Su Ofe

Su Ofe

Stories from the Home We Love So Well: Hawks on the Frontlines, Part II

The Home We Love So Well: Stories from Home Series

Hawks on the Frontlines, Part II: A Call Interrupted

“Teaching is a calling,” says Virginia Gaston ’20, an elementary education/collaborative special education major from Guntersville, Alabama. “It can be so hard and, honestly, very frustrating at times, but what calls me every day—EVERY DAY—is the difference that each teacher makes.”

When COVID-19 forced school closings across the country, the result, in addition to cutting short the dreams and learning of students nationwide and leaving parents to fill the void, was a resounding crash of unfulfilled life and lesson plans for Huntingdon students and young alumni who are called to teach. Serving in frontline jobs daily, teachers inspire, coax, coach, counsel, encourage, befriend, train, discipline, sharpen, love on students and build students’ minds and are, in turn, inspired to return to the classroom the next day, and the next, and the next. Many of those teacher strengths and successes depend on face-to-face instruction.

Life was lining up nicely for Virginia before the pandemic. She had completed her first teaching internship in a 4th grade general education classroom with stellar reviews, and moved on to a second internship in special education. She was offered a position as a permanent substitute for another teacher who was to be out on maternity leave. Like stepping off of a bright pathway into a cave, she was left blinded by the darkness of COVID-19, trying to find new footing and new vision. But only briefly.

“The pandemic has definitely changed things,” says Virginia. ” I had plans to fill a maternity leave position the day following the end of my internship (April 29th). This amazing opportunity did not happen because all schools closed. I was very excited about this position and the doors it would open for me in the education world.  However, on a more positive note, this quarantine has allowed me ample time to apply for jobs, prepare my resume, interview, and research what I want my future classroom to look like. These are all things I would have been scrambling to find time to do if life was the way it was a little over a month ago. While I do wish every day that I was still with my kiddos, I know the Lord has a plan and He is using this for my good.”

Laural Anthony Harrelson ’17 teaches 9th and 10th grade science for Valiant Cross Academy, an all-male school in Montgomery. Asked how she is coping with teaching during the pandemic, she replied, “I believe we will do the same as all schools are doing right now, our best. We love our boys and most of us have been going above and beyond to get them on track. Taking extra time to call them, using Zoom to work through problems, or finding extra resources that may help them get [the material]. We will find a way to get them to the next level, no matter what.”

Although she’s challenged by the circumstances, Laural only stiffens for a tougher fight. “We will make it work. That’s one thing that teachers ALWAYS do, they take their students from all walks of life and levels of learning and help move them forward. … My phone is blowing up off the hook 24/7 because they have different times of access due to having to share one computer or they’re working to help their family. I’m proud of how hard we all are working to make sure we support them, show them love, and encourage them to get to the next level while doing their best.”

“I’m not on the frontline in the traditional sense, but I am working from home and tutoring students online from Enterprise State Community College (before the outbreak, I worked as a tutor in person on the college campus.)” says Stacy Brand ’21, an English major from Ozark, Alabama, who is planning for a career as an English professor. “What has changed the most is the nature of the job itself. It’s always been about facilitating learning and supplementing what is being taught in the classroom, but now that the in-person element is gone, many students feel a bit lost. Several have expressed anxieties about their classes shifting to online, especially their worries about remembering deadlines, struggling with motivation, missing their classmates, their anxieties about the virus, and of course, their ability to keep up with their classes without the classroom experience for which they signed up. The job has become as much about encouraging and counseling students as it has about their actual coursework. I’m just thankful that we live in a time that makes it possible to connect with others even while we must remain physically isolated. My heart goes out to the people on the real frontlines, our essential workers who must continue to go out in order to meet society’s basic needs including groceries and healthcare.”

“I have always wanted to be a teacher,” says Randie Caroline Caine ’20, who is majoring in mathematics with secondary collaborative special education. “My mom was a teacher for 16 years before she passed away of ALS in 2016. She made so much of an impact on students; I wanted to have the same impact on people like she did.”

After completing a math teaching internship in a pre-calculus classroom at Prattville High School, she moved on to a special education internship at Nichols Lawson Middle School in Sylacauga, Alabama. Just like Virginia, Randie Caroline was hired—during her internship—as a permanent substitute. She had just begun her job when classes ceased. Luckily, her position continues. Today, she serves 6th–8th graders as a resource room teacher, checking in with students and parents weekly. “I was able to spend one week with the students before [classes] were canceled. [That’s] made it difficult keeping in touch since I am not familiar with the students, and the students are not familiar with me. It’s difficult for everyone during this time. I hope we never have to experience this again in our lifetime,” says Randie, who has been grateful for strong support from her colleagues at the school.

