While some jobs are on hiatus, the role of teaching and learning goes on. CSI teachers face the complexity of teaching in a very different environment, even as “normal life” feels teetering. A sampling of member school teachers shared their feelings and experiences in this journey—grieving for disruption and loss but also showing great hope in a sovereign God who controls all things.
“What has been hard about remote learning? Everything!” Mindi Hengst exclaimed. As a middle school teacher at Southwest Chicago Christian, she said, “It’s hard to adapt traditional curriculum to a digital format, it’s hard to learn so many new tech tools in such a short time, and it’s hard not to allow my school work to overtake my life, with being constantly connected to students and families online.”
High school teachers, who often had greater experience with digital platforms prior to remote learning, still note the strangeness and loss of daily classroom interaction. “It’s been hard to not be together in person, especially as I try to encourage face-to-face discussions and communal Scripture reading,” noted Ben Tameling, high school teacher at Grandville Calvin Christian. “It’s difficult to know if students are engaged and ‘getting it,’ the way that live feedback in the classroom provides.”
“I really miss the energy the kids bring,” said Brad Homan, teacher at Denver Christian. “It has reaffirmed that we should be learning in community!”
Luke Vander Leest of Sioux Falls Christian added, “Many of us were called to education because of our love for kids. Sure, our title might be history teacher or math teacher, but at the end of the day we teach kids . . . and I miss them.”
“As we are in our fourth week, I miss the students more today than when this started. There is a sense of grief created by the hole—the tension of incompleteness,” said Colin Ward of Covenant Christian School.
“In over thirty years of teaching, I never had a morning I didn’t want to go to school,” said Mark Hoeksema of Ripon Christian High School. “It’s because of the students! With them missing—Zoom is not the same—sometimes I just have to remember that I signed a contract. It’s a far inferior motivation.”
The “hole” is real. But as CSI teachers shared their struggles, they also shared silver linings—ways God has been bringing about redemption in the midst of the storm.
Struggle: Loss of routines. As a long-time middle school teacher, Colin Ward wasn’t surprised to hear from his students that they miss their friends. “But what does surprise me is hearing them say they miss the routines. I often forget how important that is to middle-schoolers, as it gives them a sense of security and identity,” Ward shared. “I, too, am longing for routines, even if it is telling them to get back to work! I feel like a first-year teacher again, figuring out the craft of teaching.”
Remote learning has created a sudden change to teachers’ morning-and-evening routines, as assignments now trickle in throughout the day. Evenings are often spent looking over student work and trying to adjust lessons for the next day. Matthew Pannkuk of Twin Oaks School admitted it’s been challenging to set up a new schedule.
Silver lining: Students are creating independent routines. A silver lining during remote learning is that students have been offered the chance to grow in personal responsibility and time management skills. “I’ve heard from past graduates that one of the hardest transitions to college learning was the independence and time management that is required when your day is no longer governed by a school bell,” noted Luke Vander Leest of Sioux Falls Christian. “I believe this time of distance learning will aid in student independence and student ownership of learning.” For students who gain these skills now, the COVID crisis will have been a tremendous foundation for lifelong learning.
Struggle: Much hands-on learning can’t be replicated. During remote learning, there are educational losses that can’t be replaced. Some of our students’ education is so tied to the physical, embodied community, it simply is not being done at home. We think of a ceramics unit, a chemistry experiment, or a choral rehearsal, but there is more. Evelyn Reith of Kirk Day School noted that using student interactions for character formation is a large part of her role that is difficult to fulfill remotely. Students particularly feel the decreased social interaction if they lack interaction with siblings and parents, for any number of reasons.
Silver lining: Some students are thriving creativity. “There are individual students that are discovering new talents, and some who are thriving academically and relationally in this new environment—finding new ways to be a leader,” Colin Ward noted. These may be quieter students whose insights can be overlooked in a traditional classroom. “Spiritual gifts such as wisdom and encouragement are either more evident, or we have slowed down enough to see them!”
