June 9, 2021

Educators use newfound creativity to continue teaching during COVID-19

Ted Seabury ’80 has been working in the education field for decades. But he, like nearly every other teacher in the country, had never experienced a disruption on the scale of the COVID-19 pandemic in the spring of 2020.

Seabury, who is the director of bands at Briarwood Christian School in Birmingham, went from having daily face-to-face interactions with his students to months of distance education without warning.

“Remote learning band was not what any of us signed up for, and last spring was definitely a challenge for both teachers and students,” Seabury said. “Though we weren’t rehearsing daily together, we did have Zoom sessions and noticed our students needed the social interactions. My assistant, Joanna Finch, and I would surprisingly spend more time just chatting with the class afterward than I would have expected. The benefits were quickly obvious as it helped us continue the band family aspect throughout the unprecedented disruption of COVID-19.”

When the school began holding in-person, socially distanced marching band rehearsals in the summer of 2020, Seabury and his students did so with a renewed vigor.

“Having this taken away last spring has made us all realize how lucky we are to have this wonderful activity and outlet to perform together and to make every moment count,” Seabury said. “In the most positive sense, this has been a year we won’t soon forget.”

Throughout the state and nation, other teachers shared similar experiences when their sense of normalcy was abruptly altered in March 2020.

Leading through the disruption

The Shelby County School System – one of the largest in the state – felt the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic alongside every other public school system in America. But where many educational leaders may have simply seen a monumental obstacle, Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dr. Lewis Brooks ’98, M.Ed. ’99, Ed.S. ’03 saw an opportunity to innovate and strengthen the county’s schools.

Dr. Lewis Brooks

Dr. Lewis Brooks ’98, M.Ed. ’99, Ed.S. ’03,
superintendent of Shelby County Schools, led one of the largest school districts in the state during the pandemic.

Because SCS quickly shifted to a distance education model once the pandemic began affecting Alabama in March 2020, Brooks and his colleagues in the school system pivoted to a more technology-centric focus in the classroom. More than a year later, the same technology was still benefiting students even though SCS had returned to in-person classes.

“As I reflect on the response to the pandemic, I have newfound insight on how obstacles birth opportunities as unprecedented crises truly demand unprecedented actions,” Brooks said in March 2021. “I have been able to accelerate innovation and develop systems and processes to move our district forward. The health crisis has also revealed fresh opportunities to serve and bring joy to others. Joy fuels hope and hope is paramount in uncertain and difficult times.”

Echoing the sentiments of many school system leaders, Brooks said he has developed a deeper appreciation and respect for every person who works for Shelby County schools, regardless of the role they fill.

Watching the school system’s employees skillfully navigate the unprecedented challenges of the pandemic, Brooks said he is more optimistic than ever about the future of the system.

“Administrators, teachers, child nutrition staff, bus drivers, custodians and other staff members have all made tremendous sacrifices in order to support our students,” Brooks said. “They are the heartbeat of our system, and we have assumed a focused and united stance to overcome this global health crisis together. As Franklin Roosevelt noted ‘A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor.’ As such, we will all emerge as better people.”

Although Brooks has been a professional educator for more than 20 years, he still utilizes what he learned at the University on a daily basis. Even during the global chaos emanating from the early days of the pandemic, Brooks said his foundation in a liberal arts education guided his actions.

“My time at UM shaped my development as a person but also prepared me to deal with a diverse and ever-changing world. Even though I am many years removed from the University, I am reminded of the personal relationships developed with the UM faculty and staff,” he said. “Caring and supportive relationships couched with guidance truly matter in encouraging success. The faculty and staff were invested in me, and I understand how valuable those investments are. Without a doubt, I am a better person because of my decision to attend the University of Montevallo.”

Rising to the challenge

As a teacher for the deaf and hard of hearing at Oak Mountain High School, Johnna Nalls ’99 faced significant challenges transitioning to a distance education model when the pandemic began affecting Alabama.

Johnna Nalls ’99 teaches students who are deaf and hard of hearing via e-learning at Oak Mountain High School.

