Southeast has been educating our nation's teachers since 1873. The impact these educators have had on their students goes far beyond the subjects taught. They inspire future careers. They spur a lifelong love of learning. And, sometimes, they help students process some very serious events.
Perhaps no other time in history has been as impactful on education, those learning and teaching, than the COVID-19 pandemic. Schools were forced into remote learning with little notice. The transition back to in-person classes as the pandemic continues brings new challenges.
Imagine being a teacher in your final year of college, completing your student teaching, when schools were forced online. Imagine embarking on your first year of professional teaching fraught with mask discussions and keeping students who hadn't seen their friends in months outside of Zoom links socially distanced. Two incredible Southeast alumni share their experiences teaching during a global pandemic and supporting their students during what will be one of the most tumultous times in their lives.
Sharing Stories, Supporting Students
We asked our alumni to share their experiences teaching through tragedies. They reflected on their own emotions and helping their students through intense and difficult life events. Please be aware their memories do focus on tragic events that may be disturbing for some readers.
"While we were discussing a chapter in the science book about space travel, an announcement came over the intercom: "The Challenger space shuttle has exploded on takeoff." Astronaut and teacher Christa McAuliffe was on board. The most significant memory for me was that Astronaut McAuliffe was a teacher about my age. Her students' science experiments were on board. We were in that moment together--in shock, in awe and in sympathy in an ordinary classroom."
--Suzanne Gill, 8th grade science teacher
"The most terrifying reactions were from my boys when I picked them up from their school. My sons were very upset as my oldest said, "That could of been you Mom." I was one of the candidates from the state of Missouri for the first teacher in space project. They said that I should not ever sign up for that or anything like that ever again. I basically got the same reaction from my students. Teachers are sometimes the sounding board for their students fears. It is important to be a listener and also a calming advocate for them. I was fortunate that I taught music. Music can and is healing of the soul."
--Judith Bruce, music teacher
"Christa McAulliffe was to be the first teacher in space. She had planned experiments to share with students across our country. Our class had done a lot of reading and preparing to share in her exciting experience. We were all so excited on the day of the launch! The children and I were all in disbelief. The worst possible scenario had actually happened. We had discussed the risks, but nobody expected an explosion and total devastation. It was very difficult to help the children through this. Christa had children that we had read about, so they saw her as a mom and teacher first —before they saw her as an astronaut."
--Toni Ryan Dement, fifth grade teacher
"I was a new teacher and barely older than some of my students. I remember when we heard the reports from students as they were entering my classroom, there was such fear. We didn’t have a TV in my room, so we poured into a classroom down the hall and watched the TV report. I remember, too well, the fear that my students had in their eyes. They wanted me to reassure them that we were safe. We didn’t talk much that day, we just listened together and took it all in. Sometimes we don’t have the answers, but we can be there to love these kids and to help them to know that they are not alone during these confusing times."
--April Burton, high school French teacher
"I was in the middle school and the English As A Second Language students from high school came to me. All high school was watching it on TV, so I turned mine on for them, so we could discuss what was happening. These kids were from Bosnia and had seen war and their parents got them to the USA to be safe. I will never forget when they showed the person jumping out of the window on TV. We started discussing war and what was happening. Then we started discussing things that they had seen during the war. They were old enough to understand that this was really serious, probably more than the students from the US. They didn't panic, probably because they had lived so many things in their young lives already. They knew war and were concerned that it was coming to the USA. We discussed what these people were going through. I felt numb. The bell rang and they went back to high school. I turned off TV, because Ididn't want the younger students seeing what was going on."
--Glenice (Lewis) Verhoff, high school ESOL teacher
"I was giving a standardized test, when the principal walked in and privately told me what was happening. This was before the towers collapsed, and we still did not know what was happening. I was told the country was under attack, and we were not to tell the students. So I had to turn around with a big smile on my face and pretend like nothing was happening. I remember that I was terrified inside, but as a teacher to little ones I had to be their protector. The day after we were able to talk about our feelings. The kids were scared and didn't really understand what had happened. But I made sure to let them know that they were safe. I think that teachers are so important in the daily chaos that can be our students' lives. They come to us every day and know that there is someone who loves them. We provide structure and love to students to get them through hard times."
