Schools across the country remain closed to stem the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19), but the business of teaching and learning continues.
For teachers on the front lines, charged with rapidly creating and delivering virtual education, the task is unfamiliar and daunting.
Yet there is support – and some of it is coming from Anna Quinzio-Zafran, an adjunct instructor in the NIU College of Education’s Department of Curriculum and Instruction and 2015 alumna of the Ed.D. in Curriculum Leadership program.
Quinzio-Zafran is serving on a Teach Plus Illinois leadership group helping third- through fifth-grade teachers to adjust their instruction.
The longtime elementary school teacher also led a March 23 webinar hosted by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards that engaged nearly 1,000 people in a Zoom room and more than 1,400 people who watched the Facebook live feed.
Her topic – building community – also generated lively conversation on Twitter afterward.
“Obviously, the National Board is going to be thinking about what’s best for students. They reached out to me to participate in a webinar on building community,” says Quinzio-Zafran, who retired in 2013 after 36 years in the classroom.
“Any of the students I’ve had at NIU will say, ‘Oh, yes, Anna is always there to bring us together as a class so that the coursework can be meaningful to all of us, and so that we can feel welcome and supported and that our voices are important,’ ” she adds. “As NIU has more and more international students, we must honor things that are important. We honor people’s cultures. We try to always be inclusive in our classwork.”
She got a sneak peek of this challenge last fall as she spent six weeks inside her Shorewood home resting a torn tendon in her foot and teaching her graduate courses online.
COVID-19 now poses a similar test for teachers at all levels who are accustomed to working with their students face-to-face.
“Relationships matter in education. You have to have a strong relationship in the K-12 world. That relationship between the teacher, the student and the student’s family needs to be a strong one in order to best support the child – the student,” Quinzio-Zafran says.
“As we moved into this new way of teaching and learning, much more has been expected of families ‘on the other side,’ and we needed to speak on how to develop those relationships in a different way,” she adds. “Previously, classroom teachers just expected parents to monitor their children’s homework and to get them ready for the day. Now that parent has a more integral role.”
Quinzio-Zafran, who is National Board-certified and part of the leadership team for the National Board Resource Center at Illinois State University, became interested in this topic early in her career.
Teaching in Coal City Community School District 1, she had “a sense that the kids really needed to feel supported at school.”
“I had done a lot of study with the ‘Responsive Classroom’ approach where kids are encouraged to build community every day, where you can sort of take that temperature of who maybe needs a little bit more support during the day and which students are ready to be leaders themselves in the classroom during the day,” she says.
Each day ended with a meeting – the “compliment circle” – during which students “would find something about someone else that they had done well,” she adds.
“We would make everyone feel as if they’d had a great day, and have them leave with confidence,” she says. “When students have that sense of confidence, and they feel welcome and cared for, they have that comfort to feel a little more vulnerable and can grow as a learner because they’re willing to put themselves out there in the classroom.”
Her work with Teach Plus Illinois came via invitation from a professional connection with Bill Curtin, the organization’s Illinois Teacher Leadership Coach.
Collaborating with three other teachers – they were strangers just a month ago – she helps to provide “office hours” on Tuesdays and “learning community training” on Fridays to 88 teachers from across the state.
It’s all meant “to get them to open up about some of the difficulties they’re having, and trying to offer some thoughts on how they maybe can rethink some of their challenges,” Quinzio-Zafran says.
Friday’s workshop focused on accepting the reality that many children are unlikely to master all learning standards by the end of this unusual school year.
“With distance learning, you really have to back off because it takes so much time,” she says. “We told them, ‘If you had five or six standards, which of those things are most important, and how can we work together to design learning opportunities and assessment for those children to achieve those standards?’ ”
Yet it’s during the office hours that Quinzio-Zafran truly sees what’s causing anxiety among teachers striving for success in difficult circumstances.
Some are worried about technology, she says, and are finding that not all children have the skills necessary to take advantage of virtual learning resources now being offered free by the developers.
“It’s hard to teach kids how to use a new learning platform on the fly when you really can’t be there to help them in a one-to-one way when they’re already struggling,” she says. “We’re encouraging them to focus on technology that the students are already familiar with.”
Others share deeper concerns – ones that make Quinzio-Zafran proud of her profession.
“ ‘What do we do about students with families that really don’t want them to participate in school? How do we focus on kids who aren’t contacting us back?’ This came from a teacher in an urban setting who also asked, ‘When should I call in for a well-being check on this family?’ ” she says.
“It’s not just about teaching students,” she adds. “It’s also about caring for them during this time of upheaval.”