A tale of two teachers

By GREGORY HATTON
Posted 2/3/21

TOWN OF HIGHLAND, NY — This reporter’s wife is a retired teacher. When she anticipated a particularly challenging day, she’d remark: “I guess I’ll need my exploding …

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A tale of two teachers

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TOWN OF HIGHLAND, NY — This reporter’s wife is a retired teacher. When she anticipated a particularly challenging day, she’d remark: “I guess I’ll need my exploding shoes today!” That reference to vaudeville seems a fitting image to describe the current mindset of teachers who face COVID-related challenges.

Two Highland educators, from schools with divergent approaches, have relied on remarkably similar strategies. Maintaining a positive attitude, collaborating and innovating are mainstays in their tool-kits.

Yulan resident Joanna Dutcher teaches first grade at the George L. Cook Elementary School. Her two decades of teaching in Monticello provided experience in her craft along with ties to the community. Her class is fully remote, so it was imperative that the administration work with her to provide an effective online platform. 

“Last March, we were really thrown into it. Since then, my district has made every effort to make remote learning as easy as they could. With the help of Sullivan BOCES and the Teacher Center, they provided a learning management system... They really listened to our feedback; we started out using a virtual classroom by Microsoft called TEAMS. We moved on to SeeSaw and Zoom, because they worked better. The administration moved quickly and that was a plus.”

Parents and educators alike have concerns that early learners will develop deficits in language skills. The disruption caused by schools closing and the reliance on remote learning was addressed to some degree by giving caregivers an active role in Dutcher’s online classroom.

“My students left kindergarten as beginners in March, or never even finished pre-K. My greatest fear is that this generation of younger kids will lose out. Some came in not knowing how to form their letters and sounds. I am trained in the Orton Gillingham Method, but it’s very tactile and not easy to do through a computer screen. My co-teacher and I take the reading-writing program [more slowly].”

This is where community participation plays a role: 

“The youngsters are enthusiastic for the most part, and the parents [or caregivers] have been awesome. Some are stay-at-home mothers; another is an aunt who takes care of all her nieces and nephews. When a kid is sleepy in the morning, they’ll say: ‘Now come on, listen to the teacher.’ We take frequent ‘brain breaks.’ The class ‘family meeting’ is in the morning and after our last class. I send home textbooks and manipulatives for math and provide instruction for the parents if they don’t understand the work. Some meet with me the day before to learn the new concepts. Occasionally, they will be the ones to ‘share’ the new learning.”

Dutcher also uses her talents as an accomplished singer and performer. 

“My entertainment background does come into play. Monticello used to have a huge issue with student attendance and engagement. I developed a program, at that time, to reach kids who were slipping through the cracks. The idea was to motivate them to want to be in school and participate. In this class, we sing and I use puppets... When I read stories, I use character voices. I’m always trying to reach out and keep them engaged.”

Cherish Galvin Bleifernicht teaches at the Homestead School in Glen Spey, NY. Currently an assistant teacher for the upper elementary class, she has a combined 14 years of experience in the public schools and at the Homestead School. Collaborating and innovating turned what could have been a taxing experience into an inspirational experience. 

“After March 13, our school went completely remote, which is opposite of what Montessori teaching is all about. We are ‘hands-on,’ using manipulatives to understand ‘the concrete’ before our students move on to ‘the abstract.’ We now utilize technology more than ever before, but we’ve made the best of it.”

The Google Classroom platform is used for both online and in-classroom learning. That meant more prep work for Bleifernicht and her colleagues.

“Our workload increased, but teachers rotated every five weeks to do lesson planning. During those months from April to June, we all made fun videos to show the kids to help them keep their spirits up. That worked for us as well; we still continue to do them, coming into the new school year.” 

Bleifernicht credits the administration and her colleagues with helping her to teach successfully through the COVID-19 crisis.

 “The administrative team worked overtime on preparation and planning... Everything was about adapting and creating. The result was that we were able to go back to teaching in-person, using our normal approach to learning. The school built teepees... to provide the space needed for social distancing. One positive side effect... was that we re-evaluated our situation. What was the best way to utilize the good weather we had and use the campus? We simply held many classes outside! That meant nature hikes, collecting leaves, identifying trees—the students were out all the time.

“The kids are my number-one inspiration,” Bleifernicht added. “You can see someone getting excited about learning. You can see their eyes light up, even with their masks on. That’s the feeling that keeps you going.”

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