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Discover how a middle school teacher tackles online learning in a way to keep students engaged and thriving

Staying Connected During COVID-19 [Teacher Spotlight]: Dr. Kathryn Sampilo-Wilson

Discover how a middle school teacher tackles online learning in a way to keep students engaged and thriving

In partnership with eSchool News, Illuminate Education is spotlighting teachers in a series recognizing educators, the way they have moved instruction online during COVID-19, and how they have prioritized the needs of their students.

Dr. Kathryn Sampilo-Wilson
6th Grade Teacher
Buena Park School District

“We have to create a program that enables students to thrive and grow, to engage students and make them feel loved.”

What drives your passion for teaching?

My passion for teaching is driven by my students and families. I’ve always wanted to be a teacher for that reason. I teach at a Title 1 elementary school, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. It is a challenge, but those intrinsic rewards that you get when you help a student and they have that “a-ha” moment makes it all worth it. It’s not only about the academics—it’s about the impact that you have on them and their lives. You never know if you’re the only smile that they see that day or if you are the only hug that they get. That’s why you do it—the kids.

What was the transition to remote learning like for your school?

On March 13th, we had a feeling that the schools would definitely be closing based on what was being spread all over the media. Just in case, I prepped my kids and had them take home their belongings, a novel, and anything else they may need. The closure wasn’t announced to teachers until right before dismissal, so it was a bit chaotic for teachers. We weren’t given the green light to inform our students, therefore we were in limbo.

Related content: A teacher learns that online learning requires flexibility and patience

Over the weekend, we were still unsure of what next steps would include. Emergency staff meetings were held to discuss district directives and then it was go time. We had one day to plan, prepare, and compile three weeks of hard-copy lessons and activities to send home to families. The next day, I spent hours on the phone collaborating with my colleague trying to develop a remote learning program for our 6th graders that would be more than just busy work. A plethora of professional development opportunities for various distance learning platforms was offered by the district TOSAs, and teachers were thrown into an abyss of options and had to make some snap decisions. Anxiety and stress were at very high levels. Our principal and school secretary had to take on a lot of the responsibilities such as photocopying and prepping everything because people were scared–not just of the abrupt change, but also about their own health.

I will say that my grade level team is stronger than ever. There are three of us in the sixth grade level, and we would meet on a weekly basis to collaborate, design activities, and just check in with each other. While we worked well together and developed a productive distance learning program, the struggle was real. The whole process had been pretty stressful and entailed many hours above and beyond our typical work day.

I know a general opinion is that we’re the teachers and we should just jump in and keep teaching our kids, but we were very much just thrown into this situation and didn’t have time to process. We didn’t have the time to be human. We had to be the teacher and make sure to teach and take care of the kids when really we need to take care of ourselves and our families, too. Luckily, our principal was very aware of this and checked in on us frequently. Needless to say, it’s been a struggle. However, instead of focusing on the challenges, we built upon each other’s strengths so that we could get through this together.

I was talking with one of my fellow teachers about how it has been a bit exciting to be thrown into the deep end without knowing how to swim. We’ve made so many errors, but now we have a better grasp on remote learning and we’re now better prepared. If we have to start having a mix of in-classroom learning and remote learning in the future, I think we’d be more than okay. It would definitely be nice to start off in the classroom—to get to know the kids, develop rapport and trust, and teach them how to use the chosen platform. Then, perhaps transition to a distance learning model, if necessary.

While distance learning has shown to be beneficial for some of our students, most students need the social interaction, hands-on learning, and kinesthetic activities that distance learning does not provide. I can really see this affecting the development of the younger students because a lot of their learning and their development is based on play and interaction with others, and we just can’t have that right now—at least not in more efficient ways. For the older students, they are going through a whirlwind of emotions and changes. The in-person resources available through the traditional learning environment, such as counseling, peer interaction and support, and social cues, are not readily available through distance learning. So much of an adolescent’s development is impacted by their daily social interactions and discourse. Therefore, distance learning falls short in that department, in my opinion.

How were you able to move your classes to a remote learning model?

