A pre-kindergarten inclusion teacher in Boston Public Schools, Chantei Alves is a Teach Plus Massachusetts Senior Policy Fellow. Now in her seventh year in the classroom, Chantei’s spent the past year teaching her students remotely and building relationships and community, with her students, and other teachers throughout the district.
A Day of COVID Teaching
Chantei’s school district has phased in both high-priority and general education students for in-person learning, so Chantei now has five students in her physical classroom.
On an average day, Chantei signs on at about 8:10 a.m. and by 8:20, she’ll start playing welcome music and different videos for her students as they log on for the day. During their lunch break a few days a week, everyone eats lunch together online and Chantei plays a 15-minute episode of a TV show like “Molly of Denali,” “Octonauts,” or something similar.
The day ends around 3:30 p.m.
“It’s a long day for them,” Chantei says. “They’re only 4 and 5, it’s definitely a lot of time to be actively engaged in front of a screen, yet they are great about it.”
While all of Chantei’s students have laptops at home and are able to connect to virtual learning, there are still larger issues connected to technology with which she’s had to contend. These include the length of time young children have to stay connected, attendance, and translating early childhood lessons through the computer.
“Early childhood education is the foundation of learning,” she explains. “I’m teaching 4- and 5-year-olds social skills, vocabulary, and how to advocate for themselves and be self aware. So how to translate all this remotely is a unique challenge.”
“My best COVID teaching, although I think it is pretty strong, is not my best teaching. There are some lessons where if we were in the classroom and this could be more hands-on, then they would truly get this lesson. I am so thankful for my co-teacher because this journey would have been so much harder without her!”
On an average day, Chantei has eight or nine students who consistently attend class, including those who are in person.
“I think if the day was shorter, I would probably have more consistent attendance,” she says. “Maybe [the children are] at home with family members who aren’t tech savvy or aren’t able to really ensure that the student engages with the learning.”
Her students’ families have to juggle multiple responsibilities during the day. All of the families have to work, even if they’re working at home, and many of them have multiple children whose learning they have to support throughout the day, in addition to their own work.
“I do my best and I think I’ve taught my students to be pretty independent, but there’s still some things that developmentally they’re not able to do without the support of an adult,” Chantei says. For example, navigating between web browsers and logging into different accounts require family support for her students.
Over the summer, Chantei taught summer enrichment classes so she could practice connecting and building relationships with new students remotely. One of the things she took from summer school was the idea to drop off a resource bag with whiteboards, dry erase markers, paper, and play-do among other things at the beginning of the year. That way, everyone had the same supplies they needed for activities and after-school play dates throughout the year.
Chantei’s school is a social justice school, so she frequently discusses current events, celebrates events like Black History Month and Hispanic Heritage Month, and teaches about activists like Cesar Chavez.
“I frequently talk about youth activism in my classroom, [so my students] know what it means to be an activist and to advocate,” she said.
Following the January insurrection at the Capitol, Chantei knew she had to talk to her students. Chantei said her role was not to talk to the students about the politics of the election, but to facilitate discussion and facts. One way she did that was by introducing her students to a children’s book called The Breaking News by Sarah Lynne Reul. In the book, a little girl learns how she can do small things to help the adults around her to deal with bad news.
“I remember watching TV and saying to myself, ‘insurrection,’ that’s a word I have to teach in my class tomorrow. I wanted them to know it.”
If her class were learning in-person, Chantei may have done a follow-up activity like writing a letter to the administration or creating a video sharing their feelings.
“That’s been the hardest part of COVID: There are so many things that I normally would do but because we’re not together, we can’t do them or I can’t easily give them access to the materials that they might need to do something.”
From COVID Solutions to Systemic Changes
As a Black woman, Chantei has noticed her district has focused more on recruiting Black teachers, but not enough on how to support them and retain them.
“It seems like we’re trying to fill this quota of how many Black educators we have in our district but what are we doing to actually support them?” she says. “We acknowledge that Black teachers are a minority, and like with any minority, there are microaggressions that take place that they need to feel supported through.”
For example, Chantei has heard White teachers othering Black students and describing them as particularly hard to deal with and has had to have “tense, but necessary” conversations about that.
In February, Chantei launched a Black teachers’ affinity group to provide this kind of support. The response has been phenomenal, she says. The group has hosted three events so far and has nearly 30 members who are current and former educators. While her school is mostly staffed with teachers of color, other schools in the district have just one or two. Chantei has been particularly touched by the responses from these teachers, for whom the affinity group is an opportunity to share resources, offer and receive mentorship, and most importantly, build community.
Although this year has been rough, Chantei said all her students have made growth in literacy and math. “My hope is that with the upcoming transitions that we will all have to adjust to, my Owls are able to continue to persevere and be supportive of one another as they have been with being a majority online community,” she said.
Kathy Pierre is Senior National Coordinator of Communications and Media at Teach Plus.