Garfield Principal Jamie Stauder (left) with preschool teachers Andrea Connelly, Tahnee Anderson, Jennifer Novak, Melissa Leitz, Jane Catezone. | Photo provided

Jamie Stauder, principal of Garfield School, shared something with the teachers at the beginning of the school year, which began remotely, a different beginning than ever before.

“Mr. Rogers, who was one of the best teachers of all time, did it all virtually,” Stauder said, of the  PBS icon. “So if he could do it way back then, we could make an impact too despite not teaching in person.”

Stauder said it wasn’t her original idea; she’d heard it before. But the sentiment felt important and true, especially when teaching the youngest children in District 91, including preschoolers.

The Review met with the preschool team over Zoom: Andrea Connelly, Melissa Leitz and Jennifer Novak, who all teach general preschool; Jane Catezone, who teaches a blended class with children of different ages; and Tahnee Anderson, who teaches children with higher needs.

As it turns out, the secret to teaching preschool remotely is a combination of creativity, support from school families, and a strong bond with fellow teachers. At least, that’s how it’s being done at Garfield Elementary.

“We all realized very quickly that probably the number one thing the students wanted to do was connect,” said Connelly. “They miss each other. They love each other.”

The socialization and bonds forged even over Zoom were facilitated, said Connelly, by the fact that preschool aged-children who attended Garfield last year but weren’t moving on to Kindergarten yet were kept in the same classes with one another, so they knew each other, and they knew their teachers.

“That has been a huge gift,” Connelly said. “Because, you know, we had built relationships with our families last year prior to the stay at home order. And when we all got sent home, we had to create a whole bond at a whole different level when we were zooming from our homes.”

Bonding and interaction between students on Zoom is happening more smoothly than the teachers hoped it would.

“They just want to talk, they want to talk to us, they want to talk to each other, they want to interact with each other, and they really do it beautifully,” said Connelly. “It happens very naturally and beautifully.”

Novak agreed that the communication between the kids, and with the teachers, has been good.

“I really do think that they just enjoy coming on the screen every day,” Novak said. “And maybe they can’t see us in person. But just seeing our faces on the screen gives them some of that social piece just by coming together as a classroom on the screen each day.”

Lietz keeps her students entertained and connected by allowing them to tell stories during announcements, which she said are sometimes really funny. “Someone got hamsters and the hamsters kept them up all night,” Lietz said. “They love to talk about their lives. They just want to tell each other things, and they’ll comment on each other’s stories.”

It helps, too, that the classes are small. No new students were admitted to the preschool program in D91 this year, except for those identified through early intervention. The classes have no more than eight students. Stauder says when the state moves into Phase Five of Restore Illinois, the doors will be once more opened to new students, but until then, the groups will be small.

All the teachers shared the sentiment that without family rallying around educational efforts, the school year most likely wouldn’t be going as smoothly as it has been.

“Parent support has been amazing,” said Catezone, and in some ways, learning remotely has enhanced relationships between teachers and families.

“We’re guests in their house every day,” Catezone said. “And parents are guests in our classrooms as well. And you could look at that as, you know, a terrifying experience, or as something really kind of fun.”

Of course, it’s not just parents that the teachers get to meet. With children so young, there’s almost always someone sitting next to them while they participate in remote classes, but parents can’t always be there.

“We’ve met gagas and papas and other special people,” said Connelly. It’s a glimpse into the children’s lives that the teachers probably wouldn’t have otherwise had, an opportunity, in some ways, to get to know the students in different ways than normal.

“We get to meet their pet fish,” said Catezone.

“Sometimes their siblings ‘stop by’ to say hi,” added Connelly.

Seeing the kids in their homes on Zoom helps create a different kind of bond now, where students share experiences with one another in ways they wouldn’t have before.

For example, one student whose baby sister was born a year ago got to show off her sibling on Zoom on her sister’s first birthday.

“We all sang happy birthday,” said Connelly. “It was something we wouldn’t have gotten to do. So there are those bright moments, when things happen that are incredible that make you see the light of this situation.”

Stauder said the team of teachers, already a strong group, has only strengthened its bonds since remote teaching and learning began.

“It’s a new challenge that’s been thrown at them, and they’ve collaborated and leaned on each other,” Stauder said. “They were strong before, but they’re even stronger now.”

Stauder said from her point of view, technology is the biggest challenge so far. “Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t,” Stauder said. And the teachers have rearranged their classrooms to teach from one small space instead of using their big, well-organized rooms.

And their methods of teaching have, in some ways, changed too.

“What works best in person doesn’t always work on Zoom,” Catezone said. “We’re always asking how we can make the experience for the students meaningful.”

Making online learning meaningful can be a challenge, because it’s not the same experience for the kids, or for the teachers. So much of learning at such a young age is hands-on, in-person, social.

And it’s difficult to help over the computer when kids are struggling emotionally, said Connelly. “We have to find ways to bridge the gap to make it work.” She added: “It’s not all hearts and flowers,” she added.

But the team focuses on the positives, texting each other with questions and problems, ideas and solutions. And it’s made their friendships with one another stronger.

“We do new things. We try it,” said Connelly. “Do we miss [the kids]? Yes. But the moral is that right now, it’s successful. We’re doing it one day at a time. We’ve got this.”

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