Story Unmasked: Heer Kane, Grade 5/6 Online Elementary School Teacher (Ontario)

Interviewed by Charlotte Lester.

It’s so much harder [for students] to connect amongst themselves and just to connect in general. I think it’s really important to take time to get to know students as individuals and not just learners in the classroom.

What has working through the pandemic been like? What are some challenges you may face on a day-to-day basis? (if any)

The pandemic required us to adapt really quickly to the online platform. It has been different for different teachers because some of us [work online] and some of us [work] in-person. I think there are challenges for both platforms. Going to school in person must be really challenging with the social distancing rules that they are trying to maintain in our classrooms. There are a lot of different challenges for the online platform. For me personally, this is my first time teaching a split class because that's how the cards fell. It’s challenging because we don’t have the same [school] resources at home, naturally.

We’re trying to find... new resources [but also to] make it interesting and fun for students. I have tried to put together virtual field trips to change up our routine and to keep students more engaged. We’re [also] trying to figure out ways to deliver the material that is very different from the way we normally do. For instance, when graphing or using protractors to construct angles, students don’t always have access to the same resources that they do at school, so we [look for] programs online to help students practice these skills without the resources that we always have at school. We’re just exploring a lot of new programs that we’ve never used before.

I’m also teaching subjects that I haven't taught before because the online teachers, in my board at least, are generally teaching everything.

For example, I’ve never taught music before, so I’m [doing my best] to deliver the music curriculum... in an engaging way. We’re using Chrome Music Lab... it’s exciting to explore new programs but it’s also a lot of work. It requires a lot more planning. I also find that I’m connecting with parents a lot more because I think that it is challenging for a lot of students. This isn’t an ideal situation for anyone and we know this isn't the way students learn best. There are students that are having challenges at home, whether it be staying focused or because they are struggling and they are less inclined to speak up [since] they're more nervous in an online setting, or sometimes they have entire families at home working online… so we constantly have to manage tech issues or internet issues and the learning is interrupted by something. Sometimes, students have alarms going off in their apartment buildings or there are challenges with families who are all trying to work and learn in the same place.

Sometimes we get disconnected and we just do our best to reconnect and focus on learning together. We’re doing our best to respond to challenges and I find that I connect with parents a lot more.

[We try to work in small groups as much as possible, especially for students who are struggling]. Our classes are also so much larger. I have thirty kids in my class while teaching two grades and working with students who are English Language Learners or on IEPs... So in addition to the Grade 5 and 6 work, I’m also planning and modifying work for IEP students at different grade levels. [Every group needs a certain type of] attention, but we’re all online all at once, [which makes it challenging to support these different needs]. We’re all doing the best that we can. It can also be isolating being online. I’m very lucky that I have really wonderful colleagues who I still stay connected with, who are trying to help support [us], and who are also working online. We are trying to shift what we’re doing... to help each other out.

How have things been different for you during the pandemic (personally or in your job) compared to before the pandemic?

[I've memorized some parents' numbers] because I call them so often [and connect with them] so frequently.

I think [teaching online now] is the biggest piece for sure... there are a lot of limitations to being online. It’s been really hard to have a work-life balance on a personal note... [due to things] such as just connecting with parents. [I've memorized some parents' numbers] because I call them so often [and connect with them] so frequently. Often [though], they’re [also] working during the day, so [I have to] find a time that works for them … to make sure that we’re connecting 'cause it’s important that we do that. Families would love to have their kids back in school because it’s what’s best for them as students, but they also have family members [with poor health]. They don’t want to take any risks... they have to do what’s best for their family and put health & safety first, of course.

Also, planning takes so much longer just because everything has to have a digital copy. It’s not easy to use any of the resources that I have paper copies of. I can’t photocopy anything, so oftentimes, everything has to be retyped. Everything has to be something that students can access or edit easily, or it has to be in a [format] that I can mark easily. A lot of it is us changing things to google slides or to google docs or making sure that everyone can have a copy of it.

