Wandering in York County

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I can’t see my students smile: Teaching in-person during COVID

It’s 9:20 A.M., and I’m welcoming my students into my classroom. I can’t see their faces due to their masks. 

Pre-COVID, we’d fist bump or shake hands. But now, we maintain a six-foot distance. 

Pre-COVID, we would spend our first few days playing get-to-know-you games. I would ask them to draw on our white-board desks and walk around enjoying each other’s art. But now, we don’t share supplies. 

Pre-COVID, I knew what my students looked like. But now, I only see their eyes. 

I teach Social Studies at Milton Hershey School and we went back to in-person classes on Aug. 17 with lots of health and safety measures in place. Teaching during a pandemic has been one of the most challenging things I’ve encountered during my 29 years on this earth, in some ways more difficult than writing my dissertation. 

Our hallways are one-directional, we have plastic guards at our tables at lunch, and we dismiss with staggered times. Keeping all this organized has felt overwhelming at times but each of us are devoted to keeping our students and school community healthy.

Yet, all these efforts minimize contact between people, reducing the chances of infection. Needless to say, it’s important, and I’m glad I get to be with my kids.

Even so, it’s made this year unpredictable – something many teachers dislike. To help fellow educators, I wanted to share some of my experiences. 

Takeaways from my first two weeks of teaching during a pandemic

Unlike the spring, students are spending nearly eight hours a day with us, turning our classrooms into a second home. Even though we can’t connect physically, we have found bonding techniques. 

To get to know each other, we played a name game. It’s a memory game where you have to remember the sequence of each person’s name along with a movement. We stand up and go around the room saying each others’ names along with their gesture. For example, students say “Dr. Kinsley!” while giving a thumbs up. Then, “Armani!” with the dice throw. We continue until we’ve learned each person’s name and can mimic their action. 

Since our masks block our ability to see faces, calling each other by name has never been more important. All of my dozen or so students are identified by their name, generating a sense of community. Plus, it’s fun! Since COVID makes it impossible to move around the room, this small activity gets them up and moving, lets them come up with their own signature dance move, and helps us learn more about one another. 

I haven’t downloaded TicTok, but after learning some cool new dance moves from my students I may have to join the cult. 

I value fun as a teacher, but I also run a tight ship, meaning I implement many classroom management strategies to maintain an atmosphere of mutual respect. Anyone who has taught freshmen understands how easy it is to lose control. One way I make my presence known is simply proximity. Using my entire space, I walk up and down the aisles, stand in every corner, and get closer to kids who behave better knowing there is an adult gazing over their shoulder. With COVID, I can’t do this. 

Instead, I give my students intentional eye contact. Our masks inhibit the connection through human expression, but our eyes communicate more than I realized before. Not just looking at, but trying to “see” my students helps them feel like they belong. It also lets them know that I’m an engaged teacher who won’t allow them to act up. This brings me to my final takeaway. 

Students and staff are expected to sanitize their hands frequently. Jamie Kinsley Photo.

Over the past two weeks, I’ve never had such engaged students. They want to be here. They missed their friends and the structure. 

A professor I had in college once told us that we’re not only teachers, but salespeople and entertainers. It’s not our primary focus, but if we can “sell” our subject and show the kids that it’s interesting, they will want to learn. 

We can motivate kids in a number of ways, but here’s what has worked the best this semester. I ask questions that connect their lives to the content (something that I acknowledge is easier because I’m a social studies teacher.)

For instance, we start with the Reconstruction era. After the Civil War, the south found ways around the new Amendments passed to protect the newly freed slaves. Even though the law abolished slavery, African Americans were kept in neo-slavery conditions such as forced labor from imprisonment or sharecropping. 

I ask the kids, “Is equal always fair?” Or, “Tell me a time when you felt out of control. Like you had no options. What did you do?” Or, “Have you ever found ways around the rules?” 

Most kids like to talk about themselves, so this opens the door to their life. It also builds empathy when I begin to connect their experiences to people who lived 150 years ago. History no longer seems like it’s just in the past. 

Tissues line the hallways to make sure students don’t spread germs. Jamie Kinsley Photo.

Be the caring adult who our kids need us to be

1918 was declared the “Children’s Year.” Schools across the nation closed due to the Spanish flu. However, three major cities took a different path. New York City, Chicago, and New Haven, Connecticut kept the doors open, intensifying health and safety codes. They took the opportunity to strengthen their public health safety measures to keep kids safe. 

Public school enrollment tripled between 1870 and 1918, and high school enrollment increased 20-fold, according to an article published by U.S. National Library of Medicine.

Like today, Progressives from the turn of the century called attention to health codes. Many urban schools, for instance, lacked proper lighting, ventilation systems, and sewage systems. Put bluntly, kids were expected to learn in dark, smelly and crowded rooms. 

“Education of the schools is important,” wrote the U.S. Bureau of Education in 1916, “but life and health are more important.”

For schools opening now, we’re doing the same thing. 

Just like a century ago, we need to prioritize our kids’ health first. But that doesn’t mean that teachers can’t also focus on education in classrooms.

Yes, like everyone, the anxiety of getting sick constantly looms in the back of my mind (I felt stress-related heart burn for the first time in my life last week). Even so, I’m glad to be back in the classroom and at least I get to see my students’ faces, even if they were half covered up. 

Our students missed being in school, but they’re going to have difficulty transitioning to the heightened health and safety codes. Now more than ever, let’s be positive and consistent adults in their lives. 

Just as in 1918, let’s make this the year of the children. Even though they can’t see us smiling behind our masks, teachers can show them they’re loved. 

Update:

I recently found out that local Rachel Warner makes “smile” face masks. They feature a clear screen so others can see you smile and to also  help with lip-reading! Find a link to her shop HERE.

1 comment on “I can’t see my students smile: Teaching in-person during COVID

  1. Well said! MHS has the luxury of sort of being in a bubble though. Personally, I do not believe other schools should be opening for in person instruction.

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