A day in the life of a couple BVSD elementary teachers during the pandemic
After four weeks of Home Learning, Boulder Valley School District teachers say they are getting accustomed to teaching remotely – but they desperately miss their students and in-person instruction. Two educators shared their daily experience and you might be surprised by the work that goes into this new way of learning, forced by the pandemic.
Marina Orozco-Ngu, a second grade teacher at University Hill Elementary in Boulder and Taren Villecco, a fifth grade teacher at Ryan Elementary in Lafayette agreed to give us a glimpse into their daily schedules.
“We’ve got a pretty crazy calendar,” Villecco started, sharing that she and her husband Pete, who is a physical education teacher at Aspen Creek PK-8 in Broomfield, typically get their best work done early in the morning or late at night. “We are doing most of our work to prepare our lessons before our kids are awake or when they are asleep. We’ve never worked the hours that we are working.”
The Villeccos have three kids, including a two-year-old, a preschooler and a second grader, in addition to all of the students in their classes.
“Pete and I both wake up early, check in with our students and then we coordinate our kids’ learning,” Villeccos said. “Our lives, our roles are colliding. It doesn’t ever feel like you are getting a lot done [during the day], because you are always getting interrupted.”
Technology makes Home Learning possible, but is challenging
Even during our short interview, Villecco’s computer was constantly dinging as students messaged her on Google Hangouts.
“Kids are constantly talking to me through hangouts. It’s kind of nice because that really is how we connect, but it dings all day,” Villecco said. “Some of the kids can advocate to me really well and message me on Google Hangouts. Other kids – they are hunting and pecking to type two words.”
Orozco-Ngu, who teaches even younger students is facing similar issues. She promptly starts at the same time every weekday.
“By 8 a.m. we are on, just like a typical day,” said Orozco-Ngu.
She typically begins by responding to parent and student emails and then connects with her students via Google Classroom. This can be pretty challenging since second grader students typically weren’t using devices much in class, prior to the pandemic. The extent of their experience with a computer may have been using Raz Kids, Freckle or perhaps Google Docs.
“Half of our conversation is, ‘Lucia hit mute’ or ‘oh, you’re still muted,’” said Orozco-Ngu. “It is like 30 seconds to a minute where we are all patiently waiting for these little fingers to manage a computer, when we can’t even really do it as adults.”
As you can imagine, it is complete pandemonium when 20-something students haven’t muted their microphones. Thankfully, Orozco-Ngu’s class has gotten that under control, but she and her colleagues have had to keep an eye out for other problems on these digital platforms.
“We've had to learn what rules and agreements look like online so that we maintain a respectful environment,” Orozco-Ngu said.
Plus, they’ve had to find a balance. While it might be easier to just sit all the kids in front of a screen all day, it isn’t best practice or what parents or kids want.
“The week before last, we got feedback from parents that we were just having the kids on the screen too much,” Orozco-Ngu said. “We have significantly scaled down from what we were doing before.”
“We have all read the research that in the Home Learning environment, kids are only truly engaged for seven minutes,” Villecco added. “We are doing a lot of planning and thinking of instruction, thinking of ways to really motivate them – to keep them learning and coming back.”
Teachers: The next generation of YouTube stars?
The need to succinctly deliver instruction in a captivating way has driven many teachers to add a new role. They are now video producers.
“We have kind of joked around. Who made us YouTube stars?” said Orozco-Ngu jokingly.
While they have never been formally taught, they have had to quickly learn how to shoot and edit educational and entertaining videos.
“You can figure out a lot on your own, but it is time consuming,” said Villecco. “One lesson that is maybe 6 minutes can take two to three hours, if you’re trying to do it well.”
“Sometimes we get stuck in WeVideo,” added Orozco-Ngu. “You are trying to make them perfect, cutting them, editing them, adding music and all this jazz.”
The simple things before, take far more time now
In addition to truly missing their students, the teachers say without those personal interactions they are having to work much harder to gauge where their students are and whether they’ve grasped the concept or need additional support.
“Before, I would immediately know who would need to come to the carpet to have a reteach,” Villecco said, reminiscently. “It was so easy to sit down next to a kid and give them feedback when they were writing. Now we’re trying to do it digitally and read comments and leave notes so they can go back and make revisions. Man, I really took for granted how easy that was to read over a kids shoulder and say, ‘Hey, have you thought about this?’”
“We can video record them and put them out into space, but we don’t get anything back until the kids give us something back,” Orozco-Ngu added.
She says that parents are helping to fill the gap, to a certain extent.
“Even a small photo that a parent can share – ‘this is the journal my kid did today’ or ‘this is one sentence they wrote or one picture they drew for you.’ We are getting a lot of that from parents, which is the most important for us,” Orozco-Ngu said.
Providing ‘the calm in the storm’
The teachers also recognize the diverse variety of situations that our families are in at this time. They say they appreciate the district’s flexibility, which encourages students to continue learning while putting the focus on their social-emotional well-being.
“The relationships and connections are so critical for all human beings right now. We need to just let that be a priority and realize that some kids, within that continuum, are getting a lot and this is really working for them. There is the other side, where this isn’t really working for them and we are trying to strike a balance in the middle. We are trying to be the calm in the storm.”
She says that some of our students are unable to focus on assignments because their parents are essential workers and they are having to care for their families, including their siblings during this difficult time.
“My worry at night has been a lot of the equity in these home learning environments. There is a huge inequity,” said Villecco. “We have to strike a balance between providing just the right amount of work with just the right amount of teaching and practice work for the parents who can’t do all the work.”
“I just wish parents and educators would take a little pressure off themselves and just realize this is an unprecedented time and just connecting with kids and building relationships and supporting them – should be enough,” Villecco added.
At the end of the day, teachers are just like everyone else
On top of it all, teachers are not shielded from the same troubles and tribulations that all Americans are struggling with right now.
“The parents who have mentioned that and have said, we appreciate everything you are doing and we understand you have your own family to take care of – that is really helpful for us to hear,” said Orozco-Ngu, who is caring for her older parents during this crisis. “I have seen the resiliency that my colleagues have. We are all going through this pandemic too,” “While we focus on school during the day, we are also struggling with the same issues as everyone else. We do have our own worries about going to the grocery store and being safe and taking care of our own families and being safe.”
“It’s amazing how exhausted we are at the end of the day,” said Orozco-Ngu.
She, however, says she is energized when she thinks of the way BVSD has come together to serve students, whether it is distributing food, school supplies or devices.
“So many people have pulled together to help. That has made our job easier. We feel like we can do this,” Orozco-Ngu said.