Four teachers had just earned their Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) from Trinity University when COVID-19 disrupted their very first year in the classroom. Every day since has been about adaptability.
“COVID-19 has upended the classroom environment for everyone,” says Angela Breidenstein ’91, M’92, Ed.D., who is the interim chair of Trinity’s education department. “Regardless of how many years you have in the classroom, this situation is challenging and is definitely pushing all teachers to be creative, resourceful, and resilient.
“But imagine how it is for teachers who are in their first year,” she continues. “They are definitely being challenged while also using what they know to be adaptable, nimble, and hopefully oriented to collaboration. They are asking for help and partnering with students and families to face something we have never seen before.
This cohort has always leaned on each other for support and tips around virtual and hybrid classrooms. Before the pandemic, the 2019 MAT graduates (10 total) were already accustomed to gathering routinely to trade classroom management hacks, share mutual support, and learn from one another. Now their meetings have just moved virtually. They pop in on Zoom with their peers as well as their mentors, including Breidenstein and other faculty in the Department for Education and its professional development schools.
Besides all being 2019 MAT graduates, the teachers also have another thing in common—they all teach ninth grade.
“The ninth grade is a significant transition year for school-age kids,” Breidenstein says. So, not only are these teachers guiding students through a completely new classroom experience—one where they too are learning as they go—but they are also helping the students navigate entering high school, a time fraught with opportunities and anxieties around social, emotional, and physical changes.
Priority No. 1? Maintaining community—among students and their peers, among students and teachers, among teachers and parents, among colleagues. With just a summer to think and regroup, these grads retooled their curriculums for their second year of teaching entirely around creating community in a socially distanced classroom.
“Everyone in education, at every level, we're all learning from one another,” Breidenstein says. “That’s an energizing feeling. That's part of evolving and adapting.”
Reilly Brown ’18, M’19
English, 9th Grade
International School of the Americas
North East ISD, San Antonio
Yvette Peña ’18, M’19
World Geography, 9th Grade
International School of the Americas
North East ISD, San Antonio
Forever in the back of Yvette Peña’s mind is something she learned during her full-year internship in a classroom.
“You must have a plan,” Peña ’18, M’19 says, “and you must be ready to adapt that plan.”
Reilly Brown ’18, M’19 and Peña co-teach 125 students at a magnet school that attracts students from all over San Antonio. In their shared classroom, Brown and Peña bridge world geography and English.
“We teach truly interdisciplinary lessons,” Brown explains. “If they're learning about something like migration, they'll read books about that in English, have discussions, and write poetry or prose assignments.”
Brown and Peña have taken their combined classroom online, co-piloting their Zoom room together. “When the kids don't feel comfortable yet, Reilly and I will banter and it feels more full, like more people are there,” Peña says. It’s a lesson they learned from the spring. “The biggest piece missing last semester was community,” Peña says.
In fact, the first two weeks of Reilly Brown and Peña’s semester were dedicated solely to building bonds: They held discussions on topics like friendship building, empathy, and talking about comfort zones or boundaries.
“We can always catch up on content later. But if students aren't super comfortable with each other, it's going to end up slowing it down anyway,” Brown says.
To enhance the comfort levels in the classroom, Brown and Peña also preserve beloved traditions, such as fun and spirited weekly recognition awards. “We realize how important those moments are,” Peña says.
But they also kept the more subdued, familiar rituals, such as weekly journaling prompts. And in the spring, they say, the students really used the journals as their outlets during the uncertainty.
“That was some of the best writing I had seen from kids,” Peña says. “They had so much to say about what they were going through.” It’s these reflective moments, she explains, that will stick with the students.
“Our classroom is so much more than grading and giving out work.”
Reilly Brown ’18, M’19 and Yvette Peña ’18, M’19 created a virtual classroom for the students in their interdisciplinary classroom.
Kristin Krenz M’19
English, 9th Grade
Advanced Learning Academy
San Antonio ISD, San Antonio
“The No. 1 concern of our new students is, ‘How am I going to make friends?’” says Kristin Krenz M’19.
So to help these students ease into high school, Krenz and her team of teachers created a special, virtual ninth grade orientation spanning two days. The event was filled with games, group design challenges, and a Q&A with rising 10th graders.
She says that her school year is off to a good start. Kids are connecting with one another, and they're finding common interests—”including Minecraft and K-pop!” Krenz says. Krenz is teaching a hybrid class, with seven students in her classroom and more on Zoom. Each, she says, faces struggles.
“Every kid's challenge is different,” says Krenz, who reports being on the phone with students regularly to troubleshoot online classroom experiences. “I'm really proud of them when they figure things out.” She cites parent teacher conferences as particularly beneficial.
Even as the teacher, Krenz is not immune to technical difficulties, such as mixing up her Zoom breakout rooms and watching endlessly spinning loading symbols. “We’re constantly telling the kids, ‘Thank you so much for your patience,’” Krenz says.
And the hybrid teaching? “It’s a juggling act. I'm running down the hall to be in a class with a pod of seven kids, and then running back to be on Zoom remotely,” she says. “It's an exercise in resilience.”
Kristin Krenz M’19 created a virtual classroom for her students.
Brittney Ivanov M’19
Biology, 9th Grade
East Central High School
East Central ISD, San Antonio
For teachers who also are parents to school-age children, like Brittney Ivanov M’19, the return to school was uniquely complex.
Ivanov juggled prepping for her return to the classroom with coordinating childcare for her 7-year-old daughter. With both Ivanov and her husband working full time, options were limited. Ivanov would bring her child to work, where staff would watch the children in the school cafeteria or gym as a babysitting service for the teachers. Once class resumed at Ivanov’s school, though, she sent her daughter to stay with her mother.
So, Ivanov was thankful when her daughter was offered an open spot in a physical classroom at the Advanced Learning Academy. “I want her to be in the classroom, and really the biggest reason is because I need somebody to watch her,” Ivanov says. “That’s the sad reality of our public education system—it’s not meant to be a babysitting service, but for a lot of parents, we have nowhere to send our children during the day.”
Ivanov teaches biology, including a “last chance” intervention track for juniors or seniors hoping to graduate. Her teaching takes place online using Google Meet, as well as in the classroom with a modest handful of teenagers.
Ivanov says that when schools first went online in the spring, she saw abruptly dwindling class numbers. At her old school in the San Antonio Independent School District, what began as a classroom of 20 dropped quickly to five in attendance after the first day of class. Soon, she was teaching the same two students every day; the others were MIA.
Ivanov is facing similar struggles at her new school. She says only a small subset of students really interact with her. The rest “fade into the background—they don't talk, comment, or participate in group activities.
“None of them turn their videos on—it's like talking to a wall,” Ivanov continues. “It's so hard.”
But, she recognizes that the struggles extend on the other side of the screen. “Some of the kids don’t really know how to use a computer or navigate the Internet very well,” Ivanov says. “It's hard for them.”
The learning curve applies for everyone who shows up to class, including herself. “I once lost my whole class for a good minute trying to find their browser tab,” says Ivanov. “I had a small freak out on the inside,” she says.
She took a deep breath and began searching through the tabs until, relieved, she finally found them.
“I tell them, ‘This is new for us, and it's new for you. We're all learning together.’”