For Chatham’s educators, student communication and motivation are just the start of daily challenges

‘It’s very hard to go from seeing your students five days a week to now’

Posted 5/1/20

In March, when a state stay-at-home order forced educators to began teaching students remotely, Chatham Central teacher Laurie Paige started “Paige Academy” at her home.

Paige, a 20-year …

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For Chatham’s educators, student communication and motivation are just the start of daily challenges

‘It’s very hard to go from seeing your students five days a week to now’

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Posted

In March, when a state stay-at-home order forced educators to began teaching students remotely, Chatham Central teacher Laurie Paige started “Paige Academy” at her home.

Paige, a 20-year veteran history teacher of who last year was honored as Chatham County’s Teacher of the Year, established a plan and a routine for her family — ringing a bell first thing in the morning to signal to her two children, 3rd and 9th graders, the school day was beginning. During mornings, she focuses on helping her younger child complete his school material by lunch, so she could focus on her high school students in the afternoon — all the while keeping a close eye on her 9th grader’s progress in his four classes.

“That lasted two weeks,” Paige said. “Then it just became survival of the fittest at that point. It just wasn’t realistic.”

Teachers across the state have been working from home, educating students from a distance since N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper’s order to close schools because of the COVID-19 pandemic in March.

Two Chatham County teachers shared their experiences with the News + Record — Paige and Olivia Metcalf, who is in her second year teaching at Margaret Pollard Middle School. How they are spending their days now demonstrate just some of the ways teachers in Chatham County are working to not only continue educating their students, but also provide the social and emotional support their students and parents need right now.

To read the perspective of fourth grade teacher Susan Loflin of Bennett School, click here.

Metcalf has been teaching her students remotely from the Wake County home she shares with her French bulldog, Luna. Metcalf is a self-proclaimed “early morning person.” Each school day, she wakes up early to check email and figure out plans for the day. She creates a checklist of meetings, which include online classes and required school staff meetings, and reviews the “tracking” of communications with her students.

“I keep track of the kids I’ve talked to,” Metcalf said. “And I work to connect with kids who may have challenges in communicating.”

Metcalf said that she works “about the same” amount of time teaching as when she was in the classroom, but she spends a lot more time on planning. She provides work for students two weeks in advance and schedules “check-ins” with students and provides question and answer periods for them.

On the other hand, Paige has discovered that she has had to adapt her work time to be available to her high school students. She originally set up office hours from 10 to 11 a.m., but found her students were not always available at that time.

“That was very unrealistic,” Paige said. “A lot of students are working a lot of hours [at jobs] during the day. The kids who work at Food Lion are working almost full-time. A lot of my students are working and working excessively.”

As a result, she has been receiving a lot of late-night emails and messages from her students. She said that some days she doesn’t even turn off her computer until 1 a.m.

“Most are doing their school work at night,” she said. “So I’ve readjusted my schedule to be available later in the day. If a student asks a question, I want to be able to answer it. We’ve had to adjust our time-frames to be more flexible to our students’ needs.”

Keeping in touch

For these teachers, their biggest priorities are communicating with their students and parents.

Paige starts each day sending a “Remind,” a phone application for school communication, to her students alerting them to what assignments they need to be working on. She ends each day with another message recapping what they should have gotten done or accomplished for the day.

She records her lessons for each chapter for the students to use followed by assignments to ensure they have mastered the material. For each one of her four classes, she schedules at least one virtual class on Zoom, a video conferencing tool. Since many of her students are working during the day, she will sometimes hold those Zooms in the evening when her students are available.

“Most of my day is spent trying to keep up with my students and communicating with parents,” Paige said. “[If I saw my students everyday in the classroom] they would been in tune and keeping up with work. Now if they don’t show to a zoom or turn in assignments, I know I need to reach out. Something has happened, something is different. I’m constantly working, letting the kids know I’m there for them and support them.”

Metcalf estimates that about 15 percent of her students don’t have access to internet service. For those students, she created paper versions of her lessons. She said it’s the same content, but “maybe not as engaging as online.” Even with the digital gap, Metcalf noted that those students are still finding ways to be able to communicate with her, whether by email or by phone.

“I’m in constant communication with kids and parents,” she said. “It’s very hard to go from seeing your students five days a week to now. They are missing the social aspect, they don’t get to socialize with classmates. They’re having a hard time at home. It’s different, odd and feels weird. I miss seeing them so when I get to see them on Zoom or talk on the phone, it’s so nice to have that. Being able to communicate, using personalized communication, that’s really valuable to me.”

Challenges

For Paige, the biggest challenge is keeping her students motivated, especially her seniors. Schools were originally informed that students who were seniors would be graded using a “pass/fail” model, meaning that if they had passing grades as of March 13, they would pass their classes. If they were failing as of that date, they would be able to pull up their grades during virtual learning to receive a passing grade. Though the state provided updated guidance last Friday that students could have the option to use number grades instead of pass/fail, up until now, keeping those students engaged has been an uphill battle.

“My biggest challenge is keeping the students motivated to do the work,” Paige said. “Giving them reasons to continue, especially the seniors. I just keep encouraging them to work for the AP exam. It’s really, really hard.”

“I’m feeling a lot of pressure,” Metcalf said. “These kids are going into high school next year and I want them to be prepared and successful for their future. Going from teaching in a classroom to teaching behind a screen is really difficult.”

Metcalf said that at this point in the year, her students would typically be working on end-of-year projects and presentations. As a result, she’s has had to adjust what she’s teaching. She said she’s fortunate to have a fellow Social Studies teacher, 20-plus year teaching veteran Dawn Streets, to collaborate with to find new ways to support her students education. She also thinks that as a new teacher, she may be better suited to adjust.

“I think being kinda new to this, I like to do things in new different and creative ways,” Metcalf said. “I get to experiment, using digital tools, while trying to bring same energy to motivate my students. It’s a learning process for me, but its nice because the kids are learning too. No matter what level of experience, we’re all learning too.”

Resilience

Though in unchartered and challenging waters, both teachers expressed an unwavering support for their students and parents.

“Never in my 20 years have I worked as hard and as many hours as I have in the past month.,” Paige said. “Before everything was done hands-on and is now being done virtually. It’s like building a plane as we’re flying it.”

“I feel like teachers really are working harder than probably ever have for their students,” she continued. “It’s easy to think, ‘Oh they’re just sitting at home,’ but I know from my colleagues and the teachers of my children how much work they are doing and the dedication and support is amazing. Educators across the country are all coming up with innovative ideas for their students, not just in providing educational support, but social and emotional support.”

“I know it’s hard for parents who are used to dropping off their kids,” Metcalf said. “Who now have to help their children to navigate this new way of learning. I’m always someone you can talk to whether you need help or just want to talk to someone outside your home.

“A parent called me yesterday, thanking me for ‘instilling such a good work ethic in my child,’” Metcalf continued. “Knowing we’re appreciated goes such a long way.”

“Everybody is trying to do everything they can to meet the needs of the students,” Paige said. “Many are sad, they are at home, they can’t do all the things they want to do. It’s a lot of change for young people.”

“I have seen that students are resilient and accepting of change,” Paige said. “As much of a disruption that it is for me, the students have adapted. Our students really can overcome more than I thought and more than they thought. If you had told me before I’m not sure I would have believed it, but the kids are doing it. I believe they are learning, mastering the material, just in a very different way than I would have anticipated.”

Casey Mann can be reached at CaseyMann@Chathamnr.com.

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