Four educators from Passaic Public Schools in New Jersey share their experiences and insights with building development relationships when school is virtual. These educators are approaching a year of virtual teaching. Their enthusiasm and optimism drives their ongoing learning and that of their students.
Get in contact with Chad, Director of Staff Development at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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Steve [Intro]: 00:00 Hello and welcome to the teacher edition of the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast. For over three decades, I’ve had the opportunity to learn with teachers in and out of their classroom settings. I have a great respect for the complexity of teaching and I know that all great teachers are continuous learners. I invite you to join me as I explore my thoughts and insights on a variety of topics, connected to teaching and learning. Thanks for listening in.
Steve: 00:33 Building developmental relationships—teachers’ findings. Joining us on the podcast today, from Passaic New Jersey school district, we have Chad Leverett, Amy Forte, a preschool teacher, Juana Mordaga, a world language teacher and Brenna Wagner, a fourth grade teacher. I’ve had the pleasure of working these past several months with these folks. Their district is currently in virtual learning and teaching mode. They’ve been that way since March and these folks have engaged in ongoing learning and professional development and it’s been great to to share that that time with them. We’re going to center our conversations today around the building of developmental relationships. Chad, I’m wondering as to kick us off here, would you give us a little bit of of the statistical background and setup of Passaic schools?
Chad: 01:42 So we’re a school district of about 14,500 with 25% English learning proficient but we’re also about 75% former English learning proficient. So there’s a large learning curve there, right? And with a 92%, roughly Latino district, 4% African-American and then we have other demographics mixed in. So we’ve been transformed over the years and then we also went from a district that did not have a lot of technology to now being plentiful because we had to make the effort and that’s something that I really wanted to get across because we were thrusted to become basically a one-to-one environment and we had to be super responsive to that in order to meet the needs. But it’s really been a yeoman’s effort by everyone involved in – by so many stakeholders involved in the district and patience on the part of the community in order to make this happen. But yeah, so I just wanted to just give an overview of the challenges that we’ve had have been numerous during this transition but our responsive has been intentional and focused.
Steve: 02:54 Well, thanks for making it possible for us to get together and chat about the findings that teachers have had. Folks, I know that you looked at at the start of school in August and September realizing that you were going to have to build relationships with kids totally online. Kind of a difference when this happened last March, was that you had already been working with your students and kind of could slide into that that virtual distance mode. But as this school year started, I’m guessing you began with the students that haven’t met you and you haven’t met them and you had to build it all online. I’m wondering what your thinking was as you went into that and what have you found that helped you build those relationships?
Amy: 03:44 If I can start – this is Amy forte. Starting this year was very different because, obviously, it was new for all of us. So we were all like brand new teachers all over again. We were all first-year teachers learning the trials and errors of getting through virtual learning. And a very tough part was building that relationship with the children over the computer, online, virtually. In the beginning of the year, we always try to form a relationship with the children and form a bond with them so they can feel safe and secure in the classroom and it was very different over the computer. We have daily check-ins that we do with our students and not only doing the check-ins, we have to monitor their whole situation at home with their families. So it wasn’t just the student now it’s the families are in our classrooms as well.
Steve: 04:38 So as a preschool teacher Amy, is a large part of it that the parents are part of that conversation with you?
Amy: 04:46 Yes, correct. The parents are mostly right there with the child, helping the child learn, helping us teach the child with the instruction and using different strategies. The parents have become hands-on in our classroom and just forming the bond with the parents as well was very important because it allows us to have a more collaborative relationship with them in teaching their child how to learn.
Steve: 05:15 Brenna, I saw you nodding your head quite a bit there as we were listening to Amy.
Brenna: 05:19 Yeah, I agree. The technology was definitely something new for everybody at the beginning of the school year. And especially for the students, instead of going into the school, they have to come on to the computer and it just made the whole experience different for everyone. So I agree with Amy that it was almost like we were first year teachers again, where we all had to learn how to do schooling in a different way. So I also do the social-emotional learning, the daily check-ins with my students. So every morning I ask them how they’re feeling, they give me like an emoji how they’re feeling and I ask them other questions to get to know them just to make sure that we still build that relationship in the classroom. At the beginning of the school year in particular, we also just had to make sure that the parents, just like what Amy said, the parents were with us and we’re participating not necessarily with the students, but we’re able to get their kids on to the computers.
Brenna: 06:16 Because our students, I have fourth graders, they were able to do most of the technology, they had that technology background to get onto the classrooms, but we still had a lot of issues with like where they needed to go and when we had breaks and when their lunch was. So it was a lot of help with the parents as well in that way. So once we’ve gotten into the rhythm of being able to have like a schedule every day that the students follow, now they’re able to really be there and be present and show us that they’re able to do the technology even if it is a different way to do schooling.
