Resident Spotlight: Teaching in the COVID Era with Krystle Williams

Last fall, we reached out to a few of the teachers in our community. Teachers have been working tirelessly throughout the pandemic, and we wanted to celebrate their work at a time when schools were particularly overwhelmed.

One such community member was Krystle Williams, a resident at The Tappan since 2020 and an English teacher at John Marshall High School. When we first connected with Krystle, schools in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District were operating fully remote. Schools in Ohio had closed in March 2020 and had never returned to in-person learning before the summer break. As the Cleveland schools geared up for the fall term, Krystle was missing the more typical back-to-school experience. “I’m not adjusting well [to remote learning]. I miss my babies so much!” She said, adding, “I’m trying to have a positive mindset because that’s what I will be asking of my students next month. I’ll be focusing on highly engaging texts and lots of social-emotional strategies in efforts to foster strong relationships in this virtual setting.”

CMSD originally planned to stay remote for just the first nine weeks of the 2020-2021 school year, but ultimately continued remote through the holidays and winter break. We checked in with Krystle in December, and, like many teachers locally and nationally, she considered the remote environment one of her biggest challenges. Specifically, she felt like it was a hurdle to connecting with students.

“It’s December and I still have a handful of students whom I haven’t seen via Zoom classes. They log into the learning platform occasionally, but despite my best efforts of emails, calls, and text messages, I haven’t been able to reach them all.” As to her students, she felt they too were struggling with staying connected. “I would say my students’ biggest challenge is staying engaged. They have to be suffering from Zoom fatigue. I know I am, and I’m a grown-up! Watching a screen all day isn’t the same as being in a classroom all day.”

However, the social-emotional strategies she had been investing in since the beginning of the year were generating positive results.

“Two weeks ago, I had a student text me and ask if it’s normal to struggle with feeling sad or anxious. In the school building, I’m known as the teacher who kids go to when they need someone to talk to or someone who will listen. I tell my students I’m available all the time, but I wasn’t sure if the message was being received. I was humbled that my student felt like I was a safe space, even in a virtual world. He’s a freshman so I’ve never met him in person. We only know each other through the screen. It’s moments like this that inspire me to keep focused on social-emotional learning even though it's super hard to do virtually.”

When the 2021 school year started this fall, the majority of Ohio schools had fully committed to in-person learning, as many experts weighed in on the cognitive, social, and emotional benefits of the classroom. CMSD was amongst these schools, stipulating a mask mandate for all students, employees, and school visitors and developing a comprehensive reopening plan.

Today, Krystle is back in the classroom.

“Things are “back to normal,” but they aren’t normal at all. Many of us, students and staff, are experiencing lots of anxiety as we are still in a pandemic. There’s a big push to close the learning gap that was widened by remote learning. However, I think we are missing the mark when it comes to helping kids with social and emotional learning. I wish as a society there was more emphasis on a child’s total wellbeing, but since that cannot be measured by test scores it often falls by the wayside.

“The good news is that engagement is easier in person than it is online, however, students are easily distracted since they’ve been at home for over a year with lots of things to do other than school. It's a complete change of pace, plus, being in school all day after 18 months of remote learning is really exhausting for most teenagers.”

Despite the struggles, Krystle is still able to find silver linings from the pandemic. “There’s gratitude, lots of gratitude, from my kiddos. I’ve noticed them thanking me, and each other, for the littlest things. It really warms my heart.”