The sudden shift from classroom teaching to remote learning is uncharted territory for school communities across the country. Julia Okrant could never have imagined that her first year as a teacher would be like this, but she is up for the challenge.
“The best way to support students and families right now is through connection,” says the 2019 graduate of UVM's Middle Level Education program who teaches at Flood Brook Union School in Londonderry.
“First and foremost, we are making sure that students have their basic needs met. That means checking in with families to ensure that they have access to the necessities, and if not, connecting them with resources in our community. I’ve been checking in with my students multiple times a week to answer questions, update them, and hopefully alleviate some of the anxiety surrounding the constantly changing situation. I’ve made sure to remind them that we are here for them and we are in this together.”
Okrant says that what inspires her the most about the teaching profession is the commitment and selflessness of her colleagues. “My school figured out in about two days how to get students fed, connected to the internet, and set up with learning packets. There’s a sense of resilience among educators and school workers. Even when faced with the unexpected, we make the impossible happen because we care about students and their families.”
She feels comforted and hopeful to be in a profession where people look after one another. As a result, she is confident in her ability to rise to the occasion every day despite the circumstances.
“I’m also discovering that we must be gentle with ourselves and others during this time. Someone once told me that teaching is the perfect occupation for the workaholic because our jobs are never truly done. However, during this crisis, I’ve realized the importance of taking time to prioritize our humanity. That may mean having a laugh with colleagues, playing a game with students on a video chat, or taking a break and going for a walk.
“People are hurting right now for a variety of reasons. It may be because the virus impacted their family, something important to them was canceled, or they are feeling worried and uncertain. I’m discovering what matters the most is that we honor our humanity and the humanity of others."
Okrant believes that everyone is doing their best to adapt and overcome the challenges, and that may look different for everyone. “Some of my colleagues are emotionally exhausted and trying to stay afloat, and I don’t blame them, while others have conjured every ounce of optimism within them to spread love to those who need it most.”
Staying connected is critical, and Okrant uses a variety of communication tools such as Google Classroom, Google Hangout, and Zoom. She especially enjoys getting to see everyone’s faces.
She also utilizes Google Meet to conference with students and to have morning meetings with students in her advisory group. "Setting up a routine has helped me establish a sense of normalcy. It’s a fun challenge to figure out games that my advisory can play with one another behind the screens.”
As a bonus, her friend and former professor Jessica DeMink-Carthew invited her to a Facebook group where middle level teachers around Vermont are sharing resources and answering each other’s questions. DeMink-Carthew and Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education Professional Development Coordinator Katy Farber created the group at the beginning of this transition to distance learning. Okrant says the group has helped tremendously, allowing educators to collaborate and share ideas as they navigate the same set of circumstances.
She emphasizes that whatever people are feeling now is normal and ok, whether that involves disappointment because you were looking forward to graduation, senior week, time with family, or upcoming trips.
“It will not serve you to trivialize your pain just because someone else may be suffering more. Lean into what you’re feeling and know that there are brighter days ahead.”