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Teacher Stories: Deanna McFarland

Social-Emotional Learning in Virtual Classrooms

Kindergarten teacher Deanna McFarland describes overcoming difficulties related to remote learning and explains how she motivates and supports her students. Greeting each child by name, staying mindful of differences, repeating words of affirmation, teaching online etiquette, and making an effort to normalize the environment are all ways she encourages social emotional learning.

There are so many limitations that you put on your kids, and you just decide that, hey, they won't be able to do this, or they won't be able to do that. That was a personal struggle that I had to overcome, in realizing that, hey, these kids, even though they're five, some of them maybe six, can do so many things.

Hello. My name is Deanna McFarland. I'm a kindergarten remote teacher. And this is my teacher story.

When I began my role as a kindergarten teach for this 2020-2021 school year, I was doing something completely different prior to November. So covid just has changed things in so many ways, that it was so important for teachers to just jump in and make sure that learning is happening in schools. So I would say that for me, covid shifted my focus from maybe worrying about lots of things to really focusing just on students' learning.

The biggest struggle that I personally had was just my need to be a perfectionist, and for everything to go exactly the way that I wanted it to go. And I had to completely release that. Teaching kindergarten especially, there are so many limitations that you put on your kids, and you just decide that, hey, they won't be able to do this, or they won't be able to do that. And so I would say that that was a personal struggle that I had to overcome in realizing that, hey, these kids, even though they're five, some of them maybe six, can do so many things. So that was the hardest part for me, of going through this remote learning period.

So from my students, I wanted them, especially entering kindergarten, to have the most amazing kindergarten year that they could have. This completely sets the tone for how they feel about school, in my opinion. And so what myself and my team did was, we created monthly -- some of us even did bi-weekly -- packets where we inserted all of their materials. We put in craft materials, we put in consumable materials. We would give them little trinkets or just little motivational stickers and bags, and just different things that they could pull out and have as a reward. And what we did with those items was just made sure that the students had everything they needed in order to be able to do something; we didn't want them to struggle with, find this, or find that. So that was probably the most beneficial things for parents.

So we would say, "Okay, it's Monday, take out your Monday items," and so the students would already have each item for that particular day or week. So when I went to monthly packets, I pretty much did the same thing. So we sent home a bean sprout so that we could plant seeds when we were doing a plant unit. We sent home hot cocoa with a little note, when we're going to watch or listen to Snowmen at Night. So I tried to just incorporate as much normalcy. We celebrate birthdays -- if it's your birthday, in your packet you'll get a birth certificate and a birthday hat. We also did virtual field trips for our units. So again, I think I went with the theme of creating as much of a normal environment as possible for the kids. So those are some of the fun things that we did.

Yes, so we've had some really big challenges with student needs, and especially just materials in general. So this year, I districted a technology one-to-one roll-out. And so that was amazing, and it ensured that all the students had the technology.

So one of the great things about working for Erie's Public Schools is, there are just so many programs to help. So if there is a role that is a liaison for the community, where they ensure that students have all the supplies that they need, even if that includes internet, or if it's just other tangible items, like a coat in the winter, or if they're homeless and they don't have a technical home or place to live, they help them with housing. So this is a huge needs-based school district, and needs-based community, and so there's a lot to offer a kid. So when we would ever run into those struggles, we have someone that we can call and set them up, set up the parents and the family with, so that they can get those basic needs. Erie's really great about ensuring that their kids have the basic needs.

My passion is reading, and, well, just ELA in general. So what I was so excited about from winning the grant with Learning A to Z was the opportunity to get access to those reading records, and to be able to get my kids on level text, and be able to have more concise data reading groups. That's the resource that I feel I really need and have been missing this year. So I have been able to supplement using other things, but to have it just completely thought out for you, and just be able to use the Learning A to Z product for that is going to completely change my classroom.

My kids had really shined. I think that was one of the most surprising pieces to remote instructions. For kindergarteners, they still have so much personality, they still have a story for everything. They completely hijack your lesson to tell you to look at their new backpack -- I mean, they are the same. So in regards to their well-being, their personalities really, really have shown through throughout this process. Academically, I've been very surprised. I feel that those kids, keeping them engaged, I have so many who are becoming readers already. I have had many that knew very little, maybe no letters or no sounds, and now they are just, through using music and just being consistent and giving them a good schedule, and we try to a break every five minutes or so -- I've just seen a lot of growth in progress. I think this way of learning is quite a challenge, but students can learn and can show progress. So I just encourage anyone who is worried that, hey, I'm not seeing any growth, I'm not seeing progress -- just keep at it. I make a point every day to do a talk time with my kids. It's at the end of the day. And so I just stay online for about five minutes, five to ten minutes -- not too long, and allow them to just share. And so I don't really say anything, I just become sort of a listener at that time. And so that's kind of my way of reaching out to them in the social emotional kind of way.

Also, just being really observant throughout the day -- I think sometimes for me, I have a tendency because I want to kind of keep on schedule and keep that instruction environment, not to stop and really pay attention to what's happening around the virtual room. So I've just made it a priority to look at every child, to pay attention to what's happening on the screen throughout the day, to make sure that I say such a small thing, but make sure I say "hello" to each and every child every day, by name. And just make sure they know that I care. I say, "I love you" -- you know, even something as simple as that, every day. We have words and affirmation that we say, "Remember you're special, you are kind and you are important." And I would do that in the regular classroom. But again, just trying to keep the classroom as normal as possible.

I love hearing from my kids. I love them being a part of conversation, so I didn't want to be a mute classroom, just because we were online. So it just took some time to figure out how to have a structured classroom remotely. I had to go back and remember, oh, you know, I have to teach them how to do this. Even though I'm still learning, even though I'm flying the plane while learning how to fly it, I have to make sure that I'm showing them etiquette, and how I want things done. It was just really cool to see them learn all those procedures, and to watch them gain self-control. Just -- it's not the flow of the classroom, but you still get a flow.

So my family actually dealt with covid-19, and had to go on a quarantine. And so it was extremely stressful. There were moments when you were just completely worried about your health, and you're completely worried about the health of your family member. And I was well, so I had to continue to do my job, although remotely. And so that time just also gave a whole different perspective as to what all of us are going through during this pandemic, that you're juggling and balancing and managing so many different things. But you have to show up, and you still have to do your job, and you still have to make sure that, in my case, kids are learning. And so yeah, that was a really tough time to be on quarantine, and to be teaching and to have my entire family in the house at the same time. All worrying and making sure that we're staying healthy was quite a challenge. But it gives you compassion and perspective. So everyone's healthy and everything's okay now, but that was certainly a very stressful time.

I guess I would want to say to my students and parents that I see you, and I think that you're brave. And I know that this is hard, and it's way more than you've ever been asked to do for your kids for schooling, but that it's worth it. And that someday, hopefully very soon, we'll get through this, and we can not actually go back to normal, but look back on this time and remember that you can do more than you think you can, and that we'll push you to be the person that you're intended to be.

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