After months without students and with schools having been closed since March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, four Dickinson Middle School teachers gathered in room E127 Thursday morning to share their excitement about returning to school this fall.
“This feels great,” said Mary Hoherz, physical education teacher, after a long conversation. “ … I get energized! … This feel of being together, (it) really feels like the bond is strong. Zoom was great, but walking in here and sitting down and talking with you and actually seeing you, there’s nothing better.”
In some ways, their meeting was a microcosm of what to expect from the teachers and their students this fall.
“You get that excited when you know the kids are coming back,” said Gretchen Flatz, 7th grade science teacher. “I get butterflies about my new ideas and how I’m going to do this and how I’m going to do that. That’s what’s lacking in an online classroom … To be the best teachers we can be, we want to interact with them and see them.”
Teachers bounced ideas off of each other much like the students will in their classes this fall.
"I think we’re really excited to get kids back in a group together," said Andrew DesRosier, who teaches 8th grade English. "So much of what we do is built around collaboration, idea sharing, working on projects together, and when we were strictly distance-education, there were more and more hurdles to that than there are face-to-face."
Being face-to-face with their coworkers is beneficial to teachers, too. DesRosier said teachers' best professional development opportunities come from each other.
“If I sit down in a room full of five teachers that are on my time, it’s not me and my ideas; it’s us and our ideas, and that multiplies quickly, and it arms you with a strength that you can’t develop on your own,” he said.
His coworkers agreed.
"I’m a much better teacher when I get to hear the ideas and thoughts of my co-teachers and use them in my own classroom, because one person doesn’t know it all," said Gretchen Flatz, who teaches 7th grade science. " … I think that just getting back around the factory of thoughts -- we all have different ideas, and they’re all really good, and we can all make them work for us. There’s stuff I never would have done without my coworkers."
Interacting in person with students leads to "teachable moments," which is what art teacher John Wilson says “teaching is about.”
"It’s about that thing you never put in your lesson plan that comes up that is awesome and it can teach other kids … We as a teacher can’t do that behind a screen, and a kid can’t gain that from another student in the class behind a screen," he said. “I’ve jokingly said for years I always feel sorry for my first period.”
The teachers laughed in agreement, describing their lesson plans as a sort of live document that changes with the flow of the class, with their students’ thoughts, questions and ideas.
“When you put that plan in the hands of the students, it almost always gets better. We missed that in the spring,” DesRosier said of the distance learning.
Learning in school as opposed to virtually from home also helps the teachers and their students remain in sync and focused on the learning, and the same is true for teachers.
"I think that’s true about us, too," Flatz said. "When I come here, I’m not a mom of two, I’m not a wife, I’m a teacher. I don’t have to worry about the rest of that stuff, and when I go home, I switch roles.”
Learning from home, children had different resources, schedules and responsibilities on their shoulders than merely being a student. One kid drew on napkins while another had better art supplies than the school. The classroom is the great equalizer, according to DesRosier.
“That’s one of the foundations of public schools ... It’s a common ground. It’s a shared space. It’s a safe space. When you walk through the doors into this building, it doesn’t matter what home you left to get here,” he said.
For these teachers and their students, technology can't replace the atmosphere and community of the school — the value of looking into a student’s eyes and they the teacher’s.
"The biggest key point to education I think we all learned, and I think kids learned and, to be honest, a lot of families learned, is that social part; that part that we as teachers bring," Wilson said. "That interest, that excitement, how we act. We all have our own little quirky thing. We’re with middle school kids. We have to be goofy to do this job. I’ve had people say, ‘Why don’t you go to the high school?’ I love middle school kids because I love who I can be with those kids. I love how they are."
During the spring semester, teachers got the opportunity to Zoom with their students, and it was then obvious that they missed that personal connection.
"All those days that we did it, kids weren’t asking questions like, ‘How can I do this banner?’ They wanted to talk. They wanted to talk about their dog. They wanted to talk about the goofy things that they did," Wilson said.
The teachers missed the family atmosphere of being around their coworkers, too.
"There’s people in this building that know as much about my family and my ups and downs as I do, and I knew the same thing about them, and I think we become that for kids, too … Sometimes my colleagues are some of my best emotional support people … You can walk into a (teacher) lounge on the brink of tears and leave in laughter," Wilson said.
Distance learning in the spring did have its benefits, too. DesRosier thinks the experience could lead to growth in the profession.
“I discovered new tools that were already out there that are going to make me a better face-to-face teacher,” he said. “I uncovered tools that were on the internet that are going to help me differentiate and individualize the instruction that I can provide to each student to meet them at the level they’re at, that I didn’t know were out there.”