“It has been difficult to find methods to teach students who are deaf using technology via distance learning. Many times, the internet isn’t fast enough to keep up with using American Sign Language as a way to communicate,” Nalls said.

To combat this, Shelby County schools purchased new computers with faster processing speeds and larger computer monitors to allow Nalls and her colleagues throughout the school system to more easily serve students who are deaf and hard of hearing through Zoom.

Because Nalls served a mixture of in-person and distance education students throughout the 2020-2021 academic year, she interpreted every video she used in the classroom into ASL and provided color-coded notes to her students. This has allowed Nalls to become much more fluent and comfortable with various new technologies.

Through it all, Nalls said she has been amazed at the resiliency and determination her students have showcased.

“The silver lining is that my students are resilient and can be successful and reach their academic or career goals no matter the obstacles that are thrown at them,” Nalls said. “My students give me the strength to overcome anything, and I will always strive to make changes necessary to help each one of them become successful in life.”

Stronger together  

Teachers in other Alabama school systems said working to overcome the hardships presented by COVID-19 over the past year made them feel more connected to educators throughout the world. For every setback they faced while learning to navigate a distance education or hybrid learning model, they knew they were not in it alone.

Kimberlee Campbell M.Ed. '12 leads an art class at Thompson High School in Alabaster

Kimberlee Campbell M.Ed. ’12 leads an art class at Thompson High School in Alabaster

“Educators all across the world have joined together and gone above and beyond to help each other,” said Alex Strickland ’13, who teaches American history and government at Oneonta High School. “Educators have investigated the best methods to achieve high levels of learning in an equitable way. We have studied, analyzed, revised and applied new methods of learning and interacting. We have done it over and over and over again. We have poured our life into our students and schools. While the pandemic has not been ideal, and the circumstances can be almost unbearable at times, the relationships that have grown from this past year are extraordinary.”

The teachers also said there is simply no replacement for in-person interactivity between teachers and students, although the technology they utilized during the pandemic will be integrated into their classrooms moving forward.

Alabaster City Schools educators Joshua Coffelt M.Ed. ’13, Ashlee Elliott ’11 and Kimberlee Campbell M.Ed. ’12 all said they were excited when their school system returned to a socially distanced in-person education model in fall 2020.

“Sometimes in your career you get tired of things and you need it taken away for you to understand how much you truly miss it,” said Coffelt, who teaches advanced placement chemistry and is an assistant softball coach at Thompson High School. “That’s how it was with the pandemic. My students were taken from me for almost three months. Having students again in the fall truly was a joy. My love for career has been renewed because I really love what I do.”

Ashlee Elliott ’11 with her third-grade class at Creek View Elementary School in Alabaster.

Elliott, who teaches third grade at Creek View Elementary School in Alabaster, said she was already working to integrate more technology in her classroom before the pandemic, so the shift to distance education in spring 2020 accelerated the plans.

In the midst of the pandemic, Elliott completed her master’s degree in instructional technology in July 2020 and was immediately able to implement what she learned in graduate school. When classes resumed in August 2020, she was selected to serve as one of Creek View’s virtual academy teachers for students who chose to remain remote during the fall semester.

“Throughout the pandemic, technology has been a vital component to student success. This has been exciting for me to witness, because I am very passionate about technology integration in the learning environment,” she said. “The field of education has turned me into a lifelong learner, so this pandemic has given me an opportunity to integrate technology into the curriculum even more than I was before. In addition, it has given me a greater appreciation for the face-to-face teaching and learning.

Campbell is an advanced placement 3D studio instructor at THS and quickly found herself busy sewing extra masks and installing plexiglass partitions between the student work stations in her classroom. She also found a level of creativity within herself she had never experienced when she was working to create at-home lesson plans for remote learners.

“The most important thing for me as a teacher was to keep my students’ minds focused on learning, which meant relieving their fears and answering their questions to the best of my ability with calm confidence,” Campbell said. “Life is full of many unknowns, and this pandemic has been no exception. However, the most important thing is to remain positive, keep washing your hands, social distance, wear your mask properly and realize that by working together we will all grow through this and be stronger in the end.”