- Sponsorship -

Social justice, perseverance top the year’s biggest lessons

Reflections on a year of pandemic learning

By Charles Honey, Phil de Haan, Morgan Jarema, Jan Holst, Alexis Stark

Editor’s note: It’s been one year since Michigan schools closed their doors in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus. The stories of parents, teachers, students and administrators are both universal and personal. This week, School News Network interviews them about how the year has impacted their lives. This is the third of a three-part story.

It’s been good to get creative and ultimately have more tools in the tool bag when this is over.’

— Jordan Wallin, Northview Public Schools, elementary physical education teacher

Jordan Wallin
Elementary Physical Education teacher
Northview Public Schools

Jordan Wallin, elementary physical education teacher, and his wife, Jamie, bought a new house in the past year and celebrated the first birthday of their daughter, Landri. Instead of missing many milestones of baby’s first year, they have been “perfectly content being home and hanging out with her, diving into parenthood,” he said.

The biggest thing you have learned this year: “Everybody can be flexible when they need to be, and create and come up with imaginative ways to get things done. It seems like when we all put our minds to it, from the top of the district all the way to the kids, we are finding ways to do things we thought were impossible, and safely. It’s been pretty remarkable.”

One challenge: “It’s been tough not seeing the kids as much as we usually do. We’re virtual every Wednesday, and because of the way schedules work this year we’ve had to cut back (phys-ed) from two to one day a week. That makes it tough to build on a continuous sport, like a six-week floor hockey lesson. And I get new kids all the time coming back from virtual (learning). Just this week I had two new students. I still struggle with ‘who am I teaching today?’ and ‘what can we do in the limited time we have?’”

“But even that has been good; It’s been good to get creative and ultimately have more tools in the tool bag when this is over. Ultimately, everyone benefits.”

Is there anything that has changed in the last year that you would like to keep?

“I’ve been a lot more organized this year, keeping equipment organized, coming up with new activities where kids can be in small groups and not use the same equipment over and over. We went outside not too long ago for our parachute lesson in the snow, and I just thought, I don’t know why we didn’t do it this way before. It was great.”

‘I’m the type of person who enjoys community and the connections and growth that can be made from community. When the pandemic came and we were locked down I felt like my social source was cut off.’

— Lemaria Benson-Stevens, City High Middle School senior
The youth voice is inspiring change, said City High Middle School senior Lemaria Benson-Stevens

Lemaria Benson-Stevens
City High Middle School, Grand Rapids Public Schools

What are some lessons you have learned in the past year due to the pandemic? 

“I learned the power that youth bring to the table is very important, and the changes that we make really impact the world that we’re living in. I’ve seen a lot of changes made in the United States during the pandemic … because the youth stood up and they used their voice.”

She cited the protests following the killing of George Floyd, when many young people demonstrated in downtown Grand Rapids but also helped clean up the broken glass afterward and painted murals over windows. 

“That was really inspiring to see people my age go out and fight for what they know is right.”

She also learned it was OK to ask the teacher for help when she couldn’t grasp a subject online. “I’m an in-person, hands-on learner. Learning through a screen was a challenge.”

What were some of your other challenges?

Social isolation was a major hurdle for a community activist like Lemaria. She’s a former student representative on the Grand Rapids Board of Education and is highly involved with Madison Square Church, The Edge Urban Fellowship and community youth groups. She missed the activities and fellowship.

“I’m the type of person who enjoys community and the connections and growth that can be made from community. When the pandemic came and we were locked down I felt like my social source was cut off. Where do I get my energy now?”

What have you found most inspiring?

Lemaria found a job during the pandemic at Tupelo Honey, a Southern-style restaurant that opened last fall, and was inspired to see other small businesses start up around town. She also noticed people starting new hobbies, maybe taking up an instrument or trying new ventures in life.

“I think people finding themselves through the pandemic has been the most inspiring to me. Before, we were busy with work, school. The pandemic forces us to put a pause on those things. It gave us time to be with our families and ourselves, and to learn more about each other and ourselves.”

‘I’ve learned to ‘read’ eyes really well.’

— Kelloggsville High School English learner teacher Susan Faulk
Susan Faulk has learned to greet her EL students with ‘happy eyes’

Susan Faulk
English-learner teacher 
Kelloggsville High School

What have you learned about being a teacher in the past year due to the pandemic?

“I learned that I love what I do! I love being a teacher, and because I love teaching, I was willing to figure out how to make it work for me and my students. I learned that being centered in Christ makes a big difference. I learned that people are desperate for connection, but they don’t know how to ask for it. This pandemic has only made it harder. So, I’ve learned to go out of my way to offer connection to people. While doing remote instruction, I called and texted my students regularly. I sent individual emails. Now that we are back in person, I go out of my way to encourage students in any way I can. 

“Kind words go a long way. In the morning when I do temperature checks on students when they walk in the front door, I strive to make eye contact with each one, greet them with ‘happy’ eyes, and wish them a good day. I strive to make my classroom a safe place for them to be. I learned that I really miss seeing students’ faces. However, I’ve learned to ‘read’ eyes really well.