--Shannon Clubb, 2nd grade teacher
"The same was true of the tragedy of 9/11/01. I had taught one of the men killed in one of the towers and his father was teaching driver's ed at the same school. He left school immediately and went home to get his wife and they drove back to their hometown of Hoboken, NJ to look for their son. He was never found. Sugar Creek Winery in Defiance, MO has a banner still attached to their building of a list of all the people that died that day. I always go to that banner to find that student's name. I was told later that this former student had talked to his cousin on his cell phone just before the second plane hit and he was waiting [for] the elevator. He never got on that elevator. When educators show sadness and compassion it allows the students to also express their feelings."
--Sherry Stukenbroeker, teacher
"I used to play "the Today show" in my classroom in the morning. It was a beautiful day and I remember being in a good mood with Homecoming events just coming up. As I was in the doorway, we watched live as the second plane headed into the tower. It seemed unreal at first. All I could think was there were people on that plane. Could it have been full? I will never forget watching the studio as a reporter came in to tell their experience who was covered head to toe in dust and dirt. The school immediately sent principals around the building to notify staff to turn off TVs in their room. I think on that day, school plans went on as normal, but it would be a solemn school house afterward. It was all we talked about and, of course, wanted to make sense of how that could happen. It felt the same with the pandemic, the idea of shock and then making sense of the feelings and spreading the knowledge together as a group. I always try to be well read on news event, because it is the teachers who will be the ones they want to share with and we are needed to help make sense of what they are seeing. With the invention of social media, the job has become even more important with available and sometimes noncredible sources of information."
--Jane Bannester, high school teacher
"I remember dismissing my students to their parents that day and thinking that their lives were going to be different. Elementary teachers show love, kindness, and are a steady presence in their students lives through the tragic events. I remember reassuring the children that they were safe at school and we wouldn’t let anything hurt them."
--Toni Dement, 3rd grade teacher
Assassination of President John F. Kennedy
"I was in the middle of teaching a junior high science class when our school superintendent came to our door and motioned me out in the hallway and told me about the assassination in Dallas. I was shocked like most everyone else and went back into the classroom and told the class. The thing I remember most about the students' reactions is that one boy cheered. I had a hard time keeping from punishing him ... I tried to keep in mind that the students were young, impressionable, and might or might not feel the same way they'll feel after they "grow up" a little. Discussing the event and its importance with the class, and listening to their various opinions and insights, while answering their questions as best I could, seemed to me to be the best approach."
--Mayburn Davidson, junior high teacher
"California shut down Friday, March 13, 2020. There was no plan and nothing was set up for teaching remotely. That hadn’t even been a term at that point. We were given two weeks before any information was provided to us by the school district on next steps. Some students did great and made the best out of the situation. Some students struggled, and that was challenging as a teacher. There was no way to know if that student was okay or what they were dealing with at home. Some students were also responsible for helping younger siblings get their assignments done while parents worked. Definitely not the most ideal learning environment. I do believe that different lines of communication opened up with a large percentage of my students. We had discussions about the California fires and the day the sky was red. We talked about our pets during water breaks for virtual PE and sometime pets would workout with us. Creativity was important to keeping the students engaged!"
--Bryce Kristal, middle school teacher
"I truly believe that educators rose to the challenge of this global pandemic. They had to balance work, health, their own children at home learning, and learning to teach in new ways. Some of those methods we learned will improve education for years to come. It was an honor to support my teachers who were in the trenches every day."
--Dr. Michael Dittrich, junior high educator
"COVID 19 proved to be quite a challenge for educators; however, for me, it also came with a silver lining. I really shifted my focus in class to "cut the fat" and hone in on the most important concepts. In the end, rethinking the scope and sequence of my material lent itself to more enriching conversations and a greater deal of depth. I must admit that I was rattled by my kids' emotional reaction to the pandemic. Kids on many ends struggled in some capacity--some in trying to keep in touch with other teens, some in managing to try to keep up with the workload, and some in trying to avoid feeling isolated while also maintaining their own health. This pandemic taught me so much about grace. As teachers in general, I think that when we accept that our kids all have different needs, not only academically, but also emotionally. I believe we must address the whole student in order to address other aspects, such as reading and writing."
--Kelly Briesacher, high school teacher
"Teaching is hard. It’s even harder when times are hard and our world is going through something so difficult. But our students need us now more than ever."
--Katie Kelley, 4th grade teacher