingness to help out the kids more. When you think more of the struggles people are going through, you give them more grace.

What do you think you will remember most from this time?

I’ll remember it being very stressful. I don’t want to think that teachers have it worse than everyone else, but the way teaching has been done over the years has been one kind of way, so for us to do a 180 has been stressful. I have heard a lot of teachers talking about how it is their first year all over again. It is very hard, but it also leads to new concepts that we might not have had otherwise.

How have your students impressed you?

They are so adaptable. This is always true of young people, but right now they are doing a really great job of dealing with all of the changes. While us adults are groaning over the new, but needed, change, the kids just don’t care. They have been pretty good about mask mandates and distancing as well.