COVID-19: Teachers at Pottsgrove Middle School Try to Connect With Students During the Virtual School Year

When the Pottsgrove School District announced in August that the school year would start online, teachers adapted to new technologies and demands on their work/life balance.

Lambert Liebel uses Zoom to teach his math classes from a makeshift classroom in his home (Zachary Bailey/Philadelphia Neighborhoods)

As school districts across Pennsylvania have opted for virtual starts to the school year, teachers across the state have had to adjust their pedagogy and get used to a new kind of work-life balance. At Pottsgrove Middle School in Pottstown, teachers moved quickly to adjust to an all-online school year after the local school board announced its decision in August to go fully online. 

Since then, teachers have had to learn new technologies and try to reach students online, all while trying to keep their own stress and mental health in check. 

Hilary Lily has been a special education services teacher at Pottsgrove Middle School for the last 21 years.

“All of this has been a huge adjustment,” she said. “Never did I ever imagine that I would be teaching over the computer to my students, and for such a long amount of time!”

Like other teachers in the school, Lily has had to master new technologies and develop pedagogy around those technologies.

“It has really taught me to hone in on my tech skills,” she said. 

Hilary Lily welcomes her student while teaching over Zoom. (Courtesy: Hilary Lily)

Ricky Royce, a language arts teacher at Pottsgrove Middle School, feels that even though he has had to spend so much time with students on the new technology, he still misses face-to-face interactions with them. 

“The kids still need us,” he said. “Do your best to make connections and realize that you can still make a difference even though you are online.”

Charles Moyer, a social studies teacher, worries about student engagement in an online classroom. 

“The biggest adjustment that I have seen is that virtual learning makes it difficult to engage the students,” Moyer said. “As a teacher, you are competing with several distractions at home such as cellphones and video games.”  

Charles Moyer works with a student in his class in the weeks prior to the coronavirus pandemic.

For many, teaching online has meant adjusting to a new pace of student learning and more prep time for each class. Lessons that may have taken two days are now taking three days, Lambert Liebel, who has taught math for 20 years, said. 

“The extra time for preparing for a class and then having to wait longer for students to copy notes or examples can be very frustrating,” he said. “In class, you can watch the students and make sure they are doing what they are supposed to, but virtually it really tests their integrity.” 

Liebel has also taught online cyber school for the last decade, an experience that has helped make his adjustment to this virtual school year just a little bit easier, he said.  

“I like the fact I can teach from anywhere,” Liebel said. “I also like the responsibility that it puts on the students.” 

Though the accommodations teachers are making to adjust to the pandemic are temporary, they still take a toll.

“Aspects that I like about this situation?” Lily said. “None really.” 

Starting the semester online has been easier than shifting to online in the middle of the semester, Lily said. There have been opportunities to create structure and maintain the kinds of student contact that make teaching rewarding. 

“In the spring, we would post an assignment online for the week, but we didn’t have this daily interaction with the kids,” she said. “So, I do like that as much as I can like it … in this situation.” 

Others miss the informal interactions that come from being in-person with students. 

“I miss seeing the smiles, the conversations and the laughs as well as the relationships we build together when we are in the classroom,” Moyer said. 

Some teachers have had to learn to live with the reality that online classes will not be the same as in-person. Lily’s special education classes, for instance, usually rely on in-person interaction in order to tailor lessons to individual students’ needs, she said.

“I miss having the space in my classroom to walk around, help the students immediately,” she said. “I do not like being in front of my computer all day long. I feel that it is way too long.” 

The lack of human interaction and intense attention on a screen means burnout comes quicker online, so it is important for teachers to take breaks and spend time away from their computers, Liebel said.

“You have to close up your laptop and stop staring at the screen,” he said. “That is what I do to maintain a positive outlook and help regulate a healthy mindset.”

For many, teaching virtually has also meant blurring the lines between work and home life. 

For Moyer, extra time at home has meant more time with his wife and 1-year-old son. The family finds time to take a walk every day, and Moyer has enjoyed the opportunity to bond as a family. 

“I like the flexibility of teaching from home or school,” he said. “When you Zoom from home, there are openings in the day to do things during your lunch break like empty the dishwasher and even work on home projects.” 

Liebel’s three children are older than Moyer’s and attend Pottsgrove schools as well. He often has to juggle what he is doing to help his children when they are Zooming with their teachers at the same time. His wife, Kristi, is a substitute teacher at Pottsgrove, and is sometimes at home to help.  

These teachers have discovered that focusing on their own well-being has become more important over the past few months.

Unplugging from work each day is crucial to making it through the pandemic with mental health intact, Moyer said.

“You need to take care of yourself,” he said. “Learn to shut it down and enjoy those little moments each and every day.” 

Royce said getting regular exercise outdoors has helped him manage the stress and mentally recover between classes. 

“It is important to decompress after all the screen time,” he said.

Ricky Royce makes sure to spend as much time as he can outdoors when he isn’t teaching online. (Photo courtesy of Ricky Royce).

Even though Lily does not like teaching in a pandemic, she is trying to stay positive. 

“There is a reason for all of this,” she said. “It’s a pandemic that we have never seen nor experienced in our lifetime.” 

Lily often reminds her colleagues that focusing on their own needs can help teachers more effectively teach and be there for their students.

“Stay healthy,” Lily said. “Do things you enjoy outside of the school day, whatever that is. We will get through this together.”

Still, for Lily, her passion for teaching and her students will help her make it through the school year.

“I love what I do,” she said. “And this isn’t ideal, but I do understand the reasons for it.”

Editor’s note: Our special reporting on COVID-19 may focus on communities outside Philadelphia because many of our student journalists are now temporarily located outside of the city. Instead, our reporters will cover how the coronavirus is impacting their own communities from across the country and around the world. We will return to hyperlocal coverage of Philadelphia’s neighborhoods as soon as possible.

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