“Good morning, time for school.” The usual phrase that gives our children security and comfort of a normal routine has changed. But thanks to incredibly gifted, creative, and dedicated educators, teachers are teaching and children are learning.
I interviewed a number of educators from various yeshivos, Bais Yaakovs, and a college professor to see how teachers are managing and how students are faring with remote education.
The common thread I heard from every teacher, no matter what grade level or what type of school, or how long she or he has been teaching, is that the teachers and the students are so happy to be able to see each other and connect still, and that is truly a brachah.
Mrs. A., a fourth-grade teacher in a Bais Yaakov school in New York, commented, “In some ways the remote teaching is easier. The school day shrank. It’s shorter. I don’t have to travel to work and I have more time to spend with my family. However, it’s harder to supervise the whole class. You can’t see them all at once on the screen. When I break them into groups, there are constant pop-ups requesting help from different groups, and I’m going back and forth. It’s just harder to oversee and manage the room when you aren’t in the room together physically.” She added that “muting the kids helps with classroom management and eliminates disturbances and calling out. This helps with classroom management and they can only chat with me and not with each other.” These are two features of Zoom. There is a problem for students who have difficulty focusing: They are more easily distracted at home. Students who are motivated can focus and are learning well. Mrs. A. also teaches special-ed, and she noted that for children with learning disabilities, it is very difficult to teach remotely. “They need me there in person, refocusing and tapping the paper.”
She also shared that her students are enjoying the websites with interactive games that extend the curriculum. “I like that my students see my family and my baby. It’s a homier feeling than the classroom at school.” She sees their home and can connect to where they are coming from. In terms of connecting with the children, she said that some students stay during recess time and shmuz with her, but with the children who don’t stay to talk, it is harder to connect with them. You can’t just walk over and speak to them. She used to have the girls gathering around her desk to shmuz with her, but that isn’t possible with Zoom teaching. They can’t speak at the same time, so it’s much harder to have a group conversation, because the sound jumps from girl to girl and they interrupt each other (not realizing someone else was talking or wanted to speak), and it’s impossible to hear them all at the same time. On the computer, you have to talk to them one at a time.
Sometimes technology issues can emerge. Many times, she is frozen and choppy. The girls complain often about it. It can definitely break up a good part in a book. Still, another time, somehow, one of the students became the host. You just have to keep a sense of humor at all times and do your best. The majority of the children are doing fine with the remote learning, and that makes her happy as an educator.
Mrs. Jody S., a special education teacher in a yeshivah on Long Island, shared her thoughts about remote teaching. “I miss my kids deeply.” At times, teaching this way feels more like presenting curriculum than actually teaching. “My lessons are informed by my students’ needs at every moment. They are always changing and evolving. It’s harder now for students with special needs. They benefit from body doubling, a technique that can help to calm an over-stimulated mind. Having me near helps them think more clearly and break through self-perceived barriers.” The teacher’s physical presence instills confidence in them.
She shared that “remote teaching has changed my life in that now my home is my office. I have to work harder to create boundaries between my personal and professional life. On the positive side, during phone sessions I can individualize even more than usual. Also, I see our community of fellow educators becoming more connected, bonded, and supportive of each other than ever before.” She noted that parents in her school were always very appreciative of the teachers, but now they are even more appreciative of what goes into a school day. She lamented, “Some of the greatest gifts of education are relationships, and no amount of online learning will replace that.”
Mrs. L., who teaches third grade at a girls’ yeshivah on Long Island, shared her experience and thoughts about remote teaching. “With this type of teaching, you need more communication with parents. It takes a lot of flexibility.” She noted that some families have parents who are doctors or first responders, and some families have been affected by the virus; this has a tremendous impact on the children. “I find that I am connecting not just with the child but also with the family and the whole family situation.” Although teachers always work together with parents, in this situation the partnership is even more crucial.
“I found that the most important thing, more than the skills I teach, is that I want to be there with a steady relationship that will never change.” The students see the same teacher they always saw in school, who is reading aloud to them or teaching them math. This gives them a sense of comfort, normalcy, and security.
