When COVID-19 shut down school buildings last year, fourthgrade teacher Jennifer Austin couldn’t imagine how remote learning would work.
“They said you can use this thing called Zoom,” the 27-year veteran member of the Fillmore Central School Faculty Association recalled.
“I had never even heard of it.
I thought you just pressed a button and then you talked to people.”
But when she walked into the living room where her daughter Lizzy — a first-year teacher at neighboring Belfast Central Schools — was zooming with her students, Jen was stunned. “She’s there screen sharing, showing videos, playing interactive games — doing a lot more than talking into the camera,” Jen recalled. “I said ‘Whoa! Can you show me how to do that?’” And for the rest of the school year, it turned out to be a blessing the two were trapped in the same house.
“Sometimes I’d be struggling and my class would say, ‘Go get Miss Austin,’” the proud mom said. “She was my secret weapon.”
It was a perfect flip-flop from earlier in the year, as Lizzy leaned on her mom in September, October and November for classroom management tips and other tricks.
In a lucky twist, both teach fourthgrade in similar small-town Allegany County school districts. “No question, she really helped me,” Lizzy said.
“She had the experience and a lot of tools and strategies in her pocket.”
“And when the pandemic hit, Lizzy had the technology tools in her pocket,” Jen added. “We became like co-teachers.”
Looking back at the past year of teaching, both Jen and Lizzy feel like the pandemic will have positive longlasting impacts on education.
“Now that they were forced to rely on technology, seasoned teachers like my mom — and kids for that matter — are now more comfortable and recognize all the benefits of technology,” said Lizzy, a member of the Belfast Teachers Association. “It’s also given me a lot of good ideas to help differentiate learning. I’m making more pre-recorded videos and trying out interactive games that the kids love to use.”
Teaching in a pandemic also encouraged greater communication with parents and more teamwork among staff. “Delivering homework packets and working at weekly food pantries, we built tremendous bonds with parents,” Jen said.
“And the collaboration among teachers has been incredible,” said Lizzy, who found herself texting college classmates and working with other teachers in her district.
“I’m hopeful that attitude of helping each other out will continue.”
Now that she’s back in the classroom in a hybrid schedule, Jen noted the pandemic experience has inspired her to use her Smartboard in new ways. “I had a Smartboard for five years and basically used it to show videos and write on,” Jen said. “Now I use it to Zoom with the virtual kids, play games and screenshare for instruction. I can show kids how to manipulate a protractor and measure angles.”
“Obviously technology will never take over everything,” Lizzy said. “I think the pandemic showed us the 1:1 personal connection is super-important.”
“That was maybe the biggest lesson of the pandemic,” Jen chimed in. It made the public — parents and students — realize how important teachers and human interaction are.
“If I had asked my fourth-graders last February, how they’d like to have a couple months off from school and learn from home — they would have screamed YES!” Lizzy said. “Now that we’re back in person, they really appreciate it. There’s a new mindset.”
As they urge students to wear masks, use hand sanitizer and wipe down their desks, both Jen and Lizzy are amazed how seriously their fourth-graders follow the rules. “If I asked them now if they wanted to close down schools, they’d yell ‘No way!’” Lizzy said. There’s nothing cool about being back in quarantine.