Teachers Rise to the Moment in Crisis Learning

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Point Fermin Elementary School kindergarten teacher Karen Cass. Photo by Raphael Richardson.

Uncertainty reigns for students and parents as the virtual school year begins at most schools in LA County including the Los Angeles Unified School District. Despite disparities among those who want students back in the classroom now and those who consider distance learning the only option, two things are clear: the local schools have your children’s backs and students find success in distance learning when parents and even siblings get involved.

Random Lengths News spoke to three local teachers, the new San Pedro High School principal and Michael Romero, the Local District South superintendent.

“I’m very proud to be part of the LA Unified family and to see all of the teachers, administrators, bus drivers, classified, plant managers — it goes on and on — really giving everything they can to support our families and students right now,” Romero said.

In response to bringing students back to school safely and to setting a new standard for distance learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, LAUSD and United Teachers Los Angeles reached a bargaining agreement in early August to provide the best possible education for LAUSD students. 

Romero didn’t serve on the negotiation team in union talks, but he noted that everyone agreed on the need for longer blocks of time for daily instruction, better use of office hours and to ensure ample professional development for teachers. 

Romero explained how parts of this agreement will look this school year and for when students can safely return to campuses. He described consistent scheduling and regular communication with parents, support staff for teachers, teacher-led student breakout groups, synchronous [distance education that happens in real time] and asynchronous [students work on their own time] instruction time and extra support for students with one-on-one tutoring.

Romero supports eight school communities including San Pedro, Wilmington, Carson, Harbor City, Lomita, Gardena, Fremont Community of Schools, Rivera and Achievement Network.

A Local District South survey showed about 35% of parents would like their children to physically return to school. Romero said that the majority of parents understand and would be comfortable in a hybrid model approach.

“[Superintendent Austin] Beutner wants to get our kids back on campuses as soon as possible,” Romero said. “Once we feel we can do it in a safe manner, as we work with the Department of Public Health and with the state, he will do it as soon as he can. We all agree [that] we need students in front of teachers as soon as possible.”

While virtual learning will be available for families who choose it, LAUSD has prepared to switch from an online environment to a hybrid environment when it is safe. In elementary schools, that looks like a model A/B with 50 % of students attending a morning block the other 50% attending an afternoon block. Across the district, many secondary schools will be able to accommodate students in that A/B hybrid model. A few high schools will probably need models A, B and C to do it safely. 

When schools pivoted to teaching virtually, the district had to plan and implement quickly. By summer, District South opened a summer school program with about 30% or 19,000 kindergarten through eighth-grade students enrolling. Through that experience, they narrowed down what works for online support. For example, they used sites such as NewseLA and CommonLit and online curriculum, procedures and routines to keep children engaged. They grouped lessons and they built online communities. Now, schools will be teaching in longer blocks in a virtual environment, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday. Teachers received training on how to engage students online, how to break down and group lessons together, and how to use breakout rooms so students can engage and absorb concepts.

Online learning has provided an opportunity to explore virtual resources from science lessons to virtual field trips, bringing the world to a classroom virtually, Romero said.  

Virtual Engagement 

During the 2019 school year, Point Fermin Elementary School kindergarten teacher Karen Cass had 122 days with her students before the lockdown. Now, instead of having that face time to begin this year, Cass will introduce herself to her new students via Zoom.

Cass has been teaching for 27 years, 17 of those at Point Fermin. She called this the biggest challenge of her career. After teaching through distance learning, Cass’s priority is to make sure the children feel safe. She wants to establish and maintain a good connection with students and parents.  

“People referred to [distance learning] as crisis learning, without much time to prepare for it,” Cass said. “They had to figure out how to adapt, figuring out the technology, putting lessons and more on platforms, and communicating with parents to make sure their children had everything they needed.”

Children with families who logged on with them and helped them did well, said Cass. For students without home support  to assist them with asynchronous learning, Cass reached out to parents to link them to activities the children could do on an alternative website.

Before school began this year, Cass planned to meet with parents virtually to discuss what she can improve upon that would help the parents help their children. This includes Zoom etiquette, and what parents can do at home with their children. For example, how to properly write their name, help them to properly hold a pencil — things they can work on ahead of time that Cass physically will not be able to do with them in the class. 

