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A teacher urges her students to stay positive and remain grateful for everything they have during the COVID-19 pandemic

Staying Connected During COVID-19 [Teacher Spotlight]: Madeline Caballero

A teacher urges her students to stay positive and remain grateful for everything they have during the COVID-19 pandemic

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.

Madeline Caballero
English Teacher, 7th-9th Grade
Fajardo, Puerto Rico

“Be grateful for what you can do and for what you have.”

What inspired you to be a teacher?

When I grew up in the 60s and 70s in New York, I didn’t have a lot of great teachers. They made me feel less than because of my Hispanic background. I would never want to make someone feel like that. So when I was eight years old, I knew I wanted to be a teacher so that I could help make a positive difference. And now I’ve been teaching for 40 years.

Related content: How a middle school teacher tackles online learning

Today, I don’t have to teach, but I love to teach. I even retired at one point and went back to teaching. There’s just this desire to see kids progress. You want them to be educated and to teach them well. Students can really enrich your life. They’re so intuitive—they notice everything and are so clever. They are why I continue to teach.

What has been your experience teaching in another country?

Well, it’s really hard to teach in a foreign country because you don’t have a lot of resources needed to teach. When I taught in the United States, even the public schools gave you some supplies. But here in Puerto Rico, and also when I taught in South America, it’s not the same and we don’t get a lot. Teachers are the ones who have to buy everything. In the States, schools will just throw away old computers or projectors, but we could really use those here on the island. We really rely on donations. We don’t care if items are old.

It is discouraging because even though we are part of the United States, we are so disconnected. Even with just trying to order supplies, you’d think we were on the other side of the world. We have a US Postal Office but cannot even get Amazon to deliver to us. It’s unbelievable to me that it’s like we don’t exist at all.

In your 40 years of teaching, have you ever experienced anything like the pandemic before?

Yes, but it was not exactly the same. A couple years ago when Hurricane Maria hit, that was really, really hard. There was no teaching whatsoever. We couldn’t even reach out to our students because all phones were down. We basically were shut down completely for three months. At least this time around, we are able to connect and continue teaching our students.

What has remote learning looked like for you and your students?

Every morning at 8:00, I turn on the computer and check the emails from all of my students. Then I write to them and check-in to see how they are doing. I will send them their assignment for the day as well as an inspirational quote, just like I would do in the classroom. For their assignments, I usually send them a lot of YouTube videos that explain English basics. Then I follow it up by sending them PDFs of paragraphs and asking them to correct the grammar and send it back to me. Other than the morning emails that I send, they are on their own the rest of the day. I have made sure that they know that if they would like a private class, I am willing to teach them. The only time we’ve had a video chat so far has been with the entire class.

I do try to mix in some fun in our lessons as well. Two weeks ago, I taught my students how to make a face mask out of a bra. The kids LOVED it! I showed them how to thread a needle and sew it together, and eventually all of them were able to make one and they sent me pictures. Even the parents loved the idea. A lot of them wrote to me saying how they appreciated that I was able to take them out of the classroom mindset for a little bit—to get a break from studying and reading.

Have all your students been able to have equal access to the online materials?

Even though I work at a private school, it doesn’t mean that all my students come from a wealthy home. Not all my students have computers to work on at home, but they do, thankfully, have at least a phone to use to access assignments and Zoom meetings. Some students are still doing their work as normal, but there are some who haven’t turned in anything since March. For my older students in 9th grade, I learned how to do quizzes online. It was funny because I have 47 students but I got a report that 51 took the quiz. It turned out that two or three of the parents also took the quiz! I do have some students who are working better in a remote environment. I think the classroom allows for a lot of distractions, so for some they are doing better than they were before, academically.

What would you say some of your biggest challenges have been?

Not being there for my students. I know that a lot of my students must be struggling to understand what’s happening. While I do have a lot of students who do speak English, a lot of them don’t—and the same is true for their parents. They aren’t getting the full picture of what is going on in the world and I think it’s causing a lot of stress among their families. And we don’t know how long this is going to last. My poor ninth grade students are supposed to graduate this year and they keep asking me about what’s going to happen to their graduation. It’s hard not to have the answers for them.

Also, to be honest, we don’t have much support out here. The school administration is busy dealing with the parents and trying their best to keep them informed and supported. Teachers were just told to move our classes online, but they didn’t prepare us for how that should or would look. But the other teachers and I have a great connection. For instance our science teacher is a bit younger, so she really helped us all set up the Google Classroom and got us caught up on some computer basics that will help us teach remotely. Right now, I just tell everyone I can that if they have anything they want to donate—we will take it all. Old computers, projectors, books, anything will help us out here in Puerto Rico. Many people in the States don’t realize we are part of their country and are living in poverty.

A lot of my students have parents who normally work two jobs because they want their children to have a good education. However, now that a lot of parents are at home all the time, I can tell the stress they are feeling with making sure their kids are still learning in their classes. I just try to be patient with them and support them. I send them complete breakdowns of the assignments so that it’s easier for them to help their kids.

Is there any advice you have for other educators in your similar situation?

I think it’s really important to speak up. A lot of teachers are sometimes afraid to speak the truth because they are afraid of losing their jobs. Teachers out here in Puerto Rico are sometimes working two jobs so it’s important they keep their contract, but by saying the truth and talking directly about the afflictions, is the only way things can improve. You can’t keep your mouth shut if you want to advocate for yourself, your co-workers, and your students.

I also think it’s important for all of us as educators to not take seeing our students every day for granted. This whole experience has made me miss my students more than I could have imagined. It breaks my heart to not be with my students. I know some of them are struggling. I know that they don’t all get along with their parents. I know they’re going through a lot from what they had confided in me before we went on lock-down, and now know that they are at home and can be suffering—it hurts me.

If you could tell your students anything, what would it be?

Be grateful. Be grateful for what you can do and for what you have. We don’t know what tomorrow is going to bring. So even if you feel like you have so little, still be so grateful.

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.

Note: Article based on original interview from April 2020.

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