These two traits will make you a better at-home teacher, this Bronx educator says

The Friday before New York City schools closed for at least a month — and possibly for the rest of the academic year — Michael Urda spent the day holding parent-teacher conferences. Those meetings took place not face-to-face in Urda’s Bronx classroom, but over the phone because of social distancing. 

“This was a first for me — the first of what would be many firsts in this unique time,” said Urda, a team leader who teaches English Language Arts to seventh and eighth graders at South Bronx Classical School I, a K-8 charter.  

The parent-teacher conferences reminded him of how committed families are to their children’s achievement and well-being; and they left him feeling surprisingly optimistic, even as the coronavirus pandemic bore down on the city. “Times of great struggle present tremendous opportunities for solidarity and growth in a school community,” he said. “In the efforts that I see our parents, our scholars, our teachers, and our support staff making, there is great hope.”

Urda is teaching his students online now and spoke recently with Chalkbeat about how parents can approach at-home learning, what is and isn’t possible for educators working remotely, and the importance of seeing each day as a fresh start — for teachers and students alike.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

What advice would you give parents who are teaching their children at home during the coronavirus outbreak?

First, I wish them luck. The cardinal virtues of any educator are patience and belief. While your scholar knows that you believe in them in general, saying to them that you believe that they can master a concept can do worlds of good. Words and encouragement are empowering. Second, with patience, anything is possible. Try to cultivate that skill and admit when you lose your patience. Teaching will be a new way of knowing your child, so take this as an opportunity to learn firsthand how your child learns, what he or she excels at, and what he or she struggles with, so that, when we return to school — and we will return — we can share our insights with each other. 

[Related: Michigan’s Teacher of the Year is homeschooling during the coronavirus crisis. Her children aren’t impressed.]

How are you adapting to remote learning? 

Remote learning is challenging, there is no doubt. Some of our greatest tools — proximity and [classroom] management — are not as tangible virtually as they are when we are walking around checking work. But the important thing to remember is that there are still skills that translate across any platform: Every teacher can still set clear expectations. Every teacher can still believe that every child can succeed. And every teacher can make himself or herself available to parents and scholars as a source of stability and support.

What about your students? How are they adjusting?

Although many of them are missing the social aspects of school and the physical presence of a classroom,  I’ve been blown away by their efforts so far. While it’s an uncertain time, our students are adapting and growing every day. 

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

My last day in the classroom was spent giving over-the-phone parent-teacher conferences. This was a first for me — the first of what would be many firsts in this unique time. And when I left school that day, no decision had been made on whether the school year would continue or be canceled. But it was during these conferences that my hope was buoyed. 

Why hope? 

Talking to our parents demonstrated how we all have a role to play — together — in ensuring our children succeed. Times of great struggle present tremendous opportunities for solidarity and growth in a school community. In the efforts that I see our parents, our scholars, our teachers, and our support staff making, there is great hope. We must be there as teachers, in both uncertain and certain times, to help our children learn how to do their best and continue to become the people the world needs them to be.

I’m noticing that you refer to your students as “scholars.” Why? 

The title of “scholar” is a professional honorific that helps them to understand that each day, just as we are working at becoming the best teachers that we can be, they are working to become masters of their subjects and to embrace the idea of lifelong learning.

Tell us about your own experience with school and how it affects your work today.

I have always taken Mr. Dance, who taught me and my three older siblings eighth-grade history in South Bend, Indiana, as my inspiration and example. With his wit, humor, and expansive knowledge of not only his subject but every other, he brought a sense of calm surety to the year right before high school. I recognize how important it was to have a strong voice to prepare me academically and emotionally for the challenges of high school. That has informed my teaching more than anything else.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

The best advice that I ever received came from the teachers who helped train me in my first year and from the teachers who have helped me grow ever since. They each taught me, in their own ways, that the most important thing about teaching is recognizing that both you and the scholars change every day. I make a conscious effort to welcome scholars into my classroom each day, particularly those who struggled the day before. 

What was the biggest misconception that you initially brought to teaching?

The biggest misconception was that teachers’ most valuable tool was being liked. The teachers that last and that scholars remember are the ones who make it their top priority to help each scholar find out what their best effort is and consistently reach it. 

Recommend a book that has helped you become a better teacher, and why.

“Decline and Fall” by Evelyn Waugh. In the travails of the central character, Paul Pennyfeather, in his first year as a teacher, I saw the importance of making mistakes in your first year and learning from them each year, and each day, after.