Anna Boyd ’17, of Monroeville, Alabama, teaches 7th grade English in Clinton, South Carolina. The words she posted on Facebook when her school closed echo the feelings of so many young teachers:

“If I had known Thursday was my last day for a while …

I would have given more “elbow bumps.”

I would have made sure I said hello to our custodian.

I would have given an extra Pop Tart to the student who asked me for food after school.

I would have enjoyed the noise in the cafeteria.

I would have given an extra hug to the student, who isn’t mine, who asked to talk with me after school.

I would have made an extra TikTok with my 4th period.

I would have spent more time talking with the student who wanted to discuss The Bachelor with me because “can you believe Peter’s mom”?

Most importantly I would have told each and every one of my students how much I love them.

I love a good break from school. More than love them, we, as teachers, need them. However this ‘break,’ as many are calling it, is not fun. There is not a single teacher I know who would not rather be at school right now.

I want this hallway full of kids again.

I want to have to tell them to quit running.

I want to tell them to get out of the bathroom and go to class.

I want to give high fives, handshakes, and hugs at my door.

I want to do the ‘Friday Dance’ with my students in the hallway. I want afternoon conversations with my coworkers again.

Lord, when this is over may I never take for granted again the joy that it is to teach. The privilege that it is to tell a class full of noisy children to settle down.

Yes this year has been long, and hard, but there are far more good days than bad ones.

Please pray for your friends that are teachers. We miss our job, our co-workers, but most importantly our kids!”

Laural is grateful that the pandemic has illuminated the many gifts teachers offer to children and to society, but she cautions that the interruption of the school year is not an interruption of work for teachers.  “Most think we are on a vacation, but that simply isn’t true. Several of us are having to do five times more work now because everything is so spread out it’s hard to keep up with it all. What used to be a 9-hour day now is a 12- or sometimes 14-hour day. Not to mention teachers who have families to take care of at home or are students themselves. I’m currently in grad school and I’m having to get my observation hours online since I cannot attend a physical school anymore. It’s stressful finding a new normal, but we are making do.”

Like her classmates, Samara Miller ’20, an elementary/collaborative special education major from Arab, Alabama, had only been teaching in her special education internship for one week when schools closed. “Thankfully I have a wonderful cooperating teacher who still involves me in the classroom,” says Samara. “I was able to video with all the students on Monday to see how they were doing. It has been hard moving to online with special education. I have seen my teacher struggle with getting meetings and IEPs completed, all while making sure every student is receiving the services they need.” In the void of classroom time, Samara is working in another frontline job at a food bank four days a week, and a local child development center has offered her a position working with school-age children this summer while she’s interviewing for a permanent job. Her brother, Wyatt Miller ’19, a teacher and coach, is helping with her search. “I am trying to stay positive and not let the uncertainty turn into fear of not receiving a job.”

When young Huntingdon teachers face challenges, they know they can reach out to their Huntingdon teacher education professors for advice. Dr. Michele Martin is one of those professors. “I have had alums reach out to me. This is what I remind them as well as my current students: that we are not perfect as humans, nor as teachers, and shouldn’t expect to be. We breathe the same breath, we think with the same mind, we love with the same heart as our students and their families. We are all trying to figure out this process together and the world is really seeing the depths of teachers at this moment. Teachers are more than academics. We provide emotional support, we are those cheerleaders, and the symbol of safety. We must remember that for some of our students, seeing our faces is that ‘normalcy’ in a world that is no longer normal. We miss our students, just as much as they miss us. The world is seeing that teachers are not the evenings-off, weekends-free, 40-hour-a-week deal. We truly love our students and love what we do.”

Cooperating teachers who share their classrooms provide another lifeline for Huntingdon student-interns. “My internship placements during the school year have only heightened my love for teaching,” declares Samara. “I am extremely thankful for the opportunities I was given to work alongside my cooperating teachers to help me grow as a teacher.”

“The experiences I have had through my internship this past semester have increased my confidence and sense of preparedness to be a teacher,” Virginia offers. “My cooperating teacher during my internship, Mrs. Wendy Leigh, gave me the most educational experience I have had in my field placements. She allowed me so much freedom to teach and gave me so much feedback, I don’t think I could have had a better placement. It’s hard to put into words how much that internship meant to me.”

In spite of its perniciousness, COVID-19 has not infected teachers’ determination to make a difference in the lives of their students. “I am ready to give it my all,” Virginia says with resolve. “The kids are my calling. When you see a light bulb go off in a student and you know, Hey, I helped that happen. Those moments cannot be beat. Teaching is a calling that is renewed every day. There is nothing else I would rather do.”

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Frontline stories will be continued as part of this series. If you have a frontline story, please contact Su Ofe at news@hawks.huntingdon.edu.

Read more Stories from the Home We Love So Well

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