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‘Who we are as teacher and student is essentially the same’

Regional Teacher of the Year shares thought on teaching during pandemic

Students are learning the drill: Enter class, squirt your hands with sanitizer, sit down, keep your mask on. Don’t get up without permission. Clean your space with a disinfecting wipe just before class ends. Leave nothing behind.

That’s the sterile part of freshman English class in the fall of 2020. The 58 minutes or so in between is the colorful part, when students still discuss theme, irony and characterization — when an unexpected story development can prompt gasps from teenagers. “Oh, my gosh, No!” …. “He sold his watch? Oh, no!” they cried at the plot twist during a group reading of literary trickster O. Henry’s 1905 story, “The Gift of the Magi.”

Wyoming Junior High English teacher Shantel VanderGalien can still get the most out of a bombshell ending, even in a subdued setting where students sometimes stay quiet behind their masks. “In my classroom when the doors shut, this is the same. The masks stink; the limited interaction stinks, but who we are as teacher and student is essentially the same,” said VanderGalien, her eyes misty.

VanderGalien was named West Michigan’s Teacher of the Year (Region 3) by the Michigan Department of Education in May. She is one of nine regional winners. The twist to that story? She’s donning the title during a pandemic, when education is flipped on its head.

The 17-year teacher in Wyoming Public Schools leads students in instruction that spans all things English Language Arts, from grammar and punctuation to critical reading and writing about social justice, personal experiences and current events. (The diverse district of about 4,000 students began with two weeks of remote learning before beginning the in-person option Sept. 8. About 55 percent of students opted to return to a less crowded school with new rules in place for social distancing and sanitization.)

VanderGalien is very cognizant of the fact that her students are used to moving more, forming groups, settling on the carpet. “Today I apologized to my kids. I said, ‘If you’ve completed (a task) wave your hands in the air like you just don’t care.’ Then I said, ‘Sorry, that’s as much movement as we’ll get today’.”

Freshman Joselyn Valasquez said school’s different these days, but she’s enjoying being back

It’s her way of acknowledging the challenge, then pressing on.  “It’s just apologizing for and recognizing that what we are doing now is different than how we would usually do it.”

Ninth-grader Yoselyn Velasquez said it’s nice to be back, despite the differences. “It’s more digital than it was last year when we did a lot of paperwork and partner work,” she said. The biggest difference is the social distancing from everyone and not being able to partner or be in a group with people.”

Still, teachers can help set the tone. Yoselyn explained: “My favorite class has to be this class. (VanderGalien) talks to us and she doesn’t make it feel different and weird… In other classes, we are always being reminded about it, but she knows what she’s doing.”

A Virtual Voice for Teachers

Typically, regional Teachers of the Year share duties of traveling to Lansing for State Board of Education meetings and attending conferences. They serve as a voice for the Michigan Teacher Leadership Advisory Council. Now, VanderGalien and fellow Teachers of the Year are doing those things remotely. She’s participating in monthly Twitter chats on topics like social-emotional learning and creating community with distance learning. She is also an alternate on the state’s special education board. Michigan Teacher of the Year Owen Bondono is filling his role from a distance as well.

“We’ve been putting together our list of most pressing issues currently in education and what we feel teachers’ needs are. Distance learning and best practice is one of them. We’ve been honing in on, what is our platform and what do teachers need now. Self-care came up. How are we going to retain teachers at this time?” 

There’s certainly a lot to navigate. To slow coronavirus spread, dramatic restrictions require both a reversion to less engaging teaching practices and an evolution to new digital norms. Both realities are present in VanderGalien’s class, where collaboration and student-led discussion are held less in person but are taking shape online through tools like Flipgrid. Along with the eighth-grade honors English classes she normally teaches, VanderGalien had two regular ninth-grade English classes added to her schedule. She is teaching one honors class virtually.

Wyoming Junior High English teacher Shantel VanderGalien talks with Jesus Rodriguez-Rodriguez (directly across from Vander Galien and Alexis Moras, at right, about O. Henry’s 1905 story, ‘The Gift of the Magi’

In person, VanderGalien’s lessons are peppered with openings for discussion and references students relate to. She responds as things unfold; if students are making a common mistake, for example, she points it out to the whole class during a quick aside.

Remote teaching doesn’t allow for impromptu instruction nearly as well. “It’s a lot more work doing a virtual class,” she said, explaining that a minor punctuation error may need to be addressed individually on every Google doc. “The first two days of school I worked non-stop. I was answering emails at 9:30 at night.”

It’s that dedication to make things work that sets VanderGalien apart. Fellow ninth-grade English teacher Jeremy Schnotala said she is not only a teacher, but, at heart, an academic coach. For many years, she has provided inservice, professional development, training and support for other teachers. (Unfortunately, he said, this year, academic coaching was cut due to anticipated budget cuts and the need to restructure in-person classes.)

But Schnotala said VanderGalien’s expertise is needed now more than ever. “Shantel, like the public school teachers across this nation, has risen to the challenges of implementing quality learning experiences that meet students and families where they feel safest, whether that’s in-person or remotely,” he said.

Freshman Jacob Greenrose reads along on his Chromebooks

In-person is Online

One of the biggest differences in VanderGalien’s physical classroom this year is the ever-present Chromebook. Paper and pencils are used minimally: VanderGalien needs to be ready to seamlessly switch to remote instruction, and stacks of paper don’t fit into that kind of streamlining.

But to look on the bright side, it’s that reality— the fact that schools have been forced to embrace new practices—that could lead to positive long-term changes, she said. Every student now has a device. Administrators know all families must have access to WiFi.

“We can only become better in our practice as teachers. This is going to open up new and better ways of teaching, especially because we live in a digital age. Our students are going to know what it means to be digital thinkers.”

Equity and elevating student voices should be prioritized even further, she said. While the pandemic threatens to increase equity gaps, there are opportunities to proactively keep that from happening. She continues to gauge her students’ needs all the time.

 “It’s in understanding and learning what’s best practice,” she said, noting that means being in tune with what it means for students to be home. One small example: requiring a student to be visible on zoom makes some feel self-conscious about their living situations. Yet, they can still demonstrate their presence in the chat box or on other platforms.

She’s also confident her students are being given access to what they need.  “Wyoming had done an amazing job of asking, “Do you need a hotspot?” and giving any student who needs a Chromebook a Chromebook,” she said. “My district is doing really great and intentional things to minimize any achievement or equity gap that might exist, knowing that things are going to happen that we will have to pivot and address as we go.”

Still, VanderGalien worries about the loss of human connection, the impact the pandemic has had on everyone, the unknowns she can’t control. She’s focusing on one chapter at a time.

“It’s been really good to be back and to see students who one day in March you see them and the next six months you don’t. We just keep reminding ourselves we can do hard things. It’s good to be back together.”

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is associate managing editor and reporter, covering Byron Center, Kentwood, Wyoming and Grand Rapids Community College. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013 and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio or email Erin.

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