An inside look at teaching during a pandemic


Zoe DeYoung

The senior hallway has been unoccupied by students since March.

By Zoe DeYoung, Parkway West High School

Before we left school March 13 of last school year, we were told to empty our lockers and bring all of our textbooks home.

Some felt this was an overreaction by administration, but many minds were changed after seeing the data behind the decision. COVID-19 took the world by surprise, and usurped the ability to safely leave the house, let alone have school in-person.

Trends in data have shown that COVID-19 is running rampant in the 15-19 year old age group.

“All of the other age groups are starting to trend down and yet the teenagers are trending up. If you just look at what the rate of infection is for [all] people, you’re going to lose that the rate of infection for teens is exceptionally high,” Parkway Director of Health Services Robin Wallin said. “We have to get this under control so that we can come back to school.”

Due to a recent decision made at the emergency Parkway Board of Education meeting on Sept. 29, high schoolers now have the option to return back to school, or remain online. And for high school teachers, the online teaching experience has varied in ease.

With four desks pushed together, English teacher Angela Frye has created a virtual teaching setup in her classroom. Frye found technology difficult, but her English department coworkers were ready and willing to help. “I teach from school, [and] it makes me feel better to teach in my classroom. It helps me be around all of my supplies, [where] I can put everything out on the table and say, ‘OK, how can I make all the work that we do in class [in-person], virtual?’ So if you look at my classroom right now, four whole desks are spread out with one whole unit,” Frye said. “Everybody is struggling and helping each other out.” (Courtesy of Angela Frye)

Summer planning

Parkway announced July 29 the district would start the school year exclusively online. Over the summer, teachers began developing plans for remote instruction. For physics teacher Joe Milliano, conducting labs in a virtual format posed an early roadblock.

“I spent this summer curled up into a ball thinking about this school year. We’ve all been in a lot of stress thinking about what an online classroom looks like,” Milliano said. “I’ve tried a lot of hybrid things and usually either it won’t work or it’s not worth the effort. There’s a lot of trial and error and i’ve found a lot of ways it won’t work.”

Many teachers experienced the stress of figuring out how to transform their class to an online format. As a result, teachers who taught classes reliant upon in-person instruction were left working overtime, such as art teacher Kat Briggs.

“I spent anywhere from 10-20 hours a week learning how other art teachers across the world adapted to the same challenges in the spring,” Briggs said. “I read blogs, messaged other teachers on social media and also took a course through MIAD (Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design) to learn more resources and techniques for my virtual teaching, such as recording and clipping video for art demos.”

Experience with technology

Teachers entered the transition to online learning with different levels of technological experience. Those with many years under their belt, including English teacher of 26 years, Angela Frye, began their teaching careers using little-to-no technology in their classrooms.

“[For] myself and many teachers, if you’re not good at technology and if you don’t play around with technology, you’re just kind of stuck, and I wasn’t alone,” Frye said. “I didn’t even have computers in my first classroom. When I was student teaching, we had a rolling TV with a VCR. That was about as technological as we got. We still took attendance on paper.”

Due to the lack of existing in-classroom technology in the beginning of her career, making the change to a more tech-reliant classroom has been understandably difficult for Frye.

“I maybe used my Smartboard once a week for vocab or to show a video clip. Because I do not use a lot of technology in my class, I am at a beginner’s level, at best. I don’t know what I don’t know, or maybe should know,” Frye said. “Sometimes when I am in professional development, I am too embarrassed to ask questions, and it is hard for me to follow along. I never learned how to use a Smartboard. At this point it is just this big fancy overhead projector or movie screen. I never in a million years thought that I would be teaching from a computer screen.”

On the contrary, business teacher Laura Strickland grew up with technology in her household and classroom, easing the incorporation of technology into her teaching style.

“[Technology] is natural to me. Computers have always been a part of my life, even before they were a thing. I owe that to my parents. They were very big on having a computer in the house even before that was a normal thing to have, so it has always been in my life, and I have grown used to it,” Strickland said. “I am not afraid of diving in and trying new things out, and I don’t need it to be perfect for me to try and use it.”

Navigating the transition

The difficulties caused by creating an online education varied from teacher to teacher, depending on their adeptness for technology. For Briggs, getting to see students’ artwork is a crucial aspect of her classes, and one she worked to maintain in a digital setting.

