Schenectady

Schenectady teacher, sixth-graders adapt to distance learning

Mont Pleasant educator determined to stay connected with students
Mont Pleasant Middle School teacher Thomas Verret in front of his home in Schenectady on April 17.
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Mont Pleasant Middle School teacher Thomas Verret in front of his home in Schenectady on April 17.

Categories: Rising to the Challenge, Schenectady County, Special Sections

SCHENECTADY — Thomas Verret is a sixth-grade teacher at Mont Pleasant Middle School. Like thousands of teachers across the region, Verrett has been working from home during the pandemic, doing what he can to engage and continue to educate his students.

He recently answered questions about what the experience has been like.

Q: How did you see your role in helping your students and families transition to remote learning?

A: This was a learning experience for everyone involved. There wasn’t anyone who could say, “Oh, I’ve been through this before.” So the biggest thing was to be there for any questions or concerns that came up from both students and families. We still had months of the school year to go, with plenty of opportunities for learning. The biggest thing in the beginning was to be sure that everyone was as comfortable as could be with the new learning platform. Common discussions in the first week involved the places to pick up breakfast and lunch, or the ways to get the Chromebooks that some students still needed.

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Q: What was your work life like in the first week of that transition?

A: It felt like a whole year. It was a whirlwind of helping students get Chromebooks if they didn’t get them the Friday before, making sure that parents understood the procedures of how online learning would work, helping students create their routine of online learning and trying to figure out for myself how virtual teaching went. One of the biggest things was just trying to work out a plan with my team of teachers. Virtual learning is a lot of the same concepts as classroom teaching, but using very different methods of teaching. Our first week was trying to learn how to merge the benefits of virtual learning while maintaining the effectiveness of classroom teaching. I told my students, though, the one nice change was being able to teach with a hoodie on every day!

Rising to the Challenge: Faces of the COVID-19 crisis in the Capital Region

Q: How did your students respond to school closures, and how do you think the pandemic is impacting them?

A: I have been amazed by my students. They have responded so well to this whole situation. We had the privilege of using Google Classroom and various online resources throughout the year. They took what they already knew about these programs and have been running full-speed ever since. When something new comes up, they ask questions and then keep moving right along. We’ve thrown a lot at them, and they have the out-of-school concerns of this pandemic to address, yet they are always ready and excited to try a new program that we introduce.

Q: In what ways are you trying to connect with your students, and what are you learning about the best way to reach and engage them?

A: Throughout our year, we have done community circles to start and end our weeks. As a class, we have been continuing by having virtual circles Monday mornings and Friday afternoons. This has been an opportunity for students to talk about things, with the class, that have and have not been working for them. It has been great to hear the ideas that they present to each other about ways to move forward with this new reality that we live in. Throughout the rest of the week, we try to stay available for students whenever they need us. Work is posted and ready for them to see at 7 each morning. Some students wake up right away and get it started, some do it later in the day. It actually has been really interesting to see students become comfortable with the routine that they work best with and go with it. We have three consistent ways of the students being able to contact us throughout the day with any questions or comments, just so that there are as few barriers as possible for the students to get the same quality of learning as they would inside the school building.

Q: What are some successes you are most proud of?

A: One of the biggest things that amazes me is the lack of complaining. This virus has taken the education system and flipped it upside down. To see a group of sixth-grade students jump right on-board and roll with the punches as we go is so great to see. It would be so easy for students to say they don’t like this or they don’t know what they are doing, and to stop. Every twist and turn is met by students who are ready and willing to learn what they need to learn to address the change, and then continue on with their education. Another amazing success is my team of teachers. We are in communication every single day. To work with people who are so dedicated to making the most of the situation that we are in makes this whole thing exponentially better.

Q: What are the biggest challenges of teaching students remotely?

A: Not having the face-to-face interaction makes things difficult. If I am teaching students a new math concept in the classroom, it’s easy to find the students who aren’t understanding and work with them. When the misunderstandings are found, we can all work together to be sure that we explain things in a different way and that all students are grasping the concept. It’s not that simple with online learning. Working with misunderstandings is a little different when the learning is taking place through the internet and phone calls. And honestly speaking, it turns out that sometimes the students aren’t grasping the concept in this online learning, only because they have 1,000 other things that their minds are racing about that pertain to living life in this pandemic. It’s hard to always be able to put aside the other concerns in life to learn about the coordinate plane.

Q: What things do you worry most about for your students during this time?

A: I worry about the students being in such isolation. Staying in my home for so long is making me stir-crazy. There’s only so many things I can do around my house before I need to just be out and about. So thinking about how I feel, I can’t even imagine how much more difficult it is for middle-schoolers to be thrown into all this with little to no warning. It’s a tough thing to deal with psychologically.

Other worries I have are students needing the essential things for survival. I check in on students to see if they need any books or materials to help their learning, but that’s not all that significant when some students simply need food and home supplies. I pray every day that the students aren’t lacking these essential things.

Q: What do you miss most about being able to see and teach your students in person?

A: I miss the interactions. Some students start my school day off at 8:25 with a hug every single day. I would give anything to have that back again today. Over this month, we have been able to do a lot of the learning that typically happens within the classroom, but it’s much harder to replace a kid making me laugh with a joke about my bald head being shiny. I miss walking through the hallways of Mont Pleasant and having students of mine who are now in other grades yelling my name and then coming over to say “Hi.” I miss the satisfaction of finding the right book for a student who claims they don’t like reading, and then watching them tear through it nonstop. I could go on and on. I knew I loved teaching, but being away from my classroom for this long has shown me how much I really do love it.

Rising to the Challenge: Faces of the COVID-19 crisis in the Capital Region

Q: What have you learned about education during this experience that you hope to keep as part of your practice when we have moved past the pandemic?

A: How much different each individual student is. I have some students who are typically quiet in class and they are some of the first ones to respond in comments online. This may be the way that some students learn best. Moving forward, I don’t think there is a true replacement for being in the classroom, but I believe that there are aspects of this learning platform that must be embraced to be sure that all students are able to learn in the best way for them. I’m not exactly sure what that looks like in future teaching, but I’m excited to learn how to utilize it and see where it takes us.

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