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Ivana Harris, who teaches kids from 6 weeks old to 18 months old at Clayton Early Learning in Denver, reunited with her students last summer once the center could partially reopen to educate and care for kids. Harris said kids adjusted well to new COVID-19 rules and protocols, and she learned how to communicate more and check in with families and students. (Scott Dessel Martin, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Teachers across Colorado are winding down a school year that revved up their stress levels in ways most hadn’t experienced before. Many veteran educators in the state refer to the 2020-21 school year as the most challenging one they’ve encountered, but one that’s also forced them to learn new ways to command their classrooms and reach their students.

Some longtime teachers even contend that their students learned more this year than previous classes have.

The Colorado Sun interviewed teachers throughout the state about the lessons they’ve picked up after teaching for more than a year in a pandemic. Many of those lessons revolve around the power of using technology to reach students. Others center on the basics of connecting with kids and building a relationship as a stepping stone to set them up for success.

Embracing emotions in the classroom

Jaclyn Ballesteros rode through the highs and lows with her 4- and 5-year-old students this school year, but on the last day, all of the emotions gave way to an overwhelming sense of relief and joy.

“I don’t feel sad at all, honestly because, I feel like everyone was trying so hard to make school the best possible place it could be under so many extraordinary circumstances,” said Ballesteros, a lead teacher at KIPP Northeast Elementary School in Denver.

Part of making school the best place it could be meant helping her students understand that while the classroom is a space for learning and playing, it’s also an environment where “emotions are OK.”

Ballesteros, 31, shifted her focus this past year from trying to fix situations that left her students feeling frustrated and upset to helping them sit with those negative emotions and cope.

“With the little ones, they can’t always express their words eloquently,” she said. “They don’t have the vocabulary. All they have is that feeling.”

But as long as they feel safe and know their teacher is there to support them, they can find their way to the other side of a tough moment, Ballesteros said. She’s seen her students mature in the classroom, coming to her in the midst of a trying time rather than erupting with an outburst.

Ballesteros, who just completed her eighth year teaching, now wonders why schools haven’t paid more attention to social-emotional learning in the past. Kids have always had trauma, she said, and she wishes that as a teacher she would have thought more about how to help her students navigate through it.

Jaclyn Ballesteros, a lead teacher at KIPP Northeast Elementary School in Denver, pictured with her dog, Oak. Ballesteros has worked throughout the past school year to help her students understand that her classroom is a safe place for them to express emotions. (Handout)

Her charter school is prioritizing social-emotional learning next year with a paraprofessional who will help students work through difficult emotions.

Ballesteros has also had to confront her own feelings and learn how to be more flexible, learning how to embrace, or at least accept, uncertainty.

“I learned not to put so much pressure on myself when I didn’t have the answers,” she said, “and I also gave the people around me a lot of grace because we’re all in the same boat of unknowing.”

Ballesteros will return to the classroom next year confident that it’s where she needs to be.

“I love teaching,” she said, “and this year has really shown me that if I can teach in a pandemic and I can still bring joy and love and learning, then next year should be a breeze.”

Weighing personal safety against students’ needs

How do you Zoom with a 6-week-old?

You don’t. 

When Clayton Early Learning closed to families in March 2020 as the pandemic gained steam in Colorado, educators like Ivana Harris had to scramble to figure out how to engage with their youngest learners — those under age 2, who Harris recommends should not be exposed to screens.

Students that young learn through touch, movement, play and experiences, said Harris, who teaches kids from 6 weeks old to 18 months old at Clayton Early Learning in Denver.

Rather than try to corral families virtually, Harris focused on empowering parents and caregivers to take the lead on teaching their kids themselves, and really own their role as their student’s first teacher.

The early learning center slowly began to reopen to small classrooms of students last summer with new protocols around every detail of operations, from how to do laundry to how to facilitate breaks. Harris, who has worked in early childhood education since 2008, returned to the center to care for both infants and toddlers, a wider age range than she typically works with as Clayton had to figure out how to assign both kids and teachers who were ready to come back to classrooms.

Kids quickly adapted to new routines, wearing masks and saying goodbye to their parents at the door rather than walking with them to their classroom, Harris said. She also saw her students learn to connect with a variety of teachers each week.

“I think they learned to find comfort in a lot of different people,” Harris, 44, said. 

It was the adults whose hands she had to hold a little more, explaining new rules to them, and answering questions of some parents who thought the center wasn’t doing enough for health and safety and others who thought its approach went overboard.

