Q&A: Challenges & opportunities for new teachers during COVID-19

Khaniya Russell, a Charles Butt Scholar Alumni, smiles in front of a cream colored backdrop

Disclaimer: This initiative initially was launched and coordinated by the Raise Your Hand Texas Foundation, which in 2022 merged with and became the Charles Butt Foundation.

Khaniya Russell is a Charles Butt Scholar and student at Trinity University. She will graduate in May 2020 with a Master of Arts in Teaching. Khaniya has accepted a position as an 11th grade US history teacher at Cypress Springs High School in Cypress-Fairbanks ISD. She will begin teaching in Fall 2020. 

We asked Khaniya to share her perspective with us about what it’s like to be an aspiring teacher during this time, and what we can learn from her cohort’s experiences. 

Q: This is an interesting time to be entering the teaching profession. What is going through your mind these days?

A: In the midst of the COVID-19 craziness, I have been thinking a lot about how to support vulnerable students and families. The districts I have been fortunate to observe and work with have worked diligently to meet families’ needs by providing access to technology and food. I still find myself worrying about the students who will fall through the cracks because of our limited access to them. I am constantly in awe, though, of the efforts teachers and support personnel are making to support diverse learners. For example, the eighth-grade team at the Advanced Learning Academy in San Antonio ISD is partnering with a special education teacher to walk students through how to use Google extensions to annotate readings and utilize speech-to-text and text-to-speech functionalities.

Q: How is your cohort of soon-to-be-teachers supporting one another during this time? And how does this support reflect your collective values?

A: Our cohort naturally fell into some habits of trying to support and uplift one another that I think are very representative of the heart and spirit of this group. We made “my favorite memory of you” videos for each other on our birthdays, scheduled virtual group socials, and carved out space to unmute our Zoom mics and scream for one another’s successes, big and small. These traditions reflect our values of connectivity and uplifting one another’s strengths and contributions. Beyond this, we have cheered and coached each other through our unconventional job searches by conducting mock interviews, reflecting on our teaching philosophies, and giving specific, constructive feedback on our online employment portfolios. We are supporting each other as we try to refine and articulate our goals and hopes for the future of public education and where we fit within the broader picture. We’ve asked school leaders to describe their school culture and values so we can assess our fit within school campuses. This demonstrates how calculated and passionate we are about helping each other find the best place where we can have the greatest impact.

(Left) Khaniya celebrates accepting an offer for her first teaching job with friends and professors over Zoom. (Right) Khaniya gathers with friends virtually to celebrate her birthday.

Q: Has the COVID-19 crisis made you more or less nervous or excited about becoming a teacher?

A: The COVID-19 crisis has made me both very anxious and thrilled about becoming a teacher. I am nervous about the possibility of teaching online at the beginning of the school year because I know it will make it harder to foster a strong learning community. However, I am very excited that this crisis has created a push for greater and more equitable use of technology in classrooms! I can’t wait to continue these practices in my own classroom. I am also super excited to build community and leverage the relationships schools are strengthening with families in the wake of COVID.

Q: In the fall, you are going to walk into a classroom and teach with a different set of skills and life experiences than some of the more tenured teachers. What unique tools, perspectives, and positioning will your cohort bring to the field? And how can those be especially valuable during this time of crisis?

A: Resiliency.
A sense of connection to others in our local and global communities.
A fierce commitment to equity. 

We also have had a major focus on teaching technology, prompted by COVID. We are becoming extremely well versed in what technology is out there to engage students, differentiate for diverse learning needs, and help teachers stay organized. This knowledge is especially helpful while we are teaching via remote learning systems. It will also be useful to create different access points to the learning even when we return to physical classrooms. 

Q: When students do return to public school campuses following COVID-19, they will have academic and social-emotional challenges unique to this time. What should new (and tenured) teachers keep in mind? How can we best support students for this?

A: I think following COVID-19, teachers should practice compassion-based teaching and facilitate social-emotional learning, at all levels. Students will likely be very aware of and anxious about gaps in their learning caused by the switch to remote learning. In fact, a recent news story reported that 25 percent of San Antonio ISD students have yet to check in with teachers, let alone participate in distance learning. As educators and as people, we should make it our mission to lead with kindness and understanding. We must also balance high expectations for our learners with patience and grace for the unique circumstances we are in. Teachers should seek out and utilize resources available to them to individualize learning as much as possible. Students coming into a new school year will be at different places academically than the previous classes, and the instruction needs to be centered around their needs. We can support students’ individual needs by being data driven, identifying gaps, and meeting them where they are with relevant, appropriate, and engaging curriculum. 

In Feburary, Khaniya was selected to speak on a panel facilitated by Dan Rather at the Raise Your Hand Texas Leadership Symposium, themed 2020: Texans For All

Q: Can you share a few last words about why Texans should be optimistic about the 2020-21 cohort of new public school teachers?

A: Texans should be optimistic about this new cohort of public school teachers because we are committed to bettering public schools. We know that this task requires us to leverage the strengths and input of our communities, our fellow educators, and our students. We are ready to put in the work to provide engaging, individualized, and relevant learning experiences for 21st-century learners. 

We’d love to hear from you!

We’re looking for stories from students, teachers, and school leaders about your experiences, challenges, and strategies you think might benefit others. Please share your perspectives and let us know how you’re approaching and responding to the current situation. And know that you are not alone in these struggles. We thank you, we honor you, and we want you to know we are cheering you on.