Steve: 06:54 Juana, what’s the age of the students you’re working with?
Juana: 06:57 6-8, middle school.
Steve: 06:59 And what have you found there in the students knowing you and you knowing the students?
Juana: 07:08 So I tell my students, I want them to feel like we’re all just like we are going through the same situation. So I tell them like, listen, even though we’re going through these harsh moments, I love to see the unity within the social distancing moments as the big team that we are. So at least they feel identified that it’s not just them going through it, we all are.
Steve: 07:27 Tell me a little bit more about what you mean by unity. How do you see that being spelled out?
Juana: 07:31 Of course. I mean, I remember like, when it comes to like helping each other out with providing food to one another, just even reaching out to our neighbor and saying, you know, what can I help you with? I even had the conversation with the students, like, what are we doing as a whole? And they said, well, sometimes we reach out to our neighbors and we help out. So, maybe I don’t know, I’m pretty sure it existed back then, but now more than ever, I’ve seen that unity among this distancing situation.
Steve: 08:00 So in some of the surveys that I’ve seen coming back from students, they’ve described that the teacher’s optimism for what’s going on now is important. I wonder if any of you have some thoughts of responding to that?
Amy: 08:17 Yesterday, I was having a conversation with colleagues about doing daily check-ins and asking the children, how are they feeling today? What’s going on today? And something came up that I never thought of before was to ask the students, how do you think your teacher feels today? Because our feelings, how we’re feeling and sending those messages to the children, will also set their tone of the day. So this morning I asked my children, how do you think I feel today? Of course they saw a smile so they’re saying, “happy, happy,” but I want to continue that and keep on asking them, like, how do you think your teachers are feeling today? Witin reason, so that they can get a perspective of how somebody else feels. And also, so I can make sure that the children are seeing what I’m feeling, that I’m excited to teach and I’m happy to be here with them.
Amy: 09:17 I wouldn’t want to set a tone where, you know, oh, my teacher’s sad today so we’re not gonna learn that much today. I want to set that tone where I’m excited to teach and the children are excited to learn.
Brenna: 09:31 I’d also like to add that there’s a lot of negativity just going on in the world right now with the pandemic and everything else that’s going on. So a lot of the students feel that negativity at home or in places outside of the school. So being able to provide them a positive experience has always been important in schooling but it’s even more important now because we’re not even together. Like online, if you’re in a classroom, but it’s not with the students physically. So it’s very difficult to try to give them that positive environment while online. So being able to come in with a positive feeling for the class is really important because they may not even have that in their physical location at home at the moment as well.
Steve: 10:17 I’m guessing that almost needs to be consciousness on your part now, where maybe historically in the classroom, it was a natural, a natural occurrence for you,
Brenna: 10:29 Exactly.
Steve: 10:29 but needs to be pulled on now. We spent some time looking at the Search Institute’s description of how to build developmental relationships and they listed the following things: expressing caring, challenging growth, providing support, sharing power, and expanding possibilities. I’d like to open it up for you to just jump in on any one of those and kind of label it with an example of things that you’re doing to work on building those developmental relationships.
Brenna: 11:12 Well for sharing power, that’s always been something very important when teaching students mostly because at a younger age it’s different, but when you get to like my students who are 9, 10, they start to feel like they need some power in the classroom in order to be engaged. So for sharing power, most of the time when we were physically in the classroom, it was giving the students choice of where they could sit in the classroom or choices about things that they can do. So I’ve kind of carried that over as well into online learning where I give the students choices for what they would want to do for different projects or different – I’m a math teacher, mostly so different math problems and different ways to solve the math problems. So in my experience, I give the students maybe three or four strategies for solving something and then they get to choose which one makes the most sense to them and then in that way, they get power in the classroom and they have the ability to feel like they have chosen something so it makes them more engaged as well.
Amy: 12:04 And going off of what Ms. Wagner just said, with sharing control, we go by what the children are interested in at the time. For example, two of my children, I noticed were using flashlights. So now we turned our unit of study into lights and shadows. And we’re going off their interests because when you do something the children are interested in themselves, it gets them motivated to learn and to want to learn. And also, you’re validating their feelings, like, they know what they’re interested in is important. So we’re giving them that control of going upon their interests and their ideas and following through.
Steve: 12:59 Juana, I’m wondering if this is extra difficult in a language class?
Juana: 13:05 It’s not actually. We make the best we can as always with anything. But as far as the challenging growth, just as we educators assess our current state, we need to encourage our students or teach them how to assess their current state. I usually tell my students to go into PowerSchool. Out of our time, I said, take a minute or two, go into PowerSchool and see what’s taking place with your grade. Are you happy with what you see? If yes, put yourself in the back and move on. If not, what are you doing about it? So reflecting upon their academic performance has been beneficial in my class.
