Whether they are teaching via distance learning or meeting in person, teachers across the board have been met with unparalleled changes — and challenges — this year that have forced them to change their approach to educating. For early educators Deborah Chiong, an early childhood special education teacher at Oak View Preschool in Huntington Beach, and Rosalba Arana, a preschool teacher at Mexican American Opportunity Foundation (MAOF) in Norwalk, it’s definitely been difficult, but they’ve learned some things along the way. From the small moments of joy to the mind-boggling obstacles, here are some of their reflections on the past year and what they’re hoping for in the year ahead.
Q: Are you meeting virtually? How does this impact your students?
Deborah Chiong: We are meeting completely in person. I was given the option to meet virtually with families that were interested but because of the level of functioning of most of my students they’re not really able to meet online. A lot of the students that I have are working on learning how to pay attention to a speaker, make eye contact, remain at a task and because we were still working on those foundational skills virtual learning wasn’t very successful. I think as nervous as we were to come back, we realized we were kind of failing the kids trying to do things virtually. Even though it is a risk I think it was good that we came back.
Rosalba Arana: I’m online. At first it was getting crazy, but little by little they know that I’m teaching them but online. It has [impacted my students], because they are not hands-on. Preschoolers learn by playing, touching and exploring things, and now it’s hard.
Q: As an educator, what has been the most difficult part of your job this past year?
Chiong: I feel like the most difficult part has been to reimagine “how do I do such a hands-on job and not be hands-on?” I think that a huge part of what we do is very social and emotional and not being able to hug the kids, give them a high five or do handshakes, just so that we can keep everyone safe, has been hard. It has changed the way we greet each other at the door, it’s changed the way we play. A lot of my students have a goal of sharing and now we’re telling them “nope, don’t share.” That part is kind of weird.
"As educators we learned how to do our job so differently too. We’ve all challenged ourselves to be so much better than we thought we could. I think before this year I always thought 'at least our jobs will never be online, because we can’t do this online.' And then we did." — Deborah Chiong
Arana: The hardest thing is to get engagement with the parents and with the families. It's been hard. But thanks to the online webinars that I’ve been taking to encourage the parents to get involved [I’ve learned some things]. Some of the parents don’t have the internet. I have to do Zoom and they have to use their phones because they don’t have a computer. That’s the hard thing. Even for us as teachers having to use online and the parents have the same problem.
Q: What has been the most difficult aspect of all these changes for your students?
Chiong: I think a lot of my students are at a level where they can’t understand what has happened and so I think having everything ripped from them back in March and then coming back, I think trying to understand that part of everything changed. But we have to keep going. That’s been tricky for a lot of them.
Arana: The social [aspect]. They’re not interacting with others. It makes it harder for the kids. They need that. That’s why I try to have on Fridays, I like to have a little party. What I do is I dance with them in front of the computers. It helps the kids.
Q: What new methods of teaching have you adopted to encourage hands-on learning online or in person with all the restrictions?
Chiong: We’ve definitely had to rethink: how do we show them affection? How do we show them that they’re doing a good job even though we can’t have that physical affection?
We actually started this rainbow system where all the kids start out with a red arc and then every time they do a really great job, where we would high five them, we would put another color on their rainbow. And when they fill the whole rainbow, they get to go to the treasure box. It’s something they’re all striving for where we get to honor them. It’s kind of a way to celebrate them without necessarily giving them that high five or whatever we would usually do to celebrate.
Arana: What I do is on Mondays I send a packet like with Play-Doh and activities we can do together. Or I send shapes and we cut them together and glue them together. It’s online but they can see that I’m doing it and they follow me through it.
"... to be honest with you, I was terrified to come back. But at the end of the day, I love what we do. There are still days when I wake up and I’m still terrified, but every day I get there and the kids show up, it’s always worth it." — Deborah Chiong
Q: What positive changes would you like to see continued next year? What negative changes would you not like to see continued?
Chiong: What is frustrating with being a special ed teacher for preschool is we don’t have a class cap. I think this year has given us a clearer picture of maybe there can be too many kids in my class, like maybe this isn’t safe. So, I kind of hope we never go back to the point where I have the max amount of kids where we have just the right amount of chairs where everybody has one. Past a certain number I’m just policing. I’m just trying to survive. I’m more of a police officer than their teacher. So hopefully we adhere to those rules, especially if we’re only having the kids for a shorter amount of time. I think it’s more feasible to have that smaller group.
Arana: I would like to continue … to talk about their feelings. To me, this is very important. You know, academics for preschoolers, they will learn. One way or another they will learn, with sounds or playing around they will get it. But I would like to see the parents more involved.
Q: How have all the changes affected children emotionally?
Chiong: A lot of them benefit from repetition and not having too long of a break. So then to have had this unprecedented half of a year off was really tough, and to be home with their parents who don’t have the training we have or even the aide support. Having that team of professionals has been such a game changer for our classroom. I think that not having that has been really difficult.
Arana: Right now, most of the things I focus on is emotion and how they feel. Because for me that’s important. I read books about feelings. I have posters with faces with the [emotions.] A lot of times it’s very sad when the kids say that they are lonely because they don’t have friends. And that’s when I invite them to have a meeting with only one friend and then they can talk together. Sometimes I do it out of my hours because I want to help them. It’s so sad when they feel lonely because they don’t have friends. That’s one of the things we’re dealing with right now.
Q: What is a positive takeaway that you have had from your experience this past year?
Chiong: I think the one positive that I’ve gotten is that kids are so resilient, and that what we do is so worth it. Because to be honest with you, I was terrified to come back. But at the end of the day, I love what we do. There are still days when I wake up and I’m still terrified, but every day I get there and the kids show up, it’s always worth it.
As educators we learned how to do our job so differently too. We’ve all challenged ourselves to be so much better than we thought we could. I think before this year I always thought “at least our jobs will never be online, because we can’t do this online.” And then we did.
Arana: A positive thing is that they have been spending more time with their parents. They are learning how to have quality time. I try at least once a month to send a cooking activity and they have to send me pictures. Some parents don't like it because the kids are going to make a mess or things like that. But now they’re doing it with them, and that’s good for the quality time.
Q: What do you think education will look like next year? Do you see more families homeschooling?
Chiong: What we realized was, what we had may have been too much and what we have now may be just the right amount. I think that having the shorter time, where we don’t see them melting down because they’re tired … I think that we’re really able to get the best of them and I kind of hope that part continues.
I hope not. I do believe that young children need other young children. As much as I love being an educator and see so much value in it, I also see so much value in them being able to teach each other things too. There are some kids to whom I could teach that lesson to every single day and then some other 4-year-old could show them and they get it. That social interaction that the kids are getting right now in my class is so important.
Arana: I think it’s going to be hard. I think they’re going to start with homeschooling because some parents like it. It’s something new for them and they like it because they’re in the house. But still, kids need to have a relationship with other kids to play.
I am looking forward to having my kids in class. I miss that. I miss seeing my large group and dancing with them. But I don’t think we’ll have it like before if we come back. Like I always tell them, this is the new normal.