Cass’s goal is to get to know her students and what they like so they can establish a relationship. In this light, with Zoom, Cass can share and project from her screen but she prefers the old fashioned way of reading aloud to her students for storytime. It works because by the end of the school year 87% of Cass’s students read at grade level or above.

Before the pandemic, I would sit at my teacher’s chair and hold the book up for the kids who sat in front of me on the rug,” she said. “The kids are familiar with that and when I did read aloud [via Zoom] I did it the same way instead of projecting it on the screen. They look at the screen so much during the day, I wanted the kids to actually see me read the story out loud to them.”

Between returning to school and distance learning, Cass said she would rather deal with catching up on a year of socialization and lost academics than to deal with a lifetime of guilt if a child or a teacher gets sick or dies from COVID-19 because a child or somebody else was asymptomatic. 

Virtual High School

David Crowley teaches ninth and 12th grade English, social media/journalism and is the founder and faculty advisor of Pride Club at San Pedro High School. Experiencing distance learning this past semester made Crowley reflect on what he was trying to accomplish.

“Student engagement was a problem and I happen to be one of the teachers who thrives in a live environment,” he said. “That doesn’t come across on Zoom like it does in person. That’s what woke me up about distance learning. You have to find ways to connect with students that go beyond your force of personality or your in-person connection.”

Crowley also pointed to taking care of the socio-emotional aspect. 

“When you’re in-person students can tell if you care about them or not,” Crowley said. “They can feel it in their conversations with you or in what they are allowed to talk to you about.”

On Zoom, he noted, the minute you speak, you fill-up the screen. Most high school students don’t like that. They ask for help and everybody hears them. You can’t deal with it individually. You can’t tell if they are having a bad time at home or are dealing with other issues emotionally. 

However, teachers were provided with lessons on how to take time out for themselves regularly. Their schedules will also include advisory classes to help establish that connection that so many students need from their teachers.

Crowley quipped that he’s been teaching for 20 years “but now we’re all first-year teachers again.” It’s a new reality, with new lesson plans, new methods to reach students and meet new challenges. He said LAUSD has done a pretty darn good job of mobilizing to get teachers what they need.

Crowley is confident in his fellow teachers and staff to do their best. This includes having compassion for students and contacting parents to find out how they can help. They want to partner with the community. He noted students may have to help their younger siblings and if they aren’t showing up for class, that’s where teachers need to reach out and find out why.

“That’s where we get creative and figure out how to make it work and get the work to the student,” Crowley said. “If I have to work extra hours or work at night to help, that’s the San Pedro High School way.”

Safety should take precedence before returning to school, he said. 

“Personally if there’s not enough testing or contact tracing and social distancing, I’ll sacrifice a lot for my kids and my school, but not my life and not the health of my family either,” Crowley said. “I want to be back as soon as possible but not until it’s safe. I want to listen to the scientists. It’s sad that we are not really where we should be. It’s upsetting because we all want to be back with our students. I don’t know any teacher who doesn’t want to be back in the classroom. LAUSD is playing it safe and safety is the number one concern.”

SPHS hopes to find things they can do to bring the students together in a kind of socially distant way. 

“We’re going to work our butts off to bring some of the joy, the excitement, the camaraderie to the online arena and maybe in other ways, like drive-by things that are socially distant things we can do,” he said. “Never underestimate the power of a teacher to be creative and work extra hard to make their kids successful and happy.”

John Guldseth teaches 10th and 11th grade English and American Literature and writing. He is also the teacher sponsor of San Pedro High School’s Restorative Justice program.

Given the disparity and anxiety around hybrid versus distance learning, understanding how to approach it through a restorative justice lens seemed helpful. Guldseth flushed that out a little.

“Parents are tired and if you think about it, this has been going on since March,” Guldseth said.

 “That’s a long time for parents. It’s been a growing period for them. That is spot on when you’re referring to restorative justice. A broader swath of that would be the social-emotional learning that goes with it because kids have a need for social interaction. They also have a need to be safe.” 

Guldseth said students don’t observe social distancing by nature. They’re not aware of that so precautions are good. But the price is a less emotionally prepared student. 

“There is a lot to the notion of, how do we ease that transition for the kids?” Guldseth said. “How do we get them to understand that they are valuable, that there is a real connection between what we teach them and what they will need in the future?”  