All of these things are just so time-consuming even though they seem like smaller things. Just adapting. I also teach French to another class in addition to my own. It’s just finding resources again because usually, we have all these references available up in my classroom. I think that moving online has been hard, but I think also just keeping [in mind] my students' wellbeing as well. [Even though] we’re online and we’re trying to focus on academics, it’s also a balance between trying to stay focused on the learning and trying to make sure that we’re continuing to progress as much as possible like we normally do in school. It’s so much harder [for students] to connect amongst themselves and just to connect in general. I think it’s really important to take time to get to know students as individuals and not just learners in the classroom. Connecting can be more challenging in terms of it being natural and organic… it’s harder for students to develop friendships. But I think that I also have a really great group of kids who are really kind and supportive and try to help each other out when they have tech issues. They’ll often share their screen [if something is showing up differently on their side compared to mine]. They’re all very excited to help each other out, so that’s been really nice. They’re a good group, so I’m very lucky.

What's something about your role/job that most people might not know about?

[We] are paying for a lot out of pocket as well. I buy a lot of resources [for my students] and I know other teachers do it all the time [too].

I think a lot of people are aware because... parents and families are experiencing the [same] problems themselves at home... and have been really supportive. Chatting on the phone frequently has allowed me to get to know the families better. [Teachers] don’t have access to resources [that were free before this happened]... so [we are constantly] looking for new [digital materials]. [We] are paying for a lot out of pocket as well. Most teachers do that every year anyway. I buy a lot of resources [for my students] and I know other teachers do it all the time [too]… We can’t share [resources] the way we normally do in school, so we have to create [our own] materials or make purchases. I think that can be challenging and maybe people aren’t as well aware of that piece, that we don’t have access to [what we had before].

What kind of resources specifically are no longer accessible?

We don’t have the textbooks or the same books. It’s anything and everything that you normally have access to at school. It could be protractors, graph paper, math manipulatives... We don’t want to assume anything about what students have [or don't have] at home. Right now for instance, [is the first time I'm] using MathUp. [I had to go to extra lengths] to get a license for my class to also have access to [it]. But a lot of things like the Nelson and Pearson Book, were free. They had made [it] easily accessible because of the pandemic at the time, but now [that's not the case anymore]. Kids don’t have access to the same selection of books that we have in our school library and we don’t get to do the same guided reading that we would normally do at school.

It can be challenging and stressful... and I get messages from students at different hours of the day after the school day is done... there’s just a lot more planning to be done.

What’s something that you wish you could tell others that would help make your job a bit easier?

I think that everyone is just doing their best considering the circumstances and the challenges that we’re experiencing. We [just] appreciate the support that we’re getting from families [and students during these difficult times]...

How have you coped and managed with the difficulties of covid-19?

I have family members who are high risk, so... we’re just trying to be very cautious. I’m very glad that I get to be safe at home, can be very isolating. I’m very lucky that I have a family at home and [that] I have a support system... but, it can [still] be stressful.

If you could speak to yourself before the pandemic, what's something you would tell yourself?

I wish I had things that were more digitized. I… wish that was the case. It’s just that in school, we don’t usually have access to enough digital resources that everyone can have access to technology at the same time. It’s not usually the set up [so that] we’re using technology [that often]… I mean I think I’d just be grateful for being able to be in school and to be safe before all of this. I think that’s what stands out to me.

Is there a particularly memorable moment or experience you had during the pandemic that you would like to share?

On a personal note, I got married during the pandemic (in August!). We got married in our backyard. Although it wasn’t what we initially planned, it turned out beautifully and we still got to celebrate with some of our closest family and friends. In terms of work... there are lots of moments and interesting discussions. One of the fun things that we did recently… [was] the beekeeping workshop. That was fun and students were really engaged; [they] got to see something different and connect with a beekeeper locally-- [particularly one] that’s in France, so that was exciting. I connected with a parent who works for Oxford [and they] helped me set that up… so the kids really enjoyed that.

What motivates/inspires you?

The kids that I teach are such a wonderful bunch… they’re lovely and it’s hard because I’ve never met [ a lot of them] before. I’ve only met a few, so I just want to keep doing my best for them… I think there’s a lot of people who are doing fantastic things outside of that as well. We’ve talked about people on the frontlines, but also just cleaning staff and people who may not be the obvious answer… Our school custodian, Mike, did this amazing thing during the pandemic where he got a donation of new winter coats with Operation Warm for any kid who needed it… That was something that [stood] out. Although it’s not something we might hear about all the time, it was awesome to see someone stepping up to help the community during a difficult time.

What’s one fun fact about you?

I once ended up in the hospital on a first date with the man who is now my husband.

If you could have a superpower, what would it be?

If I could have a superpower, it would be teleportation.

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