As excited as Harris was to see students in person again, she also dealt with a lot of fear and had her own questions: Could she be putting her family in jeopardy by going back to work? How were Clayton families faring when they didn’t have access to early learning and child care?

She weighed the factors, asking herself, “What am I exposing myself to, and is it worth what the kids and families get from it?”

While looking after young learners during the pandemic, Harris learned how to communicate more and be proactive in checking in with families and students. The importance of mental health among families has also risen to the top of her priorities. When parents are uncertain about their future and distracted by their own stress, their children suffer, often losing out on consistent quality care at home.

“Mental health is a huge part of that,” Harris said. “We figured that out.”

“Stronger than when you started”

Marty Gutierrez met some of his students face-to-face for the first time on the last day of school.

His school, Silver Hills Middle School in Westminster, held a modified ceremony for eighth graders on the final day, inviting remote students to participate and reconnect with friends. Students in masks darted up to Gutierrez in the hall, asking him if he knew who they were. He didn’t after only interacting with them through a screen all year.

Gutierrez, an eighth grade math teacher, and other teachers sent students off into summer with lanyards adorned with the phrase, “I survived the storm” to remind them of how much they conquered during a tumultuous school year.

Their resilience moves Gutierrez to tears as he recalls how much they stepped up and looked out for one another. His district, Adams 12 Five Star Schools, educates kids from a wide variety of backgrounds, including students living in subsidized housing, children who come from multimillion dollar homes and others who speak different languages. 

They all fought through the pandemic together, Gutierrez, 54, said.

Marty Gutierrez, an eighth grade math teacher at Silver Hills Middle School in Westminster, said the pandemic made the school year a challenging one, but he believes his students learned more than students in years past. (Handout)

Their struggles took on different shapes. Some kids had no power, and some were living without a reliable internet connection. Some had younger siblings who were hungry, and some who were home alone in the evening. Some of Gutierrez’s students would leave a Google Meet class to go pick up a younger sibling from the bus stop, rejoining their classmates after walking them home. One of his students would arrive to some online classes late, apologizing and explaining that he was getting lunch for his grandma.

Gutierrez, a 26-year veteran teacher, found that his students were more vocal about their struggles this past year, reaching out to share their individual circumstances.

“It seemed more this year than ever in the past,” he said, noting relationships with students became more important than they’d ever been, whether students were attending classes in person or online.

Despite how many challenges they encountered, Gutierrez said he rejects the idea that students lost a year of education. Some students didn’t get the full benefit of the school year, he said, but many exceeded expectations.

“We’re devaluing kids when we say they didn’t learn,” Gutierrez said, adding “they learned a lot more than kids in my previous 25 years did.”

Gutierrez tried to remind his students of how much they had accomplished while celebrating them on their last day of school, when students congregated in a big open space in the middle of the teacher’s classroom. They sat close together, bringing noise and a few discipline issues back into the building. A few days earlier, the teacher had kids pull Xs made from red tape off seats where students had not been allowed to sit for the sake of social distancing.

“You’re a survivor,” Gutierrez told students, “not just surviving, but you came through this stronger than when you started.”

Gutierrez, who has watched former students become firefighters, policemen and teachers, has had fleeting thoughts about exiting teaching, but his passion always pulls him back in. He could retire next year, but he plans to teach at least seven more years.

“I still love what I do,” he said. “This was a very trying year.”

Helping students overcome an “apathetic mindset” 

Rachel Lyons walked away from her last year teaching students with an “appreciation for a full classroom” along with a new set of technology skills she hadn’t necessarily needed for the bulk of her three decades as an educator.

The former Cañon City High School English teacher also learned how much her own dedication to her students can spark a sense of motivation within them. 

Lyons, 53, is worn out afer a school year of watching students try to adapt to ever-changing schedules and modes of learning while trying to keep up with their schoolwork. She picked up on an “apathetic mindset” among her students, which left her exhausted. 

“You’re always trying to figure out a way to keep them motivated,” Lyons said, noting she’s used to engaging students through discussions and debates in her classroom, not when they’re learning from home. Lyons never met some of her students in person as they remained remote for the entire time they were in her class. That limited her ability to impact them — which is one of the reasons she began teaching in the first place.

But she found that the more she showed up for her students, the more driven they were to stay on top of their assignments. Her own ambition became contagious, and as she prodded her students to schedule a time to go through assignments together “comma by comma,” she said they would realize “they can’t just forget about it.”

