In March, Colorado braced itself against COVID-19 and closed all schools statewide for what is now the rest of the spring semester. Although implemented as a vital safety measure, school closures hit everyone differently. Olivia Schott, a Spanish teacher at D’Evelyn High School in Lakewood, describes the herculean efforts of both herself and fellow teachers as they shifted to an online classroom setting in record time.

In our Heroes of COVID-19 series, we’ve heard from essential workers like a restaurant employee and a health care worker. These people are the heroes of this pandemic because, despite the risk, they leave the house every day to help keep the world going. 

Schools have closed, and learning and teaching are now taking place at home. However, as many have come to realize, just because they aren’t leaving their houses, doesn’t mean these teachers are not heroes or their work is any less important. 

Q&A with Mrs. Schott, A Teacher Adapting to her Online Classroom

When school closure news started circulating, what was your initial reaction?

This was naive of me, but I didn’t think it was going to be long term. I thought it was going to be one week before spring break and then we would be able to come back. I didn’t really understand the gravity of this situation at first. But, I had been really prepared with photocopies and packets. So, when we got the news that 24 hours later we needed to have at-home materials for two weeks, I was actually prepared.

Did you feel like switching to an online classroom setting was something you could handle?

I like to think of myself as pretty tech-literate, but having to rely on it 100 percent for teaching was a gigantic learning curve. It has definitely leveled off. However, what was surprising for me was it was a high learning curve for the students, too. 

I always hear folks my age or older say, “These kids are so great with technology,” and I feel like that’s very true for the apps and programs they’re comfortable with. But, when it came to these new platforms where there had to be some troubleshooting and instruction involved, we kind of came to the same level. 

That was helpful because we got to be gentle and flexible and understanding with each other. I’ve been able to learn some new tools, which in and of itself is valuable. At first, though, it was like reinventing the wheel. Sometimes it still feels like that at the beginning of the week.

What has the process of moving into an online classroom setting been like? 

I have my full calendar scheduled out through the entire year for all of my classes.

However, when you go from a face-to-face learning model to an online model you have to scale back because it’s just very different. 

I realized that quickly but the hard way, trying to say, “Oh, well we’re just going to keep going!” and then realizing, “Wait a minute we need to slow down,” because there needs to be more scaffolding and more practice and more one-on-one which takes a lot more time when you’re not face-to-face.

We get Mondays to sort of plan for the week, so classes are Tuesday through Friday. At first, I was spending a good 10 hours planning four days of school for three classes which sounds really insane. I was feeling like, “Why is this taking me so long?” Converting that way of teaching into something that is engaging, interesting, meaningful, and worth it is so time-consuming.

Obviously, teaching in an online classroom is worlds different than a normal setting, but what were some initial challenges you encountered?

I have a lot of confidence in my students, but I have gotten frustrated. Something that really helped was organizing either small-group or one-on-one meetings. They’re not specifically for a, “How are you doing, how is your state of being right now?” conversation because I’m not a mental health professional. 

However, I think teachers, a lot of times, can gauge how their students are doing when they walk in the room, and that wasn’t happening. So, these meetings were really helpful to me in terms of seeing where my students were actually at and helped me to connect with them which is the thing that I really miss the most.

I don’t think I ever felt that it was hopeless. But, I saw a gigantic mountain in front of me at the very beginning, and it just seemed incredibly treacherous.

Is there anything that has helped you mentally break down this new normal and feel like you can get through it?

Absolutely. My husband works from home, and one of his tips is to get up and get dressed like it’s an actual workday. Put on shoes. That has been really helpful for me because then I get really into the mode. Another piece that was hard for me was to take breaks. You know, stop, do some exercise, walk the dog, make a meal for myself, because I was going and going and really running on empty.

Exercise and taking breaks are key, but also just being kind to myself. This isn’t going to be perfect and I know that I’m doing the best that I can. Having that little empathy piece has been really huge for me.

How are your students doing?

Some of them, actually a lot of them, are very bored. They miss their friends. They are overwhelmed by the amount of homework, which I think has been scaled back across all content areas. Everyone across all departments has realized that you can’t have a 50-minute class and then also have homework. You just can’t. 

I think now that we’ve all found our groove, or most of us have, they’re feeling okay. But, I mean some kids were doing like nine hours per day. I think that also had to do with, based on feedback I’ve heard, they were getting distracted by YouTube or Snapchat while watching a lecture or reading. It’s time management as well, which is new for them.

How have the seniors in your classes been handling this?

I have an AP class with two juniors and 28 seniors, and my heart just breaks for them. I can’t even imagine. In week two, actually, when we realized this was going to be long term, I recorded a one-minute video message just telling them how much I was thinking about them. This is a heartbreaking situation for them and I’m really sorry, and I want to make the best of it for them. 

What is one positive thing you’ve seen come out of all of this in terms of teaching?

I think that there has been a lot of awareness, on the part of a lot of students, a lot of parents, and the public in general about how hard we work, how much we do, and what we’re capable of. 

I mean, we were given 24 hours and told to do something that we’ve never done before and we did it. It made me really proud of my profession, and something positive coming out of the education world is always a good thing. Teachers aren’t always given enough credit, and that’s frustrating because I know how hard I work.

From an educator’s point of view, what’s one thing you want people to understand about this situation?

Arthur Ashe has a quote that comes to mind when thinking about this situation for us as educators, “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.” 

There’s been a lot of turmoil across the nation about teacher treatment, salaries, budget, that kind of thing, and I think that it’s an undervalued and under-respected profession. It’s important for everyone to remember that we work very hard. And through this whole crisis, teachers have shown the world how much we are truly capable of and how much we care about the welfare and education of our students. 

Parent Engagement with Online Education

As parents are starting to notice, keeping kids engaged in online school requires more than just the teachers. It can be a headache and difficult to juggle working from home and monitoring their child’s schoolwork. However, former teacher and TEDxMileHigh speaker Veronica Crespin-Palmer explains the importance of parent engagement in education. Perhaps this period of social isolation is an opportunity for parents to get more involved.

Coming Up

We have plenty more heroes to learn from, even as Colorado considers reopening. Join us next week to hear from a local grocery store worker.