Teaching During COVID-19: A Q&A with Dr. Amy Pelissero

We’re now more than two months into a school year that has been entirely reshaped by a global pandemic. While Global Village Project’s hybrid model includes one day on-site for a small group of our highest-need students, most classes are still held virtually via Zoom, five days a week. All things considered, remote learning has been going well, but it certainly hasn’t been easy. Recently, I sat down with School Principal Dr. Amy Pelissero to talk about what the real, everyday experience of teaching during COVID-19 looks like - challenges, successes, and all. 

What are some of the challenges that students are facing right now with regard to learning and engagement?

Students are dealing with the general stressors and fears their parents face during COVID, such as unstable employment, food instability, and a general lack of social assistance. We’ve helped a number of families, who typically depend on agencies and friends to support them, renew complicated food stamp applications and the like. With school going online, many of our students who have very large families have siblings who are also trying to log on and learn online simultaneously, which can cause distractions, internet slow downs, difficulty hearing or feelings of discomfort when participating. Many of them must also help watch siblings, care for them, cook for them, act as school and classroom interpreters for them—all while trying to engage in their own classes and complete work without individualized assistance. 

From an academic standpoint, many aspects of GVP’s highly individualized and supportive approach are difficult to transfer online. We’ve worked hard to ensure our program team remains fully staffed and resourced for the extra creativity, effort, phone calls, and home visits required to engage students. While we are still providing small classes and accessible and appropriate materials, it’s difficult to provide students with the same level of individual attention online as we would on campus. This has been especially hard for our newcomer students, who often depend on school sisters and our incredible volunteers to help them understand teacher instructions, expectations, and questions. 

Remote learning has brought about a lot of challenges that all learners in a virtual environment might encounter, but some are especially difficult for our students as refugee newcomers and English language learners. That said, our teachers, the students’ parents, and the students themselves are so deeply invested in their education, in adapting and making it work. 

What does the reality of online teaching look like for GVP teachers? What counts as a success for teaching during COVID?

Our highly qualified teachers have many decades of experience, but none of them have been trained as online instructors. Many of the tools in their toolboxes are not as useful as they once were, and they’re having to adapt in real time. They are working hard to learn new ways to offer students the best possible online learning experience, but it is a great challenge. The teachers recognize that they must be reflective and intentional, and must move more slowly. They know that GVP students have already missed years of schooling and want to help them catch up with their American peers in schools, but they are also aware that they may not be able to do that in the same way this year. We anticipate slower growth among students and realize that academic achievement cannot be our first priority or greatest goal this year.

Our goal and our success will be found in our connections, our relationships, and our strong learning community. If we have students who want to be in classes (as they do now) and who show up for school (as they have been with 90% average attendance), then we are successful. If we have students and families who trust us, reach out to us when they need support, and want to share the school with others, then we have achieved our goal. 

During this difficult time, I have been so deeply moved by the love our teachers have continued to show to our students, even taking the time to visit students and families at home for no real reason other than to show they care. Ms. Marjorie shared a story in our Education Team Huddle yesterday: one of our returning, third-year students has been showing up to and participating in classes but falling behind in her work completion. Several staff members have talked with her, but Ms. Marjorie decided she would go meet with her in person. The student was so happy and excited to see Ms. Marjorie that she ran to her and hugged her. After they talked, she immediately set to work - making up several assignments in that one day. I was so moved as I thought about these young women - teenagers - who care so deeply for their teachers and so respect them that they will hug them and be motivated to complete work just to please them. I thought about the mutual love and care shown in that very simple story. That kind of deep care is what our success is built on.

What are some of the emotions that teachers and students are feeling in this season?

Teachers and students at GVP are often feeling overwhelmed during this time. There is the fatigue, frustration, and grief of having to face so many things that are different and difficult, and also the desire of wanting to go back to in-person classes. Many are also experiencing discomfort with all the chaos in the world and so many new challenges. With no definitive end in sight yet, there is the fear of “Am I doing enough? Will I ever be digitally proficient? Will things ever be like they were before?”

Still, there is also determination—to learn, to love, to do our best to make it work. Teachers and students continue to carve out moments to feel joy, celebrating the small things and the big things together, sharing jokes of the day in Advisory classes, and of course, singing and dancing together! Ms. Katie, GVP Social Studies & Guided Reading Teacher, also said that she feels "the appreciation from the staff, students, and parents. Even with everything our parents are dealing with during this time, everytime I call parents, they express to me their appreciation and thanks for the work we are doing with their girls."