Steve: 13:40 Yeah. Reflection is critical for everybody. And certainly, if students are going to be empowered, it requires them to use reflection.
Juana: 13:54 Yeah. They also need to know this is where I’m at and this is where I would like to be. So it’s not just – sometimes I feel like adults, we just figure, like, you know, assessing that state, but they need to know this is where I’m at. This is where I would like to be. And again, what are you doing about it? There’s so much – the support is there on our end, but it’s their initiative that will count.
Steve: 14:15 The big question is, what action does the student take to get them to where they want to be?
Juana: 14:22 Of course.
Steve: 14:22 And if I can build their self-efficacy, part of that self-efficacy is the belief that they can go there.
Juana: 14:32 Yes. And at the same time, we’re sharing a sense of responsibility as a whole. Like, this is my part, but what is your part as well?
Chad: 14:41 And Steve, just to share that this year, for the first time, we’ve done wide-scale student surveys from an SEL perspective, to get their input on how they feel about what’s going on, about how they feel about themselves, about what their outlook is. So we’re really making it a point to incorporate student voice in not just our classrooms, but just our professional learning all of our goals so that they have a voice in everything that we do.
Steve: 15:12 So focusing – I believe that an important outcome of what we’re working with today is, what am I learning that’s gonna stick with me as school doors open back up? And I’m wondering if you’ve got some thoughts of things you’ve uncovered, whether they’re insights or learning strategies that you see yourself wanting to build into the future.
Amy: 15:44 One thing that I’ve noticed – working virtually, it has opened up so many doors. We’ve learned teaching on a very new platform and that platform being, bringing it into the child’s home and being able to communicate with the parents at home. And I think I would like to keep this aspect of virtual learning so that I am able to work with the parents at home and work with the parents to come up with strategies on how to help their child if their child is having difficulty in something, I can give them new strategies to try and provide the parents with mini-workshops, so to speak and mini-lessons on how we do things and why we do things so that they understand how to help their child.
Steve: 16:31 It’s interesting. You know, many schools for a long time have offered parent workshops but I get the sense – and especially with you being at early childhood, Amy, that the parent workshop now is that the parent is watching and listening to how you’re responding and you’re almost having a chance to model something for them that they can pick up and use that would be very difficult to do if the parent came to the school for a workshop.
Amy: 17:07 Yes.
Steve: 17:07 I mean, I think we do our best, but I think it’s happening at a different level. And I think that’s intriguing to figure out how we
can create some opportunity in some fashion to have that continue.
Amy: 17:20 And it’s also at a different level because now it’s more one-on-one whereas parent workshops in the past have always been a group of parents. Now you can work with them one-on-one in real-time as the child is actually doing the activity.
Steve: 17:34 You’re actually coaching the parent.
Amy: 17:36 Yes.
Brenna: 17:38 Kind of going off of that, something else that I want to make sure that I bring with me when we start going back into physical, in the classroom learning is that the home lives of the students can be very different than what you think. A lot of the time, the students that I have, have like maybe five or six siblings at home, or like they’re left by themselves because they’re nine or 10 years old while their parents go to work. So it’s a lot of – I have to keep that variable in mind when thinking about how the student is performing. So, in my classroom, I allow the students to choose whether or not they want their camera off or on. I have a few students who constantly choose to keep their cameras on and I have a few students who constantly choose to keep their cameras off.
Brenna: 18:24 And there are various reasons for that, but I also want to just make sure that the students themselves are comfortable. So a lot of the time, maybe the student is watching their younger sibling as well so they don’t want to keep their camera on because they don’t want me to see that they’re walking away while they’re trying to take care of their younger sibling. Or, there are family issues at home. Sometimes I have students unmute themselves and like the parents are yelling in the background at a sibling or something else that’s happening. Someone’s being very loud, the fire, the fire alarm is going off, whatever. So there are various reasons for the students to be performing in different ways depending on their current household environments. And I want to make sure that I remember that when we go back into the classroom because we don’t see that in the classroom when we’re physical with them Maybe we hear stories from them about what’s happening at home, but we don’t necessarily see that like, oh, their dog is like constantly running around. Like, that’s why they’re distracted all the time at home or they have a bunch of younger siblings that they have to take care of which is why they’re not getting their homework done, things like that. So just making sure that we understand their background and their home lives as in-depth as possible so that we can bring that with us when understanding their performance in the classroom as well.
Steve: 19:41 You really triggered a piece for me that I don’t think I have processed until this conversation – that key to relationships, is knowing. And so, I was struggling with how difficult it is to know students when you’ve had to do this all virtually, but in effect, you’ve described that you do know things about students that in a normal classroom instructional setting, you may have never gotten to know.