“I had to come up with a solution for ways students could show me their work once we went into a virtual format,” Briggs said. “Google Slides became the new way for students to quickly share work and for classmates to comment with feedback. Instead of flipping through sketchbooks with my hands, I now rely on students to share a Google Slide full of their research and their drawings photographed from their sketchbook.”

As teaching resources from Loom to Padlet grow increasingly present in the education mainstream, social studies teacher Lara Boles has been conscious not to overwhelm herself with options.

“Maybe the most challenging thing from my own point of view is just having to let go of an expectation that I would be able to do all the bells and whistles straight off,” Boles said. “During the summer, there were a lot of great articles about how to make your classroom interesting and interactive on Zoom. There are all these apps that i’ve sort of heard about like Loom and Padlet, and I just can’t incorporate it all at once, so I have to go at a slower pace to make sure I keep my sanity.”

Like Boles, Strickland acknowledges the power technology holds for educators in classrooms, and has relied on that value now more than ever.

“I felt confident in my students because they do a lot of digital integration anyway. Once we got into it, it was not that big of a pivot for us. We were using the same platforms as we were in class, and now we are just doing it without in-person teaching,” Strickland said. “We were on [the internet] all the time because we see ourselves having to connect to the [business] industry. We ask ourselves, ‘what is the industry doing?’ to get our students prepared for that kind of environment. Getting kids used to technology is part of what we do anyways.”

Staying positive

Virtual learning has provided teachers a chance to reflect. Frye, for example, ends each day with a journal entry.

“Every single day I write down [an answer to the question], ‘what did I learn today?’ and I learn something new everyday. I don’t know what I don’t know, so then I go find the person that can answer my questions,” Frye said. “It makes me happy. I am excited to see how it is all filled up at the end of these nine weeks.”

For others, Boles included, platforms like Zoom offer a valuable substitute for face-to-face interaction with students.

“[Through] some of the activities we have done, sharing pictures and descriptions about how their lives changed during the pandemic, sharing a Flipgrid video about something they’re looking forward to, I feel like we’re still getting to know each other,” Boles said. “One neat thing is at the end of the class, when people start leaving, it is fun to have a couple kids hang out and ask questions. It feels like I can still get to know people one on one.”

Boles is grateful for the safety in light of the pandemic that comes with online education, and feels Parkway made the right decision moving education online.

“I feel like every week is going to get easier for me and the students, so I am hopeful for that. I am very grateful that we are online, because in the middle of July, when it was looking like we were going to do a hybrid schedule, it was pretty unsettling for teachers to feel more vulnerable,” Boles said. “We love what we do

The data for COVID-19 diagnoses aggregated by age as of Sept. 17.

and we know it works best in-person, but is it really worth risking anyone’s life for? I feel like Parkway has made the best decision to protect everybody. I think students will be learning a lot anyway, and this is just a little bump on the road. I am glad we have this technology now to be able to pull something like this off.”

Moreover, individual departments have collaborated to overcome the challenges created by distance learning.

“[The English department] have all grown closer, and we appreciate a sense of humor. We are all laughing together and working together more than we ever have before, and we are a very, very close department. I ran over to [English teacher Shannan] Cremeens’ house last week because I didn’t understand training and I broke down in tears, and she helped me. [Librarian Lauren] Reusch came over later,” Frye said. “Everybody is struggling and helping each other out. I have never been more proud to be a Parkway teacher than I am right now. I am lucky to be in Parkway.”

For Milliano, positivity and flexibility go hand-in-hand during this unprecedented time in education history.

“We’re sort of all in this boat together and we’re navigating our ways towards something. I don’t know what that something is but we’re trying our best. I think students will [try their best], but they need to be flexible. Teachers, we’re figuring stuff out and the converse is true too that the teachers need to be very flexible with the students as they are navigating these things,” Milliano said. “I think that’s the takeaway is we need to be patient and flexible with each other as we figure this out. Once we do I am very hopeful that it’s going to be a good experience—maybe not the ideal experience—but I’m hopeful that it will be a good experience for everyone. We’re all in this together, and we’ll get through to the other end as better people.”

Virtual or not, one aspect of teaching remains the same for Briggs and her colleagues: caring for students is still of utmost importance.

“Your teachers are all learning and breathing through this for the first time, just like you are. We want it to be as logistically easy for you as possible, which is why we have worked so hard to make sure this fall will be much better than last spring,” Briggs said. “While the pandemic keeps us apart at the moment, we first and foremost care about getting to know you and making sure you are okay, much more than ever before.”

This story was originally published on Pathfinder on October 21, 2020.