Jennifer Cheung is a second grade teacher at a Westchester, NY public elementary school. Despite teaching second grade for seventeen years, Jen had never taught virtually prior to COVID-19. Apart from managing her class of twenty-two second graders, Jen also helped her two young children with e-learning, and continued with her regular household chores.
Thank you, Jen, for sharing your COVID-19 experiences with us! Your second graders are lucky to have a teacher like you!
When Cheung’s school initially closed, she and her colleagues thought it was only going to be two weeks of closure. “Never,” Jen says, “would I have thought we wouldn’t return” for the rest of the school year. Her experience in the pandemic has been “very stressful at times.” Jen found herself “crying a few times, because it was and is an emotional time.”
Virtual classes and work make for a full house
Usually, the four Cheung-Ciccarelli’s are out of the house all day. When the lockdowns and closures started, Jen, her husband, their ten-year-old son, and five-year-old daughter, quarantined together at home. In the spring, Jen, her son, and her husband worked daily, and her daughter had class three times a week. She recalls, “Everyone had Zooms to attend and work to do. It was hard to adjust at first because my work life collided with my home life. Suddenly, work and home were not separate and were under the same roof. It was hard to manage all my titles – mom, teacher, daughter and wife.” Even when her Zoom classes ended for the day, she still had to “school” her own children.
To prepare for e-learning, Jen opted to split her class in half, with eleven kids in each group. Although this meant teaching the same lessons twice, Jen says it made the Zoom meetings more manageable. She also held virtual office hours, where the kids “could just drop into Zoom and get extra help or just hang out and talk.”
Finding the right tech was key
She faced some challenges along the way to making e-learning work for her class, especially in the beginning. Jen says, “As a teacher, the most challenging thing was finding the right technology for the students. It was also very difficult because I had to teach parents how to use the technology, so they could help their children at home.” During the first three weeks, Jen noticed parents helping their children, “but as the weeks went on, parents were not involved. Some parents would join in for Mystery Reader.” The weekly Mystery Reader program brought a surprise adult guest reader into class, virtually, and provide clues for the students to discover the identity of the reader.
Once everyone settled into virtual learning, Jen was able to keep things relatively “normal” for her students. Jen recalls, “There’s nothing that I started doing that I wouldn’t normally do.” Jen continued the Mystery Reader program for her class, “which kept the kids entertained on a weekly basis.” Jen provided fun ways to keep her class community cohesive remotely. “It was hard being away from the things I needed from my classroom, but I found creative ways to teach.” She explains, “Every Friday, we would have a class playdate. It was strictly non-academic for one hour. We had a theme like crazy hair day and a specific topic to talk about. We discussed our favorite YouTubes, had show and tell, told jokes, or played games.”
Teaching virtual classes was like performing
Jen struggled with remote work in a few ways. When teaching virtually, Jen lacked the “sense of community” and “really missed my colleagues and having lunch with them.” As an introvert, Jen thinks “working from home would probably be great” if she had an office job, but as a teacher, working remotely was like a “performance.” Jen says, “Building relationships and interacting are very important aspects of the classroom that are hard to establish on a screen.” She recalls feeling “like the leader of a three ring circus trying to entertain and keep everyone focused and on task.”
When faced with a sensitive or disciplinary issue, she dropped the child’s parent an email. “They supported me,” she says. However, she “didn’t notice too much behavior change” in her students. “The kids who had behavior issues in class continued to have those same behavior issues online. The same kids who called out in class and not raise their hands, called out on Zoom.” To combat this, Jen kept lessons quick and transitions short. However, Jen says, “I think there were a handful of students that really thrived using online learning with parental support. I had a few students that consistently completed all the work assigned in every subject.”
The biggest perk was more family time
At home, Jen really enjoyed her family’s time together. It was special to be home and watch milestones like her five-year-old riding a two-wheeled bike for the first time. She loved watching old school movies with her kids like Goonies and Back to the Future on non-school nights. But sometimes, “the day never seemed to end. Balancing work, family, chores, and cooking three meals a day is not easy.”
The pandemic has taught Jen both important work and life lessons. COVID-19 has “really taught me to not sweat the small stuff. If something isn’t urgent then it’s okay to wait,” Jen says. “The biggest lesson I learned was to make time for family and friends whenever possible and don’t take things for granted. Be happy and thankful for what you have because you’ll miss it when it’s not there. The experience also helped me better manage my time. You have to take a little “me” time,” she continues. E-learning also taught Jen that she needed to invest in a pair of reading glasses!
Taking it one day at a time
Looking to the next school year, Jen’s greatest challenge is “trying to prepare” in case it is virtual. She says, “Trying to set up my online class using Google Sites and Classroom has been challenging. They’re new platforms for me.” Luckily, her kids attend school in the same district she works in. “We’re on the same calendar.” Jen doesn’t know when her husband can return to work in NYC, but appreciates having him home to help with the kids. “He may need to ask to work from home,” she says. They’re not yet sure about school and child care program plans. “We can’t make decisions until I know the school plan for the fall.”
As parting advice, Jen suggests, “Take it one day at a time and don’t be so hard on yourself.”
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