She shared, “We want to get back into school. There are many challenges now. There is no regular social interaction for the kids at recess. I can’t even see all of their faces at the same time. You can’t set them up for success in the same way.” She pointed out how she used her whole classroom as a learning environment, which was strategically planned from the beginning of the year. She uses inspiring posters to redirect her students by pointing to the poster. She had signs that said, You Are Responsible for You, and Let’s Make Better Mistakes Tomorrow, for example, or a chart of classroom rules with positive statements. She was able in the physical classroom to point to the poster without interrupting a lesson. So, she finds with the Zoom classroom it is limiting, because those visual reminders are missing. Overall, she finds the remote teaching is more draining. Many teachers voiced this same thought.
Rabbi Meir Leibowitz, rebbe at the Jewish Institute of Queens, shared his experience and thoughts about teaching remotely to his students in grades 7, 9, and 11. “Thank G-d, we are still managing and the students feel school is amazing.” They have full Zoom davening every day. “Academically, we are doing the best we can, and the kids are getting pretty much the same education, and give and take is there. The sad part is a lot of the atmosphere of school is missing.” In the classroom, he could see if someone was unhappy. “That personal touch is missing. I miss being with them.”
Rabbi Leibowitz noted how the parents at his school put together a thank-you video that was really touching. “We are moving forward and trying to keep things as stable as possible.” Rabbi Leibowitz also noted that he sees that the girls have matured. They have grown a lot because of what is happening, and they appreciate their education so much. The girls are more eager to learn now. They need this continuity and connection. He noticed that the students who weren’t as serious are working harder now.
Mrs. Yocheved Abramovitz, 6th grade morah at Yeshiva Primary School in Queens, shared her experience with remote teaching. The students are so excited to go to school on Zoom. They need the structure. They are happy to see their classmates. “It feels almost like a classroom, giving them a sense of stability.”
She stated how she is so happy to see her students’ faces on Zoom and that it is a great way to start the day in this time of social distancing. “We daven together every morning. It’s an uplifting feeling that starts my day with structure and meaning.” She added, “A big advantage is that since my online sessions are shorter than in the classroom, this propels me to teach and cover more material.”
She noted a crucial feature in Zoom teaching, which is the “mute-all” button, since no one can then interrupt, and students can only talk one at a time. “So, it’s a win-win situation with Zoom, because I can teach seamlessly and the students learn in a timely fashion.”
Dr. Nava Silton, associate professor of psychology at Marymount Manhattan College on the Upper East Side of New York, shared her experience with teaching remotely on the college level. She stated that she enjoys seeing her students on the screen. She finds the students who are more introverted or who are less likely to participate in a live large classroom will participate on Zoom. It feels less intimidating to them. It opens an opportunity to them to share information and classroom-related feedback.
On the negative side, Professor Silton likes to use humor in the classroom, and it is more challenging to do this over Zoom, to enjoy those types of social nuances remotely.
On the positive side, she finds few students miss class. Attendance is almost impeccable. She attributes this possibly to the fact the students are quarantined and this is a highlight to see their classmates and to learn new information. She finds Zoom is most successful when all students’ faces are visible on the screen. Some professors require this and others are more flexible. “I see a significant benefit in making all students’ faces visible in terms of connection and social interaction.”
She said that she misses the level of discourse and humor and social nuance in the live classroom. You can connect more deeply in a live classroom, so you miss out on that dimension with remote learning.
She pointed out there is a benefit in that you can go student by student with each square visible and call on them. Also, when you teach multiple classes, remembering everyone’s names is much easier with their names visible on the screen.
She feels strongly that it’s important to synchronize a Zoom session aligned to what they had in the past. In this way, students feel more comfortable as opposed to emailed assignments with no human interaction. Professor Silton expressed with sensitivity to her students’ experience how college is a liberating time for young people, and it is challenging to be thrust back at home, so the Zoom session provides that interaction – that connection to the liberating atmosphere with their peers. “It’s important to keep the lessons interactive to help the students feel invested in the classroom experience.”
There is a clear resounding message of how all of these professional educators are working hard to benefit their students, not just academically but to help them feel a sense of comfort and normalcy during this difficult time. They all expressed missing the physical presence of their students, and at the same time they all looked for positives in this difficult teaching situation. Hashem should bring the r’fuah now. We should be able to send our children back to their yeshivos and Bais Yaakovs with renewed strength and energy now!
By Susie Garber