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San Diego ‘Teacher Of The Year’ Looks Back On Pandemic Challenges

 May 5, 2021 at 10:14 AM PDT

Speaker 1: 00:00 The pandemics impact on education had a profound effect, not just on students and their parents, but on educators, as well as learning moved away from the classroom. It was teachers who had to pivot and develop new and innovative ways to reach their students to ensure that their education did not suffer because of COVID yesterday three educators within the San Diego unified school district were honored for their excellence in teaching throughout the year of unprecedented change. One of those educators, fifth grade teacher, Thomas Courtney of choice meat elementary joins us now. Thomas welcome. Speaker 2: 00:36 Hi, thanks for having me glad to be here Speaker 1: 00:38 And congratulations to you. Thanks. I appreciate it. Yes. So how does it feel to be one of three educators recognized for excellence in teaching during such a difficult time for your profession? Speaker 2: 00:50 That's the hardest question that I think, uh, I have to answer, but mostly what I sum it up as saying is when you hear the speeches from the other people that were selected, it makes me absolutely honored to be there. What I heard last night from all of them was a commitment to change after the pandemic and a commitment to the students throughout it. So I was completely honored and flattered to be there with them. Speaker 1: 01:15 I'm wondering how your approach to teaching was changed by the pandemic. I mean, how did you initially adjust to remotely? Speaker 2: 01:22 I think it's fair to say not too well. I think it was difficult for myself. I'm kind of that extrovert in the classroom that wears costumes and dances and sings to like eighties music to announce the homework so that doesn't always transfer over to the virtual environment. But, um, what we, I think what we did discover was that every teacher has their own innovative way of bringing things to the classroom. And so once I think I figured that out that, you know, this is just another hurdle to cross to connect with students. That's when I think things started really taking off. And interestingly after the pandemic is over, I think some of those lessons that I've learned, and I think many teachers, if not, all of them feel the same way we're going to have a bucket full of, of tricks that we can use, uh, afterwards, even in a physical investment Speaker 1: 02:09 And as an educator. Um, I know this is true for you. One of the most important components of your job is really maintaining a connection to your students. How did you manage to do that? During the pandemic? Speaker 2: 02:21 For me, it began with actually driving around. It was really difficult for me to, to have a relationship with families, um, virtually or over the phone. So I got in my truck. Sometimes my dog came sometimes I brought my skateboard. Sometimes a student teacher and a mask drove around with me and we just knocked on doors when families were okay with that. We announced events where the students could drive through for various things. And every, every opportunity was just that it was a chance for us to connect. So for example, we had a celebration that was called our birthday, um, where everybody was able to come through and get a piece of cake. Um, no matter what day their birthday was. So we could all celebrate. We reversed Halloween because the students were a little upset about not being able to trick or treat understandably. So we brought the candy to them. And so we've been doing quite a few events like that. And I really do believe that every one of those outreach events that we've had really has carried us through. Now Speaker 1: 03:14 You teach fifth grade students. I'm curious as to what challenges that particular age group might present to teaching in a year of distance learning. Speaker 2: 03:24 Well, I better be really careful here because not only do I teach fifth grade students, I also have a fifth grade daughter who is a student at my school. Um, and Ms. BARR has incredible classroom. And so I think what I'm learning is that number one fifth graders, probably like other students are very resilient. I think also one of the things that I've noticed is that fifth graders, um, are often at that age where they can be left alone for a little bit moms and dads and parents and grandparents have had to work throughout this whole pandemic. And oftentimes those kids have had an opportunity to do what we're doing on the computer or something else. And I have been extraordinarily proud of the students making good choices without somebody forcing them to in our classroom. We talk a lot about the word integrity. And I think that that has really given me hope for what I can bring back to the classroom afterwards. Just realizing that that integrity, isn't something I have to teach to kids it's embedded to them. I just have to get it out of them in creative ways. So that's been really wonderful to see Speaker 1: 04:28 The theme for this year's honors was teachers leading in crisis, fostering resiliency and building a better San Diego. Do you feel that teaching during a crisis affected the education your students receive Speaker 2: 04:42 That is a consistent thing that I'm hearing about and all the teacher leadership groups, I'm a part of not just in San Diego, but also in the state of California and nationally internationally with our global scholars program, I'm hearing the same thing. And I think what it really boils down to is understanding what it is that we're calling achievement and then making sure that we're teaching into what we all collectively see as an achievement. So for example, if during the pandemic, we're noticing that reading and math scores are slipping. That's something that we're going to need to focus on because reading and math as a base for everything else, but what else are we noticing that schools have missed? You know, schools should be places that kids miss on a daily basis. So what other things may be have we missed that? Haven't been a part of our school routine that are coming back in a big way. And I'm talking about humanities, I'm talking about sciences, I'm talking about theater, I'm talking about, uh, VAPA. I'm talking about all those things that gets, give kids a moment to shine that then inspires them to do the nitty gritty work as well. So I'm really geared up and excited for the changes that especially San Diego unified is going to make post pandemic. That's what I'm hearing from everybody. And it's pretty awesome that in mind, there's that old Speaker 1: 05:58 Saying that in every crisis, there's an opportunity. Was there any way you were able to take advantage of the changes in learning over the past year, um, and make them positive for your students? Speaker 2: 06:09 Yeah. And, and, and you know, what the great part about that is? It's not just me. In fact, I, like I said, I have to really give credit to our entire staff here at choice made from our principal, Ms. Hunter Clark, to all the amazing teachers I work with. I'm hearing people doing amazing things. Give you an example, Ms. Cousart, as a teacher I work with, and this sixth hour that we're teaching that's provided by Santa Ana unified has given her an opportunity that she wouldn't have in class for students to bring instruments. And she's starting a school band that is incredible. Uh, that is just a, an, a really incredible silver lining from all of this. I'm excited about running a version of our, um, tournament's for soccer and basketball, maybe perhaps involving Pictionary, um, online for students. And then we're also talking about doing all of these things between classrooms that ordinarily we wouldn't do. Speaker 2: 06:58 So now you've got competitions between classrooms. You've got coordinated, um, buddy partnerships between classrooms. You've got opportunities for parents to be involved because we have needed them and they've needed us. So there really are a lot of the takeaways that are going to happen from this. And, um, I think it's going to be a matter of listening to those teacher voices and what each teacher has learned, and then incorporating them back in the school site. I'm been teaching for 22 years. And so, you know, I'm an old dog that knows some tricks, but the young ones know tricks too. And I think we're all just going to learn from each other. I think that has been an amazing focus that we're taking away. Speaker 1: 07:38 I've been speaking with one of San Diego unified educators of the year, Thomas Courtney, a fifth grade teacher at choice meet elementary. Thomas, thank you so much for joining us. Speaker 2: 07:48 Thank you for having me. In addition Speaker 1: 07:50 To Courtney, Sharon Apple from Hoover high school and Guadalupe Celadon from C P M a middle school. We're also honored as the districts teachers. Okay. Speaker 2: 08:07 [inaudible].

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The pandemic’s impact on education had a profound effect not just on students and their parents, but on educators as well. Tuesday, three educators within the San Diego Unified School District were honored for their excellence in teaching throughout a year of unprecedented change.
KPBS Midday Edition Segments