Since a Distance Learning program was not established prior to the school closure, trial and error played a big role in the development of my program. Because I was more familiar with Google Classroom, I offered to co-teach with my grade-level team member. We combined both classes so that the technological aspect didn’t hinder the progress of our students. Together, we learned the nuances of Google Classroom and determined what would be the most beneficial to our students’ learning. While the initial development of the course seemed feasible, issues began to arise. Features of the online platform did not work due to restrictions set by the district. For instance, we were not allowed to do any live instruction for the kids’ safety. Therefore, much of what the students received were pre-recorded lessons. We made sure that if we were introducing any new activity, or new format, then we’d provide an instructional video modeling what it is the students need to do and what is expected of them. While pre-recorded lessons included lessons, they lacked an essential component of effective instruction: engagement. It is through active engagement that students gain from immediate feedback, opportunities to ask questions, and gain from the cognitive processes demonstrated through classroom discourse.

Was getting students to engage a challenge?

As far as reaching our students, our principal was very proactive. Teachers were tasked with completing daily accountability forms, indicating which students were not logged on or participating. Our principal would set up a Zoom call. During the calls, she would talk to the parents and students to walk them through things, answering any questions or clarifying any misconceptions.

Initially, getting students logged on was a huge obstacle that required countless hours of walking students and parents through the log on process via phone calls or ParentSquare/ClassDojo messages. We definitely had some students who were not motivated to participate. They told their parents that school was over, so they were done. That was really difficult, because we want the best for and from our students. All of the students have devices though and some sort of internet access, so we did see some good interaction there. We tried setting office hours during the day, but so many times we were needing to work with a family in the evening, after their parents were done working. My colleagues and I were dedicating a good 14+ hours daily to our remote learning program.

We learned that some of our students really thrived and were so engaged with remote learning, and a lot of those students were the ones we didn’t expect it from. And then there are others that were really struggling and we tried to connect and help them as best we could, but there is only so much we could do without being right in front of them. It was frustrating for us, as educators, so I know it was just as, if not more, frustrating for the students as well.

As far as connecting with my students, I actually feel like I got closer to a lot of my kids. We had been trying to ensure that our students’ growth and learning was not affected, so we created activities to include AVID, growth mindset, and social-emotional learning, in addition to the core curriculum. As time passed, students and parents were becoming more comfortable with the format and student involvement increased. We’ve noticed that this method allowed even my shyest students to open up more since there was no face-to-face. Because everything was done via private comments, the effective filter was diminished. As a result, they weren’t as timid to share out about what was going on and were willing to divulge more than they did when in a normal classroom. Being able to create these unique bonds with the kids that are normally so quiet was a big positive.

What type of social-emotional learning activities did you do with your students?

Some days it was just a question. I’d ask how they were feeling that day, or how they were feeling about COVID. Other days I would record a read-aloud of a book that was geared towards social-emotional learning, such as fears and anxiety. As part of the lessons, I would share my personal experiences to enable them to make connections, demonstrate my vulnerability, and make them feel that it’s ok to feel the way they were feeling. I’d also teach them different coping skills and strategies and go over the worries that we can control and the ones we cannot control. We usually did this once every day and across the curriculum, when possible.

What advice would you give to other educators?

Teachers wear many hats. While teaching is our main responsibility, it is important to note that we focus on the whole child. As teachers, we take care of that student who sneaks food from their free lunch into their backpack for their family, we find pants for the boy who only owns shorts, we schedule ceremonies to motivate and honor students, we get help for the student who feels there’s nothing to live for, we cheer kids on at their soccer games. In a nutshell, we love our students as if they were our own. And right now, we have to care for our students through a computer. We have to create a program that enables students to thrive and grow, to engage students and make them feel loved. So just do your best and don’t be down on yourself. That’s all you can really do. This is a new adventure and you’ll grow with your children through the experience. No one is expecting you to be perfect and no one is blaming you for what’s going to happen next year. And don’t be afraid to ask for help, it doesn’t mean you’re any less of a teacher just because you don’t understand something. Just be open to learning—that’s the message we want to pass to the kids too. We want them to grow, and you will only grow through trial and error and by taking risks and putting yourself out there.

What message would you like to share with your students?

Just that I love them. One of my students wrote to me saying that “this isn’t the end.” For them, they are the class of 2026 and that is the light at the end of their tunnel. And I’ll be right there with them if they’ll have me.

Share your remote learning story

Our education community is facing unprecedented challenges around teaching and learning. In these times, more than ever, we are each other’s best resources. We invite you to reach out and share how you or a colleague, friend, or family member is approaching remote learning.

Looking for more resources around supporting remote learners? Check out Illuminate’s Remote Learning Community Page for free resources for your team, including webinars, professional learning activities, articles, product tips, and more.

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