Pandemic teaching: How one award-winning Illinois teacher has adapted to remote learning

Mary Kovats, a fifth grade teacher at Carl Von Linne Elementary School in Chicago, who recently won the Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Teaching. (Contributed Photo)
How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs.

Mary Kovats loved coaching a kids’ sailing team. So at the age of 40, she left her career in marketing and advertising, went to graduate school, and became a teacher.

For nearly 20 years at Carl Von Linne Elementary School on the city’s North Side, she learned that “teaching isn’t just opening a book in the classroom, it’s teaching the whole kid, the neighborhood and their family. What I love about it is that teaching involves the community.”

This week, Kovats won a prestigious Golden Apple for Excellence in Teaching award. The fifth-grade teacher was among a handful chosen from among more than 730 nominees throughout the state. 

Kovats credits her success in the classroom to advice she received earlier in her career, to  “teach the kids who are in front of you.” Whatever goals she might want her students to reach, Kovats tries to keep her students at the center of guiding their learning. 

Chalkbeat spoke to Kovats by phone to see what teaching has been like during a pandemic. This interview has been condensed and lightly edited. 

What advice would you give parents who are being asked to home-school their children amid the new coronavirus outbreak?

We’re all learning how to do this, kids included. Their routine is broken, let’s try to set up a new routine. Let’s build it slowly and don’t expect too much right away. Half of the kids have been talking to their teachers and classmates. Set a time and place, set a routine and trust that the teachers are doing their best.

How are you adapting to remote learning?

It’s hard not to see the kids. It’s hard to not be able to look over their shoulder individually and say, “How are you doing? How can I help you?” To give that one kid the one sentence they might need to get going, to figure out why this kid is stuck, to see that this gets finished and give them a little extra. That part of teaching I just can’t figure out on the screen.

The hardest part is trying to figure out how to be that teacher that’s looking at the kids individually rather than just as one big screen full of kids. I’m trying to meet with each kid separately, look at their work and sort of set the expectations that way because everything’s not equal; every kid is different. You can’t just post one activity and expect that everybody can do it.

What about your students — how are they adjusting? 

They’re sad. They miss their friends. They miss working together; sharing a document isn’t the same. There is not the collaboration that we have in the classroom. They’re having a hard time starting their work. We’ve had to do a lot of individual stuff with kids to get them just to start the work. The kids are telling me that that’s the hardest part for them. 

In this moment, what should parents realistically expect of teachers who are working remotely? What’s not realistic?

It’s not realistic to think that we’re going to have the same pace and rigor that we’ve had in the classroom. We’ve had to slow down because we’re building a new routine with new platforms. Also, parents have to trust that we’re aiming toward that. We’re doing the best we can to keep students engaged. We’ll have to catch up later because we’ve slowed things down a little bit, but everybody’s slowed down. We just have to have faith that we’re going to fix this. 

Do you think this experience we’re all having will give people a better appreciation of what classroom teachers do, day in and day out?

Yes, I think that parents can see their kids’ interactions and engagement. I’ve had parents say things like, “Is this how he is in the classroom? He doesn’t talk?” or “Does my child always interrupt during class?” and things like that.

Tell me about your last day in the classroom before your school shuttered. 

We went in on Monday, March 16. Most of the kids came and we kept them all in the rooms. We were telling them to put this and that in your backpack but we didn’t know what to expect. We were hand sanitizing and wiping things down. 

We talked about making sure that we stay in touch, making sure that everybody was going to check their email. I tried to make it light and silly and make sure that we had a plan for how we were going to communicate. At the end of the day, they all wanted a hug and we weren’t supposed to be hugging. So, we kind of did like an elbow bump out the door, and then they were gone.

We did not know what was coming. It’s very sad, I feel like I left this empty room. I went back in once with a mask on to get stuff. Their books with their bookmarks in them were on the tables. I don’t think we prepared adequately. 

I didn’t know I would never see them again in the room.

What gives you hope at this moment?

It is the kids, because they’re still laughing, commenting, and trying to trick me. I’m just talking with my community, my kids, and my families. I have hope that somehow we’ll get through this and make it work and come out the other end.

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