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‘We’re educators; we always make it work’

Relentlessly positive teacher tackles challenges of both virtual and in person education

Just starting out as a kindergartner, Central Elementary student Kaden missed learning alongside his friends in the classroom when Covid-19 forced schools to close in the spring. He also missed talking at school about one of his favorite things: tractors. 

Living with a chronic lung disease, Kaden’s social interactions were limited to his immediate family. His teacher, Kelly VanDyke, delivered packets of work to Kaden and her other K-2 students to help keep them actively learning. 

While visiting Kaden’s home, VanDyke visited with him through his window and brought a photo of her husband’s tractor, bringing a smile to his face.

“It’s amazing to watch my son engage with Kelly, even outside of the classroom,” Kaden’s mom Robin Tuttle said. “He lights up when he learns.” 

Kelly VanDyke’s roots in Kenowa Hills reach back to her days as a student teacher there. After two years as a Resource Room teacher, she was hired to teach K-5 at Central Elementary school when it opened in 2010. Entering her eleventh school year as a special education teacher at Central, she is preparing for new K-2 students, safety protocols and classroom learning — reimagined.

“Whenever I am given a task where I need to think outside of the box, it excites me to take on a new challenge,” VanDyke said.

Students returning for the 2020-2021 school year face changes from the traditional classroom model. Wearing masks, social distancing and altered routines present new challenges to overcome for all teachers instructing in-person. 

“The world is constantly changing and this is one of the many things we have to adapt to,” VanDyke said.

Kelly VanDyke readies her classroom for students to return in-person

Creating Community Both Virtually and In Person 

For the 2020-2021 school year, Kenowa Hills Public Schools developed two options for families to choose: 100% face-to-face instruction or 100% virtual learning. To provide students and teachers time to familiarize themselves and prepare for virtual learning, face-to-face elementary students attended remotely from Aug. 31 to Sept. 3.

During that first week of virtual learning, VanDyke focused on community building, teaching students how to use Zoom and wear masks, and Central Elementary’s teaching tools, Capturing Kids Hearts and Social Stories.

“Capturing Kids Hearts guides us to teach students about owning their own behavior, reminders, time-outs and creating a classroom where everyone is responsible for themselves,” VanDyke explained. “In special education, Social Stories introduce kids to problem-solving and communication skills, while helping them learn social norms in the classroom, like personal space and the dos and don’ts of facing unfamiliar situations.”

For VanDyke, teaching mildly cognitively impaired students this fall requires additional creativity and supporting students as they adjust. Using Boardmaker Online, VanDyke created a Social Stories slideshow with visuals and words to help explain concepts like wearing a mask, practicing social distancing and not feeling fearful of change to her students. 

Her goal is to build a sense of community between her 12 students learning in-person in her classroom and two additional virtual students. 

For those learning online, VanDyke personally delivered paper worksheets and sentence strips (words printed on pieces of paper for the student to assemble into complete sentences) to families, so they would have the same tools as the students learning in-person.

VanDyke’s K-2 students are excited to learn in-person alongside their classmates

Looking Forward to Remodeled Classrooms and Getting Back to School

For those special education students returning to school in-person, they will continue all core subject instruction, including adaptive life skills, music, art and gym. According to VanDyke, students will also have the opportunity to be mainstreamed for some classes, though school safety protocols may modify procedures.  

“We want our kids back in the classroom, especially for those who need speech or occupational therapy. Those are really hard to provide over Zoom,” VanDyke said. She plans to wear a clear face mask allowing her mouth movements to be more visible and comprehensible.

Thanks to the bond proposal that passed in May, VanDyke’s students will learn in newly modernized classrooms. 

“All my students will be coming into the new classroom with new furniture, a bathroom in the classroom and it is really exciting,” VanDyke said. “I am also excited to see them face-to-face and work towards building up our classroom community.”  

Making Sure Students Have What They Need 

Alongside her fellow teachers and Central Elementary staff, VanDyke continues working and adapting to the constant changes in education resulting from the pandemic. After schools initially closed last spring, VanDyke personally delivered wireless devices and packets of work to students at their homes. 

“Spring semester wasn’t perfect — nothing is. I felt like I was able to give my students one-on-one support through video conferences and we stuck to our learning schedule the best we could,” VanDyke said.

VanDyke believes the more staff and students practice the new learning and safety procedures, the more natural they will feel and eventually become a part of their daily routine.

“It will all be a new normal and we’ll adapt,” VanDyke said. “We’ll make it work. We’re educators; we always make it work.”

Principal Cherie Horner praised VanDyke for her commitment to her students’ learning in and out of the traditional classroom setting.  

“Kelly goes above and beyond and believes her students can do anything and meet any challenge,” Horner said. “She challenges the belief of our staff and myself, honestly, and blows us all away with what her students can do.”  

According to Horner and Kaden’s mom, if one of her students needed extra help with lessons, VanDyke set up virtual meetings or phone calls to speak one-on-one, establishing herself as a reliable resource for students to succeed in their learning. 

“During Covid, Kelly makes sure her kids get what they need and her students are doing the work,” Horner said. “She even went to the homes of students to meet with students, deliver materials and speak with parents.” 

Horner describes VanDyke’s educator role as a balancing act, requiring her to provide instruction, in addition to managing caseloads and Individualized Education Programs (IEP) assessments for both in-person and virtual special education students. 

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Alexis Stark
Alexis Stark
Alexis Stark is a reporter, covering Caledonia and Kenowa Hills and is a roving reporter for Byron Center, Kentwood, Wyoming and Grand Rapids Community College. She grew up in metro Detroit and her journalism journey brought her west to Grand Rapids via Michigan State University where she covered features and campus news for The State News. She also co-authored three 100-question guides to increase understanding and awareness of various human identities, through the MSU School of Journalism. Following graduation, she worked as a beat reporter for The Ann Arbor News - covering stories on education, community, prison arts and poetry.  Following a stint as a copywriter for a Grand Rapids area PR firm, she transitioned from communications to freelance writing and reporting for SNN.  Read Alexis' full bio or email Alexis.

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