What have been the biggest challenges?

“One of the biggest challenges for me is understanding my students. I read lips a lot more than I thought! I teach English learners, and many of them have heavy accents. Also, since some don’t feel comfortable speaking English, they often mumble. So, they can be difficult to understand. Now that they have to wear a mask, it is even more challenging to understand what they are saying and asking. I also have a noisy fan over my desk, which exacerbates the problem. So, I find myself constantly walking toward students and leaning my ear toward them to understand them. I’ve always been a teacher who circulated the classroom regularly, but now I find myself moving about even more. It is good. I get my steps in!

“Another big challenge is losing students to this pandemic. When we went remote last spring, we didn’t have time to prepare students for it, and some of them didn’t navigate it well and never really plugged back into school. A few of my students have dropped out. We’ve also lost students who have chosen to go completely online. Many of the online students have not engaged at all or have engaged very minimally. I see the gap between the educated and uneducated growing greatly.”

‘At first it was different seeing everyone in a mask, but now it seems normal. Everything changes and we figure it out.’

— Will Harrison, sophomore, Kent City High School
Kent City sophomore Will Harrison has gotten used to some changes

Chad Dailey
Math/finance teacher
Will Harrison
Kent City Community Schools

What have you learned about being a teacher or student in the past year?

Dailey: “Many kids weren’t set up for learning online. Not only did teachers have to change the whole way we teach, it became more and more difficult to assess expectations for students. I saw that the vast differences in students and their ability to work independently as well as access to technology contribute to their ability to learn and succeed.”

Will: “At first it was different seeing everyone in a mask, but now it seems normal. Everything changes and we figure it out.”

What has been the biggest challenge related to school in the past 12 months?

Kent City math and finance teacher Chad Dailey has been amazed with students’ resilience

Dailey: “We first thought that school closures would last just through spring break or a couple of weeks, so the unexpected change to all online classes was a huge adjustment. I really worried about the students’ lack of social interaction as well as their progress.

“Some students were doing OK, but others were getting further and further behind and trying to keep up and communication through only email wasn’t effective. So, when we returned to the classroom, it was very difficult to know where to begin and it was challenging to assess where each student was. It is also harder to assess what students are feeling when you can’t see their expressions.

“Differences in access to technology affected some more than others, but I understand the problem. The only access I had was a hotspot on my phone, and it took me much longer to do everything that I needed to do.

“Wearing masks has also been a big adjustment. When I have four periods in a row, I struggle with my breathing and have had bouts with migraines.”

Will: “It is sometimes very difficult to read people and understand what they are saying, when they have masks on. When you can’t see their expressions, it is easy to misunderstand people. Also sports are very different this year.”

What have you found inspiring or interesting through all these changes?

Dailey: “I have been amazed at how resilient students are and how they have adapted so quickly.” 

Will:  “It has been really cool to see everyone coming together to make changes.” 

‘Some parents I get to speak to three to four times a week. In the past I thought I was doing well if I communicated individually with parents three to four times a year.’

— Jayne VanderKlok,, Kenowa Hills Middle Schoolspecial education teacher
Daily class meetings are crucial for Kenowa Hills Middle School teacher Jayne VanderKlok

Jayne VanderKlok
Virtual special education teacher 
Kenowa Hills Middle School

What have you learned about being a teacher in the past year due to the pandemic?

“I had to learn how to let go of some control and let the students figure things out for themselves. As a (28-year) teacher, I hate to see my students struggle. Virtual learning taught me that sometimes the best learning takes place within the struggle. It’s not the journey, but the destination. I had to let the students figure out their own ‘bell schedule,’ how to use Google to troubleshoot technology issues and manage all six of their classes. And what I’ve learned is they can do it.”

What have been the biggest challenges?

“Working with students with special learning and emotional needs can be challenging in the best of times. This year has really challenged me as an educator. Many questions came up during the pandemic such as: How do I support students who can’t read at grade level and have to complete grade-level reading assignments independently? How do I help students with organization issues stay on teacher pace when I am not standing right over their shoulder keeping them on track? How do I encourage students who struggle with anxiety and depression to keep at it, when they are not successful on an assignment the first time through? 

“I learned our daily class meetings were crucial to working through these questions. Students shared tips and tricks and were able to find solutions like text-to-speech applications and calendars and tech support. The class meetings also created a sense of community for students that have been working from home for an entire year.”

What have you found inspiring?

“The relationships that I developed with students and their families have been so inspiring. Five days a week I am invited into their homes through virtual learning and I get a glimpse of what their personal lives are like. I’ve gotten to know the people who live with my students, who are the animal lovers, who are my night owls and who are my early birds. Some parents I get to speak to three to four times a week. In the past I thought I was doing well if I communicated individually with parents three to four times a year.

“Through these conversations I have been able to appreciate the way COVID has impacted their lives. The struggle is real for some of these families and I am touched that they have opened up and shared their lives with me.”

- Sponsorship -


Related Articles

- Sponsorship -

Issues in Education

Making Headlines

- Sponsorship -


Maranda Where You Live WGVU