Dave Galajda was an educator at St. Andrew’s College, an all boys boarding school in Aurora, Ontario, for over three decades. A man of many hats, Dave not only taught AP Biology, but spent time as the Director of Residential Life, an Administrator, the Housemaster for one of the residences on campus, and as an ice hockey coach and track & field coach at the school.
We are grateful to have had the chance to speak with Dave and hear about how COVID-19 taught him to adapt to changes in the classroom and his career.
When COVID-19 forced St. Andrew’s College to close after Spring Break, Dave knew he needed to step up to ensure his AP Biology students were exam ready and set for graduation. With his 260 boarding residents headed home for the foreseeable future, Dave wanted his students to still feel connected to the school.
During his time as an educator and a father, Dave saw a lot of changes and faced a host of challenges, but COVID was unlike any other.
Dave knew COVID-19 was a threat
Unlike many of his colleagues, Dave knew COVID-19 was going to be a serious threat to humanity. After watching reports on the virus with his biology students during every class in January and February, he partnered with the school’s health center to form a coalition focused on COVID-19. Together, this committee revisited the school’s plans from the SARS outbreak of 2003 and updated it to prepare for the potential impact of COVID. Dave went as far as to start warning his colleagues to get their Zoom skills ready. By March, his predictions became a reality.
Through the entirety of March, campus remained empty and students took to Zoom from the safety of their homes to finish out the final few months of the school year. In the early weeks, Dave recalls his AP Biology students making changes to their backgrounds on Zoom to funny images or turning off their cameras in class. He quickly made it clear that they were still here to learn, albeit virtually, and began calling on students at random in class to make sure everyone was engaged.
He incorporated active learning to keep students engaged
Dave had some experience with Zoom instruction prior to COVID-19, but he readjusted his notes from a lecture format to incorporate active learning. These changes kept his students from “getting totally bored.” Dave recalled a seminar he attended in the past, noting that it took about six months for an instructor to truly master the art of remote teaching. He said that lack of teacher preparation for remote learning hindered instruction across Canada and the United States. As he experimented on his own, Dave got creative by adding fun virtual activities like biology Jeopardy to keep his students on their toes.
Dave noticed one big positive. Introverted students “became more involved.” He notes, “I think Zoom impacted the extroverts more than the introverts. Introverts had a bigger voice on Zoom. Maybe they didn’t feel the pressure of their peers in the classroom looking at them.”
Dave scheduled one-on-one Zoom chats to discuss grades
When it came time to grade, Dave made students comfortable by scheduling time with them one-on-one via Zoom to discuss topics covered in class. At the end of the ten minute session, he asked his students to recommend a mark for their performance, and more often than not, “they were tougher on themselves than I was.”
Even though his students weren’t physically present on campus, he found ways to keep the students’ spirits up by maintaining regular virtual social interaction. During these Zoom calls, Dave hosted birthday parties, check-ins, and other fun virtual activities to keep his residents connected.
Dave set up a mental health initiative for students
His biggest concern for his students was their mental health due to isolation. Dave tracked his students’ well-being through a mental health initiative he established at S.A.C. prior to the pandemic. The Circle of Care program Dave helped set up involved the health center, the school counselor, the student’s advisor, and the student’s teachers working together as dedicated advocates to help students who struggled. The team evaluated next steps needed to ensure the student’s well-being. Throughout the pandemic, Dave advocated for his students’ mental health and ensured the Circle of Care remained in place to combat the effects of COVID isolation.
Although Dave planned on retiring in two years, COVID-19 shortened his timeline. Towards the end of the term, Dave and his wife decided to retire a bit early from life in Aurora, Ontario and move to Niagara-on-the-Lake. Despite retiring, Dave made it clear that he plans to continue remote biology tutoring part-time for the foreseeable future. After all, in his own words, it’s his jam.