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Denver educators reflect on past year; teaching during COVID-19

Three Denver teachers shared challenges the pandemic brought to this school year.
Credit: KUSA
Denver Public Schools teacher Evyenia Pappas

COLORADO, USA —

EVYENIA PAPPAS, 1ST GRADE AND LITERACY CONTENT LEAD, BROWN INTERNATIONAL

Evyenia Pappas didn't know she wanted to be a teacher until college. It even took other people pointing out her strengths and instant connection with kids that persuaded her to become an educator. Teaching 6-year-old's completely through a computer screen wasn't one of her skills before 2020. 

"I absolutely think it’s something I can add to my resume; I’ve got a great grasp on it now," she said. When school districts first announced they'd be switching to remote learning, Ms. Pappas, like other teachers and students, was excited to experience working from home. "That reality really set in after about a day. Three weeks in, I was like, I’ve gotta get back into the building."

She misses the human connection with her students the most, Ms. Pappas said. When a student gets frustrated or has a breakdown, all she wants to do is hug them. "The toolkit that you typically have to help those students, it’s gone; you can’t be there to give them a hug and do all of those things. It's really heartbreaking." 

There are some good moments, too, that prove how resilient her 1st-grade kids really are. Ms. Pappas said she could never sign off from her virtual class without a sense of joy and happiness. 

"How this pandemic has impacted them is insane; as adults, we know how difficult this is," she said. "To look through the screen and see that they are still engaged and thriving academically and happy and having fun, I mean it’s just a really emotional experience because as a teacher, you go home every day and you say, have I done enough?"

Since her class remained 100% remote since March 2020, Ms. Pappas created sign-ups to visit her students at their homes to check in on them. "Some students show me their toys, some run and hug me; others give me flowers." She said sometimes they don't even talk about school. Checking in on their mental and emotional state is just as important to her. 

Ms. Pappas and her students are just days away from their much-needed summer break. She's looking forward to getting back to the classroom next semester and hopes to have all of her students there with her. 

If she could see her kids in person, all together, before the end of this school year, here's what she would tell them:

"You did it; you survived the most difficult, difficult year that any of us have ever had, and you did it with such grace, with smiles, with joy, and I would want them to know that they helped me through the hardest year of my life. Through all of the hard work that I had to do and all of the personal struggles that I had to go through, I would want them to know that they took care of me this year more than I took care of them." 

Credit: KUSA
Denver Public Schools teacher Chris Martin

CHRISTOPHER MARTIN, SCIENCE TEACHER TEAM LEAD, SKINNER MIDDLE SCHOOL

As a science teacher, Mr. Martin likes to learn and explain why the world works the way it does. That wasn't easy to do when the pandemic hit. He, too, was excited to experience working from home. That didn't last very long. 

"I always thought I wanted a desk job, after sitting and teaching from a computer all day, and I know that doesn’t excite me anymore," he said. 

In January, Mr. Martin was reunited with half of his class as they phased into in-person learning. The other half remained remote. He had mixed feelings about going back to the building at first.  

"It felt too soon, it didn’t feel like we had our numbers under control, so I sat with a lot of anxiety, a lot of restlessness, a lot of worry," he said.  

Once he was back in the classroom, he said he felt safer and happy with the COVID-19 precautions in place. "The energy of being with the kids and the energy of being with my family, my colleagues, also just kind of reduced my anxiety."

Mr. Martin worries about his students' engagement and the loss of learning 

"We’re in education because we care about our students, and we want them all to be successful," he said. "It was heartbreaking knowing that they mean a lot to us as individuals. Their futures are important to us; when they disengage, when they opted out of learning, yeah, it broke our hearts." 

The disengagement meant many phone calls, emails, and anything else teachers could do to get their students plugged in again. "In some cases, if kids don’t want to do school, there was not a lot, I can’t make you come to the video meet, and I can’t make you do your work...there were still some that we just weren’t able to reach."

It feels good to have some students back in the classroom, and Mr. Martin looks forward to having more kids in desks next year. 

If he could see his kids in person, all together, before the end of this school year, here's what he would tell them:

"I love you, and I'm proud of you. What you went through this year only made you stronger. You should be proud of yourselves, too."

Credit: KUSA
Denver Public Schools teacher Lia Peppers

LIA PEPPERS, 9TH GRADE ENGLISH AND AP LANGUAGE AND COMPOSITION, NORTH HIGH SCHOOL

Two years ago, Lia Peppers was excited about starting her career as an educator. A few months in, the pandemic hit. It came with its fair share of challenges for her, but it also made her realize how important human connection really is. 

"It's necessary, especially right now," she said. "We have really just put humanizing first, and I think that was probably the best decision the school, community, staff has made throughout this whole thing." 

Still, not being able to see her 9th graders in person took an emotional toll on her. 

"There’s that moment where you see that someone’s got it, right? The screen is a physical barrier, and it does start to wear you down when you can't see those moments. There's a face that students get when that happens, and you can't see them."

Ms. Peppers says it's important to be concerned about the loss of learning, but even more important to focus on the emotional needs of her students.

"More than a loss, I’ve just seen like this incredible, inherent strength in them that has made me feel like, even if there is a loss, we can get it back. They’re gonna be okay," she said. "I told them, you know, it’s okay to feel whatever you’re feeling, it’s okay to be confused and upset because I'm the example of both of these things in this moment.

Looking back on this year, Ms. Peppers said she couldn't help but feel proud of her students and herself, given the challenges and constant changes. 

"I’m proud of our students in a way that I never knew I could be. There’s a depth to them and a resilience I never knew existed. I’m really proud of myself, and I think other teachers really should own that, too." 

Ms. Peppers hopes next year looks closer to normal, with more students in the classroom. She also hopes schools can give them those social experiences, like pep rallies, assemblies, and school dances. She's also been worried about her students' mental and emotional needs throughout the last year but is hopeful things will slowly start to get better. 

If she could see her kids in person, all together, before the end of this school year, here's what she would tell them:

"I would tell them that I love them so much. That’s the first thing that comes to mind and I’m so amazed and inspired by them and what they’ve done. Most of the days, a lot of the days, they were the ones that kept me going through this. It got hard and having them and seeing them, that was the thing that kept me going. I can confidently say I’m better having taught them and witnessed their greatness throughout a pandemic."

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