by Elena Spathis
This past year was one marked by change, loss, and unimaginable hardship. For the first time, after being closed for an extended period, most schools across the nation reopened with unique hybrid schedules. Rarely-used terms like “hybrid,” “remote,” “social distance,” and “virtual” suddenly became part of our everyday vocabulary. For teachers and students, the ordinary school year as we knew it quickly became a distant memory. Even the classroom looked like an unknown space, with desks and chairs spread far apart.
My school district opted for a hybrid model, with in-person teaching in the mornings and remote classes in the afternoons. However, several students chose to remain fully remote for the entirety of the school year. Like most educators across the country, I had to split my attention between the students in the classroom and those online, with my laptop facing the board in an effort to “livestream” my classes.
For the first time, I could not do what I had always done. I did not have the control I once felt that I had. My exhaustion level hit an all-time high. Teaching simply was not what it used to be pre-pandemic. Yet, despite all of these complicated factors, I am now able to end the year on a more positive note with some key takeaways.
Takeaway #1: Let it go!
Like our beloved Elsa sings, this year taught me the beauty in the phrase, “Let it go!” It seemed impossible at first, but once I came to terms with the fact that teaching would certainly not be the same as it had always been, my perspective shifted. In the past, I would have anxiously rushed to accomplish all of the lesson’s objectives. I would have obsessed over creating the seemingly perfect assessment or activity. I would have gotten so aggravated if a technology tool stopped working.
The messiness with this year’s schedule changes, as well as the constant switching between in-person and remote instruction due to fluctuating COVID-19 cases, led to countless imperfect circumstances. Once I acknowledged and accepted all of the things that were not in my control, I was able to focus my energy on what was in my control. Each day, I aimed to engage my students and to keep their mental state as healthy as possible. I strived to maintain a positive and upbeat classroom environment, in the physical classroom space and online. When there were internet troubles or technology failures, I chose to laugh it off and stay patient. I knew that my students and I were navigating the unknown together, and all of us needed to collectively let go of our previous expectations. In turn, this built up our resilience and better prepared my students for future challenges.
Takeaway #2: Quality over quantity
With such limited instructional time, I knew that I need to pick and choose the concepts I would target this year. This seemed like the end of the world at first, but once I started to master “letting it go,” I knew that it was in my students’ best interest to focus on teaching exceptionally well the content I could get to. Therefore, I took a hard look at each of my units and established new goals.
I cut out the excess information that was not essential to the overall learning objectives. I also focused on recycling and using as many similar vocabulary words as I could in each unit rather than overwhelming my students. I identified some of the essential verbs, adjectives, nouns, and phrases I wanted my students to acquire, and made it a point to incorporate them in every unit.
Hence, even though my students might not be ending the year with as many random vocabulary words as they would have in the past, they have mastered the key structures in level I of Spanish. Cutting out the unnecessary, overly repetitive activities and eliminating non-essential structures was an important part of the planning process this year that I will continue to implement in the future.
Takeaway #3: Mindfulness as a habit
In years past, mindfulness strategies were typically only discussed before exams or prior to the college application process. Stress management has always been an issue for students, yet mindfulness was not fused into everyday instruction. There were isolated wellness events, but nothing was constant.
With anxiety, stress, and depression hitting all-time highs this year, we came to the realization that teachers and students alike could benefit from practicing mindfulness on a daily basis. These techniques could make a world of difference not just in the school setting, but in our personal lives as well. I began regularly practicing yoga and meditation, and encouraged my students to do the same–we even practiced yoga and meditation in the target language in class.
Additionally, rather than rushing to get things done and worrying about the future, I made it a point to take my time and focus on the given moment. I shared my mindfulness journey with my students
, and invited them to join me. Without a doubt, incorporating mindfulness strategies into my lessons helped to maintain and strengthen the positive classroom environment this year, and I will continue to implement them for years to come. More details on these strategies can be found on this previous blog post here.
Takeaway #4: Less is more
This year marked an educational technology explosion with so many virtual teaching elements. Teachers were constantly exposed to new tools, and countless online professional development sessions became available. It seemed like the perfect time to dive into the tech world with school moving to the online format. However, I quickly noticed that exposing my students to too many tools became confusing, frustrating, and led to disorganization. It added more chaos to a school year that was already strange enough.
Just as I had dedicated time to eliminating the excess components of my lessons and unit plans, I did the same when it came to technology. I evaluated which tools were the most user-friendly and conducive to the communicative modes of reading, speaking, listening, and writing in the target language. I paid close to attention to my students’ preferences
, and took them into account when designing technology-based activities.
Even though we have so much available to us, the tool should simply enhance the lesson rather than dominate it. It is not any particular technology tool that yields to a great lesson; it is the teacher behind it. On a similar note, students are looking to make connections with teachers, not with technology–let’s not forget that as we move forward, to happier, renewed, post-pandemic teaching days.
Elena Spathis is a Spanish teacher in New Jersey, and currently works at the high school level. She earned her Bachelor of Arts Degree in Spanish and Modern Greek Studies, as well as a Master of Education Degree in Language Education from Rutgers University. She recently obtained her second Master’s Degree in Teacher Leadership, with a concentration in English as a Second Language. In addition to teaching, Elena also enjoys writing and blogging about her teaching experiences via Edutopia, Wayside Publishing’s Proficiency Talks, and her own website, the Spanish Teacher Diaries. She loves to travel and experience new cultures.