Brenna: 20:11 Yeah.
Steve: 20:11 So that’s something to be thinking about as we go forward, how we don’t lose – I hear you saying you want to hang onto that information. I’m trying to flash ahead to next year, new students were all in the classroom, what do I have to build in that allows me to uncover some of that same kind of knowing?
Juana: 20:33 I just wanted to add to what Ms. Wagner said. I know as far as the camera goes off, they prefer to have their cameras off but I know how special some of them have pets and stuff like that. So I think encourage them to share their pets on the screen and they’ll turn it right on. And we’re seeing like adorable puppies, cats, you name it.
Brenna: 20:55 I get a lot of like younger baby siblings and they’re like, look at my sibling today. She’s sitting up. And I’m like, wow, great.
Juana: 21:01 Yeah. Their Halloween outfits are very adorable.
Chad: 21:06 Steve, they were happening so often unintentionally that we might as well just invite everyone to the full. It made the learning environment – the learning environment had already become communal and that’s like, hey, if they’re there, they’re surrounding – they’re already finding their way to your screen or contributing in the background in some way or fashion, you might as well just bring them in and just embrace it and then just mix them into part of the experience.
Steve: 21:36 Chad, I’m wondering if you might move to close us out here with just some of the perceptions that you have of having worked with large numbers of teachers across many of your buildings. And I know that you have shared with me a strong belief in your staff for what they’ve been doing and I kind of want to give you a chance to respond to that.
Chad: 22:05 It’s been amazing to see how teachers have really embraced learning. Like, we’ve had to upgrade our zoom account levels because when we would have professional development, it would fill up to 100 and bust through like instantly, right? So the willingness for everyone to learn has been amazing. And we’ve had to not only meet that demand, but learn how to meet that demand for learning with opportunities that are tailored towards what the interest is, but also by giving people the agency to pick and choose what works for them. It’s just to see the efforts and the outreach that so many teachers have put in – but not just teachers like everyone, right?
Chad: 23:02 Like, checking titles at the door, going to schools to pass out food, books, materials, and then everyone working together to try to find different ways that we can serve as kids and service families and service. Each other has been amazing and I hope that this community-building aspect of this carries forward, because I know that the complaints have slowed about the modality, right? And it is because we’ve all kind of, not just eased in and got used to this terrible situation, it’s because we’ve all put in the work to make this better than it was and also acknowledging that so many of these components – like, teachers that would barely open an email, are now using Google breakout rooms. You know what I mean? So it’s
like, you know, so the growth that so many people have chased, right? Because it wasn’t forced on them.
Chad: 23:46 Because a lot of the things that are available to our teachers are still optional, right? A lot of the resources, from a resource perspective, not a curriculum, you know, there are so many different resources that are out there that are optional, that teachers that have typically been anti-technology, have learned the benefits of and have gone full throttle in how to use it. And that’s been something that our kids have definitely benefited from and it’s just been amazing to be a part of.
Steve: 24:12 So guys, just to close out, Brenda, Amy, and Juana, I’d like to give each of you an opportunity to just share any words of
encouragement to your colleagues, both within the district around the state and through this podcast around the world as folks are still facing some unknown days for either continuing to be totally virtual or going into some kind of hybrid fashion. So who wants to go first?
Brenna: 24:47 Well, words of encouragement. So I just wanted to say that we’re all in the same boat, we’re all struggling right now. We all are doing either online learning or a hybrid or some kind of form of schooling that’s different than what we’ve done in past years. And even through these differences, we’re learning so much. Our school district is learning just like what Mr. Leverett said, our school district is learning so much about being online and doing different types of online learning, whether that is through Google or through other types of learning. So I just wanted to give encouragement that yes, everyone is struggling, but we’re struggling together and we’re learning so much through this struggle that we can take into next year and the years ahead.
Steve: 25:33 Thank you. Juana, you got a piece to add?
Juana: 25:37 Yes. I just wanted to say that we all have a transformational leader in us. We are meeting and exceeding the current needs. We are in this together. We will prevail together as the strong nation that we are.
Steve: 25:50 Thank you. Thank you. Amy?
Amy: 25:52 And I just wanted to say that our possibilities are endless with teaching. We thought we were teaching on one platform and all of a sudden another world opened for us and we found out that we can do it. We’re still all in this together. We’re still all learning together and we have each other to help us.
Steve: 26:11 Thanks so much folks for sharing your thoughts as well as your energy and enthusiasm. Thanks a lot, folks.
[All]: 26:19 Thank you all. Thank you.
Steve [Outro]: 26:23 Thanks again for listening. You can subscribe to Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud on iTunes and Podbean and please remember to rate and review us on iTunes. I also want to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on Twitter @stevebarkley or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.