Rachel Lyons, pictured at a cabin in Salida in November 2020 with a friend’s dog, Hank (left), and her dog, Riker, recently retired from teaching English at Cañon City High School. The pandemic didn’t cause her to retire, but it did amplify her need to try something new in education after more than 30 years as a teacher. Next year, she’ll coordinate her district’s online school. (Handout)

“When they see that I’m dedicated to the process, that brings them along,” Lyons said.

Like both many teachers and students, Lyons was also reminded of the value of human contact this past school year. She recognizes that online learning is flexible and carries its own benefits.

“However, there is nothing that beats a teacher in a classroom with kids,” Lyons said. “And I think the kids have learned that, too.”

She’s seen her students grow from resenting school to appreciating it — one significant bright spot during a year full of disruptions. And she’s come to understand how much schools need to be instilling resiliency and tenacity in their students, traits that helped kids and teachers alike endure the inconsistencies and uncertainties created by the pandemic.

“Life throws you curveballs, and you’ve got to figure out how to hit it,” Lyons said.

The veteran educator has retired from the classroom but will coordinate Cañon City School District’s online school next year. COVID-19 didn’t compel her to retire. She had been planning to retire this year even before the pandemic. But she’s ready to try something different in education, and she also understands why some teachers would decide to move on after a challenging year.

“There’s a big sense of relief and hope that next fall will be all kids back in the classroom and proceed as normal,” Lyons said. “That’s our hope.”

“Students were dots on a screen”

Aspen Proctor has long identified as an introvert, but even for her, holing up at home to teach her students remotely this past year took its toll. 

“I’m not as extreme as I thought,” said Proctor, who teaches English, creative writing, and film and literature at Sierra High School in Colorado Springs.

While teaching her students virtually over the winter, her motivation started to slip and without face-to-face interaction with students and colleagues, her “normal pep” began to dim. Both Proctor’s job as an educator and her school have helped define her identity, and only once she was forced to teach outside of her classroom did she realize how attached she is to it and to her school community.

It didn’t help that while in remote learning mode, Proctor couldn’t actually see the faces of many of her kids.

Aspen Proctor pictured with her daughter, Tessa, in May 2019. Proctor, who teaches English, creative writing, and film and literature at Sierra High School in Colorado Springs, gained a new appreciation for technology this past school year and plans to blend online tools with paper-and-pencil schoolwork in the future. (Handout)

“Students were dots on a screen, and it’s hard to connect when we were all navigating all of our different life events,” Proctor, 33, said.

She still formed relationships with students, though her relationships weren’t quite the same as those created in person. Missing students was the hardest part of the whole school year.

“Part of establishing a safe and engaging learning environment is establishing positive relationships with students,” Proctor said. “With so many changes and all of the ins and outs of this year, my connection with students was at the lowest in my 10 years. This ate at me all year.”

She knew that watching her students cross the graduation stage this spring would be bittersweet, her own happiness for them tarnished by a sense of disappointment that she didn’t know them as well as students from prior classes.

But there are takeaways from the pandemic that have changed Proctor for the better — mostly. Among them is a newfound respect for technology and its role in the classroom. Having to teach remotely and through a hybrid approach forced Proctor to warm up to her school’s online platform, and she was able to expose her students to new technology applications and take advantage of auto-graded assessments. However, pivoting to online also presented time-consuming learning curves and contributed to more instances of plagiarism among her students as she couldn’t monitor them as closely.

She plans to continue incorporating technology into her future classes, blending her paper-and-pencil tendencies with online learning tools.

She’s also eyeing her next school year with a greater sense of empathy, noting that students and teachers spent the past year “finding out that we are all human” and developing respect for each others’ individual struggles.

For Proctor, some of those struggles played out as she feared her lessons fell short.

“Numerous times I felt like I was failing students because of a lesson that fumbled in a hybrid setting or my policies were too strict or communication didn’t occur where I was sure it had,” she said.

But those flashes of doubt were tempered by breakthroughs, when her students took the reins of a discussion and drew classmates into a deeper analysis of course content.

“These moments,” Proctor said, “just required more time and nurturing in a setting where we all had become accustomed to hiding behind a screen.”

Erica Breunlin is an education writer for The Colorado Sun, where she has reported since 2019. Much of her work has traced the wide-ranging impacts of the pandemic on student learning and highlighted teachers' struggles with overwhelming workloads...