Josh Withrow of Langley Christian agreed. “Many students who wouldn’t normally speak up in a classroom discussion are now crafting thoughtful and engaging written responses, allowing me to interact with a group of students I sometimes struggle to connect with.”
This time can also be an enjoyable time of personal growth. Withrow has found his own creativity growing, as he has researched resources and thought of new ways to present material. Bryant Russ agreed: “It has been cool to discuss good articles, videos, and resources that we wouldn’t have otherwise engaged.”
Asynchronous learning has also allowed many teachers extra time for one-on-one conversations with students. Karen Christians at Western Christian has enjoyed one-on-one video calls that include prayer requests and prayer. Several teachers have noted that our remote setting allows for more meditative student exercises, such as listening quietly, reflecting, journaling, or creating art without other students nearby watching. Mac Wiener at Timothy Christian has created more assignments involving reflection and has “felt blessed by students’ responses and their heartfelt commentary on life.”
Struggle: Under-connected yet over-connected. Teachers everywhere have felt changes in their workload and in shifting boundaries between work-life and home-life. “It’s hard not to allow schoolwork to overtake my life, being constantly connected to students and families online,” Mindi Hengst noted. Constant emails, classroom notifications, and even texts and calls can keep a teacher always on the job, particularly since many schools have set midnight deadlines for assignments. Teachers may be up late to see the outcome of one day’s work and to adjust for the coming day.
Silver lining: Greater student interaction with parents. Some students are finding a greater amount of needed interaction with their parents and siblings, creating a stronger connection between school and home. Lynn Hossink, an elementary teacher at San Jose Christian, sympathized with parents that, yes, “Online learning can look like many tears shed by both children and adults at times. Or the daily argument, ‘that isn’t how my teacher does it!’ But it can also look like quality educational time with your child that you’ve never had before. It can unleash creativity you never thought you had. It can look like taking the work at their own pace, giving student and parent the opportunity to learn alongside each other.” Stronger family connections and greater insight into their child’s education are emerging as a silver lining for many during this period of social distancing.
Struggle: Making decisions with incomplete information. “The longer I teach online, the more I find myself thinking, ‘Is this what they need right now? What would I be seeing or hearing in the classroom that would help guide my teaching?’” noted Linda Jonker, elementary teacher at Grand Rapids Christian. Unfortunately, students can more easily fall through the cracks when they’re not under a teacher’s oversight, leading to phone calls to find the “missing-in-action!” Decision-making is difficult since it is harder to get a quick read on how the whole class is doing. Anxiety can creep in as well, as a teacher wonders if they are striking the right balance in meeting the desires of students, parents, and administrators in an unknown context.
Silver Lining: Greater clarity and focus. Jill Haan, a high school teacher at Northern Michigan Christian, noted, “Remote learning takes a lot of time, but the process has been good for evaluating what I put before the students. I’m creating a more concise lesson plan, focusing on the truly important content and on making it relevant.”
Bryant Russ agrees that our situation has created a sharpened sense of clarity. “We were asked to examine our courses and consider the essential goals and trim everything peripheral. This was a helpful exercise, reminding me of my core, essential goals—the things I sometimes forget when I’m in the daily rhythm of the classroom.”
As a Bible teacher at Denver Christian, Brad Homan came to this conclusion, “If my students make progress in only one area, I’d like it to be that they learn how to read the Scripture more slowly and carefully. I’d like them to mark up their Bibles more and find more in the stories.”
Moving Toward Summer
Several CSI teachers spoke of remote learning as a time of growth through hardship. What seemed undoable has been doable.
“I actually CAN do it,” Mindi Hengst reflected.
“I see God’s hand in building us up to do his good work!” Jill Haan exclaimed.
Lynn Hossink asked administrators and parents, “Keep up the grace, feedback, patience, and encouragement. We are thinking of and praying for our families!”
Karen Christians summarized the reflections of many teachers. “I long for the day that we will learn together in my classroom again, but I’ve learned valuable insights during this time that I will carry with me forever.”
Written by Heidi Dean
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