NEW BRITAIN – Charged with teaching nearly 80 students at Pulaski Middle School, Julie Plaza said her top priorities during the pandemic has been making sure students continue to thrive despite the changes.
“Learning how to gauge understanding through a computer device or making sure students are motivated can be really challenging,” she said. “But as teachers, while we’re not trained to face a pandemic, we are trained to teach, and that is what I continue to do.”
When the shutdown first happened last March, Plaza said it was really overwhelming and stressful for both students and teachers. Her biggest concern was to make sure that the students continue to be engaged while understanding that they have the support they need from their teachers.
“The challenge was getting the students in class and be present,” she said. “There was a lot of nervousness being online and many students just weren’t familiar with using computer devices.”
Meeting her students online proved to be one of the biggest roadblocks for the sixth-grade teacher, where a mix of shaky Wi-fi, outside distractions, or just dealing with the anxiety caused by the pandemic can create an unfriendly learning environment.
To soften those edges caused by outside stress, Plaza kickstarts each day with a morning meeting where everyone can share stories about how they are feeling, their concerns, or just to have a laugh. “We make sure that we have a lot of laughter during those meetings and to show these kids that it’s ok to laugh,” she said. “It helps start the day off with good energy.”
Plaza also focused a lot of her time on building relationships with not just the students, but the parents as well.
“It’s like they’re our family and that relationship was built through honesty and truth,” she said. “There was a lot of leg work. All of my students’ parents have my personal cell phone number, we text, they know they can reach me, I opened up the communication line because I’m here to support them.”
The level of honesty extended to Plaza sharing her own experience contracting the coronavirus in the fall.
“I didn’t want to let them down and not be there,” said Plaza, who pointed out that because her conditions weren’t severe, she requested to work remotely so she could still teach her class.
“The students were just as caring and loving and respectful to me as I was to them,” she said. “Seeing that I was willing to share something like that with them, they see the openness and the honesty. I spend a lot of time with them, I celebrated Thanksgiving with them, and there’s a realization that they need me just as much as I need them.”
The partnership building and the miles of legwork really paid off when Plaza noticed that her class attendance was high, and students remain engaged.
“They want to come to class and talk to us about the challenges that they’re facing, because they know they will get support not just from the teachers, but from their fellow students as well,” said Plaza, who shared that one of the unexpected silver linings that came out from the pandemic was creating a different sense of empathy across the screen.
“When certain students feel down, the other students will help lift them back up and it’s really nice to see that,” she said.
However, Plaza also wants to remind people that while students are important, it is also just as vital to remember that teachers are going above and beyond for those students during the pandemic.
“This is scary for us too and we are all tired,” she said. “But we want to do this and we want to provide for the students with whatever we have and more. I don’t think there’s a single teacher in this district who doesn’t give 250% and I hope everyone knows that.”