Teachers tackle new settings, new schedule

Mr. Matt Ator teaching, September 25, 2020 -photo by Jeffrey Yang ’22

When students grew anxious about the return to school this year, adjusting to new quarter semesters, ninety-minute classes, and health safety measures, teachers busily revised their curricula to fit those same enormous changes. Welcoming boys into school halls was not the beginning of their journey; planning began early in the summer. 

     Those who have been in the teaching profession for a few decades think the prescribed classroom layout, with individual desks evenly spaced out in rows and columns, reminds them of the late-twentieth century. 

     “I haven’t taught in rows since 1987. It’s the 1950s industrial [style] when it was ‘Everyone line up and be a good soldier,’” physics teacher Ms. Carol O’Brien said. 

     The lack of ability to form desks into tables or circles is extremely difficult in classes such as English, where class discussions play a central role in the experience.  

     English Department Chair Mr. Thomas Stambaugh, who previously arranged his class in a tight circle, said, “[The new classroom layout] just changes the spirit of the room.”

A socially distanced classroom – photo by Mr. Thomas Stambaugh

     Additionally, group work has been challenging for teachers across all departments. In math classes where students previously collaborated to solve problems or explore a concept, teachers are trying to keep some sense of interaction by instructing students to work with their direct neighbors, while maintaining a six-foot distance in between. They also rely on online platforms where students are able to first explore themselves and then reflect together as a class.

     “In Geometry, using Geogebra allows students to explore kind of on their own,” math teacher Mr. Matt Ator said. “I give them a framework and then they can play with the diagram and move it around in a way that paper and pencil can’t. We had a really good class where everybody kind of typed in their thoughts, and I just put it all up on the board and said, ‘All right, do any of these things stand out to you?’”

     Similarly, science teachers address the hole left by collaborative labs and equipment-handling experiments by providing online interactive sites and pre-recorded videos. All the instruments in the science classrooms are tempting, but health safety measures limit the physical interaction students can have with the equipment.

Ms. Carol O’Brien teaching, September 25, 2020 – photo by Jeffrey Yang

     “I have the benefit of being in the room with all the equipment,” Ms. O’Brien joked, “and I can’t use it.”

     While many feel they have a relatively firm grasp on in-person educational changes under COVID-19 precautions, teachers still grapple with virtual students’ experiences. The first challenge facing teachers is the technology setup—cameras, speakers, and virtual meetings.

     “It’s like acting as a television producer while teaching a classroom of students,” Mr. Stambaugh told a recent upper school English department meeting. 

     Additionally, many faculty feel as though they are struggling to provide virtual students with an engaging atmosphere and online activities that match the in-person experience. 

     “I only have one virtual student, but the challenge of providing something that is as stimulating at home as it is in the classroom is really, really hard,” Ms. O’Brien said. 

     Mr. Ator added, “I’m trying to pair in-person students up with virtual students to make sure that everybody’s getting connected.” 

     Even for those who have found that they must condense much of their course, trimming down material has helped teachers pinpoint the most important lessons.

     “You kind of feel like, ‘Everything I teach is important,’ but you really have to take a look to say, ‘What is most important? What do I really need students to come out with ?’” Mr. Ator said. “I think it’s a really good teaching exercise too.”

     In addition to deciding the most important lessons, faculty are also concerned about pre-planning daily ninety-minute classes.

Trying to gauge what ninety minutes looks like on any particular day [is a challenge]. I’ve aired on the side of being over-prepared because I am scared to death of being underprepared.

Physics Teacher Ms. Carol O’Brien

     “Trying to gauge what ninety minutes looks like on any particular day [is a challenge],” Ms. O’Brien said. “I’ve aired on the side of being over-prepared because I am scared to death of being underprepared.”

     Regardless of this year’s challenges, teachers are excited to be back on campus and meet many students in person. Some view the upcoming year optimistically, a perfect trial period for ideas they have previously thought about but had not been able to implement. 

     Mr. Ator said, “I think everybody is going to come out of it [the year] as a better teacher just because of the opportunity and necessity of experimenting with our styles.”

Author: Jeffrey Yang '22

Managing editor Jeffrey Yang has written for The Index since 2018. He previously served as news editor. His feature "Fords immigrants under the spotlight: Mr. Kan's citizenship odyssey" earned a Gold Key from the 2020 Philadelphia-area Scholastic Writing Awards.