Guldseth is considering what he models to his students and his priorities in that. Through distance learning he said, you miss so much. It’s important to Guldseth to have a philosophy that governs and for many years his philosophy has been to model self-efficacy.

“Kids also are very relationally motivated,” he said. “When they walk in they say, ‘Hey Mr. Guldseth, how ya doing?’ that gives me a chance to make eye contact and engage with them. My priorities are to hit that social-emotional learning, building emotional resilience for the students.”

It’s hard, but it’s important to not undermine their sense that this is difficult for them, he said. It is for him too. Then, Guldseth models that effectuality, i.e., — ‘what I’m going to do today is going to impact the future and make things better for when we can get together.’ 

“Those are big things and I know that they are going to impact the students well, if I can do that. Guldseth said. “It’s going to draw out their confidence.”

What he learned last semester was that there can be a tremendous sense of satisfaction. The students who engaged in the content with him over those months really were happy. For the students who really shined he said parents stepped up and assisted in the writing process and also siblings helped each other. So he believes there is something to the distance too.

He’s expecting good things but also knows there will be difficulties like capturing students who don’t want to start school and don’t want to come to classes and log in. He will be flexible, organized and prepared.

“You have to build relationships before you have expectations,” he said. “It’s the whole community. Everyone needs to be empowered. It goes back to restorative justice, getting everyone on board and everyone’s expectations aligned, not punitive [but rather] proactive.” 

Guldseth uses formative assessment rather than summative with distance learning, saying the students don’t want to be penalized, they want to be rewarded.

“Most knowledge grows out of relationships, the motivation to love to learn, all of that comes from the early interactions we had with a positive teacher, somebody that believed in us, someone that created self-efficacy and resilience,” he said.

A New Principal 

Steve Gebhart, the new principal at SPHS, speaks with the confidence necessary to carry out his first year of administering the challenges of distance learning. Prior to this position, Gebhart was principal at Dana Middle School. Before that, he taught English at SPHS for eight years. At the end of the school year former principal of 11 years, Jeanette Stevens, transferred to Central District in a staff relations position in support of Local District South.

Gebhart said SPHS will provide teachers support with a variety of technological lessons and professional development sessions. It will provide the time and space that is necessary when learning something new and make any tech resources that are needed available for staff.

“When we shut down last year, it was unprecedented but at the same time, I don’t think anyone anticipated it would continue as long as it [has],” Gebhart said. “Similar to a classroom, the school and the district have done a great job differentiating the type of professional development and/or instruction to meet the teachers where they are just the same way we try to meet the students where they are.”

Gebhart said people are disappointed about hybrid versus distance learning.

“It’s been such a strain on work and home life balance,” he said. “There used to be a real line. … You knew when you were at work and when you were at home, but now those lines have blended and you feel like you are always at work and really never at home. That’s what drives that, ‘I wish we were going back’ sentiment.” 

Gebhart said he has it too, a people person, he didn’t get into this job to have virtual meetings. But there’s a real understanding that they want to do it safely and they don’t want to be stupid about it. 

“Just like if you watch the news, there are pockets of people who think we should be fully playing sports now and doing everything,” he said. “But I don’t know how much of that is motivated just by their own political leanings or how much it’s motivated by their needs.”

To help engage students ongoing through distance learning SPHS has built things into school structure, like the advisory courses. The courses are intentionally set up so teachers do not meet with students who are part of their academic classes. Advisory classes are 30-minute Zoom sessions for student guidance before and after lunch Tuesday through Thursday. This provides a different level of engagement when there isn’t an academic pressure with it. Gebhart will be hosting student orientations when school begins and the school’s plan is to host more regular community meetings to rally and come together. 

“We’re making efforts and trying to be intentional around that,” Gebhart said. “I’m really trying to over-communicate. It may sound minor but I’m encouraging people to engage with our Facebook and other social media because calling the school office or going to the school website requires some action on the community’s part.” 

Alternatively, these platforms help parents find information but more importantly, they foster community connection. 

San Pedro teachers are dedicated. They provide students with support, enthusiasm and cheer. It cannot be overstated, when a teacher stands beside you — as these teachers do daily in their students’ respective corners —  you cannot lose.

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