May 20, 2022
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Success is more than a grade

Alumni share lessons learned while teaching during the pandemic

Donna Geetter, MAT ’09, teaches English at Johnson City High School. Donna Geetter, MAT ’09, teaches English at Johnson City High School.
Donna Geetter, MAT ’09, teaches English at Johnson City High School. Image Credit: Jonathan Cohen.

COVID-19 has upended lives in every realm, but perhaps the largest disruption has been to traditional classroom learning. When the pandemic hit, teachers carried the heavy load of developing functional, virtual classrooms while faced with the harsh reality that many families were struggling with illness, loss of income and even loss of life.

“You had to balance your desire for integrity for the course with empathy for students,” says Andrea Gumble, MA ’96, EdD ’14, an English teacher at Chenango Forks High School. “It was about what you could do to help students learn when you didn’t know what was going on in someone’s house.”

“March and April were very rough,” says Donna Geetter, MAT ’09, a Johnson City High School English teacher. “I missed the interaction with my students tremendously. I’m a pathological extrovert and not having input from my students every day was tough.”

Kelli Krieger, MAT ’02, MA ’03, also missed her connections with students, so she decided to reach out to them old-school style.

“I wrote them letters,” says Krieger, who teaches English at Union-Endicott High School. “I’d say 95% of the students wrote back at least once and the letters weren’t about academics at all. One girl sent me her favorite tea. Another sent me a picture she had drawn of the class. It was a lifeline. It was good for me and it was good for them.”

By the fall, all three had found ways to make learning possible in the “new normal.” Becoming more comfortable with logistics such as teaching hybrid classes (synchronous, asynchronous, in-person and remote) was one improvement. All agreed the lessons they learned went way beyond becoming competent at using a variety of education technologies.

“COVID has been the impetus to re-evaluate education,” Krieger says. “Online and in-person instruction are fundamentally different. Online doesn’t lend itself to meeting every day. My seniors and I meet more like a college course, twice a week for an hour and a half. [This] can be hard for teachers who don’t love to embrace change, but I chose to look at it in a positive way.”

“Adaptation means one of two things: you change how you behave, or you change your expectations,” says Geetter, who decided The Great Gatsby wasn’t going to work for her 10th graders this year because it requires a lot of discussion and guidance from her. Instead, she assigned them The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, a coming-of-age story they could read independently. Because the book is written by a non-white author, it also fulfills Geetter’s goal of diversifying authors.

“Next year — or whenever things are back to normal — I might just add this in along with The Great Gatsby,” she says. “That way they’ll have one book to read on their own while we read The Great Gatsby together.”

And Gumble found a solution to one of the challenges of teaching English courses over Zoom: the loss of the student voice.

“They really don’t talk a lot on Zoom, so I worked on establishing a digital voice and using discussion boards to cultivate that voice,” Gumble says. “They were graded on proofreading and responding insightfully. There’s also a freedom behind the screen and they often volunteer their work to be shared. It has become a great way to teach writing that I would never have thought of had this not happened.”

Gumble says the lesson for all teachers is to teach people not the subject. “What does the whole child look like? How do you help that person first versus the subject matter? What are the issues that help them succeed?”

Answering those questions has become a more complicated question in the era of COVID. The virus has exposed and amplified the stumbling blocks children from vulnerable populations have always experienced.

“The inequities have become grossly apparent. We always worry about kids falling through the cracks, but now the cracks are just massive,” Geetter says. “Some have to share in the duties of managing the household or care for a younger sibling. There are internet connectivity issues. Then there are just support issues such as not having a room of your own where you can participate in class without interruptions.”

“If there was ever a time to extend grace, this is the year,” adds Geetter, but the Johnson City Central School District has found ways to hold students accountable while still being sympathetic to their circumstances.

“We don’t give zeros on any assignments except for major assessments,” she says. “We can give a student a 50 for not turning in an assignment because that’s not insurmountable for the student. Students can also always go back and work with a teacher to recover their credit from a quarter where they were not successful.”

All three teachers expressed a shared lesson that evaluating student learning and ensuring success means digging deeper than a grade; and that should remain the standard whether the classroom is a physical or virtual space.

Posted in: CCPA