The transition to emergency remote learning has been a significant and quick shift for students — and also for teachers in Tahoma and other districts throughout the country. For some teachers, this shift comes in the very tail end of not only the school year, but in the final moments of their careers in education.
“Every day I talk to teachers — helping them with the technology tools they are using for remote learning. When I find out the teacher I’m talking to is retiring this year, I am awestruck: not only is this NOT the kind of end-of-career year they were expecting, but in many cases they are having to learn new tools and strategies that they will never use after this year,” said Kimberly Allison, Instructional Technology Coach in the district’s Teaching and Learning Department. “Over and over I have been so impressed with the willingness of all our teachers — and our retiring teachers in particular — to dive in, learn on the fly, and implement new learning so quickly and with such a positive attitude.”
We talked with three retiring teachers this week to hear their thoughts on this notable transition at the close of their careers.
Maple View Middle School teacher Amy Adams, who is retiring in June after 40 years in education, said this is not how she envisioned ending her teaching career.
“I became a teacher because I wanted to make connections with students,” Adams said. In college, Adams said she was preparing for law school until she discovered that working alone in a law library wasn’t for her. She changed her major to education. “It’s ironic that at the end of my career I’m doing my work by myself alone in a similar, quiet setting. It is a sad way to end my teaching career. I try to concentrate on all the things that I have instead of what I am missing out on. I still have regular interactions with my students; they’re just different now.”
In a very short time, Tahoma teachers needed to get up to speed on shifting lessons from in-person to a format that students could access via Google Classroom, Screencastify, SeeSaw, Google Meets, and other platforms and programs. They quickly learned to collaborate via Zoom with their fellow teachers on grade level and building teams.
“It has been very hard. I have to rethink everything about the way I teach and I have to be very thoughtful about my interactions with students, because it is easy to misread the written word. It would be much harder if I hadn’t already developed relationships with my students,” Adams said.
For Tahoma High School teacher Malinda Shirley, who will retire in June after 21 years with Tahoma, switching to remote learning required a little help from fellow math teacher Jeff Brady. During one recent week, Brady helped Shirley for several hours when she was struggling with a document camera issue and creating a video.
Besides the technology challenges, the worst part of this situation for Shirley is not being with students. “Teachers love interacting with students face to face, moment by moment -- so this is a huge change. … I love the help sessions for students where we get to interact and let them know we really care about them and want to help them understand the best we can in this environment.”
Shirley talked about how this situation has helped teachers have even greater empathy for their students.
“Needing more hours in the day has always been a problem for me, but this made it into a Goliath-type problem,” Shirley said. “I keep saying, ‘In Tahoma we are lifelong learners,’ and I need to practice what I preach. My co-workers have bent over backward to help me at every twist and turn. Students have been wonderful to work with me through the glitches as they occur. This has given me a better perspective on what students with eight classes, jobs, family time and other responsibilities are going through each and every day.” Empathy and teamwork have been key concepts.
Fifth-grade teacher Krystin Lindstom, who will retire in June after 19 years with Tahoma, said this shift put teachers in an unusual position.
“This whole experience really put teachers in a different role: From ‘We know everything’ to ‘We know nothing,’” she said. “So many times I wanted to say ‘I don’t get this.’ I understand how they feel, and that was a good lesson for me. My highly capable kids get really frustrated when things don’t come fast for them. Most things come fast for me, too. This technology thing, though?”
Although she didn’t consider herself “tech-savvy” before this change, Lindstrom said it was surprising to suddenly feel so stumped. “For me, it was a real opportunity to get digital. … When you don’t know how to do something, go find the people who do, and observe and listen. This was a rich opportunity for me.”
Like many teachers, she experienced a rollercoaster of emotions and high levels of frustration. But out of that frustration and extreme change have come some other unexpected and excellent results, Lindstrom said. For the first time in 20 years, she estimated, she has finished whole cups of coffee while they were still hot, and has had the chance to really watch spring unfold in quiet moments.
Even better -- her students have had experiences they might not otherwise, and the chance to share those lessons with Lindstrom and their classmates. Some have been raising chicks, others started gardens and researched how to keep rabbits from eating the young plants, and one made a scaled Lego model of a tree fort that she is building in real life. The students and Lindstrom discuss all these topics and more during their online class meetings.
“Things have happened that never would have happened in a regular classroom,” she said.
Lindstrom and other teachers have also changed what and how they are teaching by varying the activities they offer, adjusting the pace of the lessons and examining the level of rigor.
“I think it’s a matter of showing up. I think my takeaway is if you don’t know how to do something, the minimum threshold is you just need to show up. It’s not negotiable. Showing up puts you there. You just don’t get to give up,” Lindstrom said. “We showed up, and what we’ve done in a short amount of time has been pretty amazing.”
Adams agrees. “Although it isn’t the way that I wanted to end my career, it is simply the way my career ended. I am trying to do my best until the end because although this is my last year of teaching, it’s my students’ only time through sixth grade, and they deserve a teacher who is invested in making sure that it is the best year that we can have in whatever circumstances we end up in,” she said.
Learning the new platforms and being forced to work in silos is hard on students and teachers, Allison said. Tahoma has worked to provide support for students, families, and staff in these new conditions, but acknowledges the anxiety it can create for all.
“Working with new technologies in a new teaching environment is stressful for everyone, even our ‘techiest’ teachers, and the patience and persistence I’ve witnessed from some of our most veteran teachers is truly inspiring,” Allison added. All three teachers we spoke to for this article said their success would not be possible without the help and teamwork of their fellow teachers and the support of Allison and other Tahoma staff members.