Education in a Pandemic: Teachers

(Sept. 24, 2020 / FOX Carolina) 

UPSTATE, SC (FOX Carolina) There aren't any students in the library at Wren High School -- just librarian Tamara Cox.

"The whole point of the library is to share materials and that’s, you know, a problem right now," Cox said.

It's her 15th year working in education, but Cox said she was more nervous for this year's first day of school than any other.

“It’s like starting all over again [and] rethinking how we do everything," she said.

Teachers across the upstate agree.

“It’s the year of the pencil. We erase a lot and we start over a lot and that’s OK,” said Woodruff Middle teacher Ashley Bennett. 

The seventh grade math teacher has been in the classroom for 15 years. Now she's learning how to handle a hybrid schedule. 

"Everything is more. Everything is difficult. Everything is hard and I say that not to be a whiner, but it’s the truth," Bennett said.

Her students are in class just two days a week and she said her workload has tripled, but she said it's worth it.

 “I’m having to type up, ‘OK, this is what you’re going to do for me tomorrow,' or I’m sending text messages through a remind app," she said. 

Ashley Bennett

Woodruff Middle teacher Ashley Bennett works at her desk after school. The math teachers says her workload has tripled with hybrid learning, but says it's worth it to get face time with her students. (Sept. 24, 2020 / FOX Carolina)

The bright side for Bennett is clear, though. Up until this year, Spartanburg 4 did not have the funding to provide every student with a Chromebook. 

“That is tremendous. For some of our kids, this is the first digital device that they’ve had in their home," she said. "It was like Christmas when they got those Chromebooks.”

In Dr. Clifford Lee’s Spanish classes at JL Mann High School, he says the trouble shooting is daily.

“This year, everybody’s a first year teacher ... It’s probably at least an hour a day that I’m trying to find a better way to do something," Lee said. "The good thing is I’m successful a lot more than I’m not.”

Although teaching online and in-person has obstacles, Lee, who serves on the directors board of the South Carolina Education Association, prefers the hybrid schedule over a normal one.

"As someone who lives with two medically vulnerable people, that gives me severe apprehension," he said. "I would be very worried to do things like go over a kid’s shoulder and point things out or help a kid troubleshoot something because I won’t be able to keep my own distance.”

Kindergarten teacher Keri Lewis said she's had to be much more creative this year with her students at Taylors Elementary. 

"The fact that we even get to be in person with our kiddos this year, we’re not taking it for granted," she said.

Keri Lewis

Kindergarten teacher Keri Lewis says in some ways her students are further ahead in the curriculum because of hybrid learning. She says her students are working independently on Chromebooks, which is something they usually aren't able to do until November. (Sept. 24, 2020 / FOX Carolina) 

Lewis' students are only in class two days a week, but she said that means more one-on-one time. 

"March was hard. I just remember crying for just days and it was just really survival mode," Lewis said. "Now it’s just the stress of ok, we have them for 14 hours a week in person. What can we do in those hours to make sure that they’re getting the most out of their instructional day?”

But these teachers said the most exhausting part of the job happens outside of the classroom.

"Parents are stressed. Parents are angry. Teachers are stressed. Teachers are angry. Administrators are stressed," Lewis said.

Cox said she doesn't get on Facebook anymore after seeing comments attacking the efforts of educators.

“It’s difficult when you pour so much time and energy into something and someone gives a negative comment about it," she said. "It’s very hurtful.”

Bennett said she fears the workload combined with the backlash could mean fewer people seeking jobs in the classroom.

"Are we going to lose out on a generation of fantastic teachers because of the negativity they’re seeing in the media? Because it is difficult?” Bennett said. "It’s an opportunity. It really is. Challenges are not a negative thing, but they’re an absolutely hard thing.

Lee said he hopes people focus on the voices coming from people inside the classrooms: teachers and students.

Tamara Cox

Wren High School librarian Tamara Cox delivers books by hand because students can't browse the shelves in the library. When a book gets returned, she quarantines it for several days. (Sept. 24, 2020 / FOX Carolina)

"The classroom’s always a laboratory. Right now the experiments we’re doing … there’s more unknowns this time around," he said.

Lewis said she's taught kindergartners for 17 years, and she'll teach for four more decades if she's able.

Cox agreed and said working in education is still what she loves to do, despite the new challenges.

“I know that this is temporary and I’m willing to tough it out," she said.

Copyright 2020 FOX Carolina (Meredith Corporation). All rights reserved.

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