The Catamount School teachers are adjusting, but still miss their students

Rewind to pre-COVID-19 pandemic days when life was normal and one would be hard-pressed to find a middle school student who wouldn’t welcome having a month off from school.

Now fast-forward to today, and what most middle school teachers are finding is that their students are not only missing their classmates, but they are also craving the face-to-face interactions with their teachers. And the teachers miss the smiles and hugs they used to receive from their students.

It’s not any different at Western Carolina University’s laboratory school that is run in partnership with Jackson County Schools and housed at Smoky Mountain High School. The Catamount School has been teaching its sixth, seventh and eighth graders through online instruction.

“It’s not true school and true instruction, but we’re doing a pretty good job, thanks to our partnership with Jackson County Schools, who have been tremendous in helping not only our students, but also our faculty, with resources,” principal Chip Cody said.

Prior to the closing of schools, Jackson County Schools provided all students with laptops and now offers IT support to families who need it at home. The Catamount School was already  using a system called Canvas, an online learning management system similar to Blackboard, which is used at WCU. That has made the transition to online instruction a lot smoother, Cody said.

The Catamount School also has managed to deal with most of the families who don’t have internet access. Each week, teachers prepare a packet of school work for bus drivers to deliver, along with meals and other resources. When the assignments are completed, they return them to the bus driver.

The struggle comes with not being able to have the personal interaction everyone is accustomed to. No amount of Zoom meetings, the online form of communication that has become the norm, can make up for that.

“I just miss my kids,” said Holly Pinter, a Catamount School math teacher and instructional support liaison. “I just really miss seeing them. That’s true for our whole staff. We’ve had to adjust to new structures and routines. I think the clear vibe across all of this is we just miss seeing them.”

So, what has online instruction looked like for these middle schoolers and their teachers? It starts with their 11 a.m. Monday Zoom homeroom meetings where they go over the schedule and assignments for the week. The students also get to interact virtually with their classmates.

The teachers have daily Zoom meetings with their WCU undergraduate student interns to go over lesson plans. They also hold Zoom office hours for students to get personal instruction and assistance, as well as another opportunity to interact with their peers.

“Sometimes they’ll hop onto our Zoom office hours for help or assistance, but often I just think they want to talk,” Pinter said. “We value that. That’s really important to us. We’re always happy to see them hop on.”

As a science teacher, Amanda Clapp found herself narrowing down the curriculum she was going to use to fit their current form of instruction. With science being a hands-on course, Clapp had to get creative.

Her sixth and eighth grade classes were starting to study the earth sciences – geology and plate tectonics. Both classes were beginning a water project, which was modified to do at home.

“We sent sixth graders tips for them to make towers and build them on Jell-O and pretend to have earthquakes,” Clapp said. “One of the assignments for eighth graders is to go and study their own watershed that they live in. They’ll need to go outside and map the slopes and where the water runs around their home.”

Pinter said this experience has been a reminder to teachers that no one way of teaching is a one-size-fits-all.

“It’s been interesting to notice the kids who maybe weren’t thriving as much in our face-to-face instruction who are absolutely thriving right now and doing really well with the one-on-one technology-assisted teaching,” Pinter said. “Then you have a group of students who typically thrived, who have a lot of anxiety and stress over this transition. We’re trying to figure out ways to support and encourage them, and let them know that they can still do this, and try to modify things to fit everybody’s needs. It’s not a new lesson to learn as a teacher, but it just reiterates how much we need to differentiate for kids all the time.”

The Catamount School still offers counseling services to students in need, said Cody. The school’s two counselors, WCU graduate students Collin McWhite and Christina Bussard, have Zoom office hours for students.

“If the student wants to just chat, or needs a response to something domestic at home, the counselors are there and available for them,” Cody said.

Core classes aren’t the only ones still being taught. Students are engaging in physical education classes through WCU’s health and physical education program. The PE instructor and interns provide distance learning through Canvas, helping students to establish a daily routine and establish healthy habits, Cody said. Other classes such as art and Spanish also are being taught online.

Cody is pleased to see how the teachers and students are making the best of a difficult situation. However, he recognizes there is still one missing element that can’t be replaced virtually.

“I think the students are missing school, not necessarily the academic side of it, but I believe for the most part they are missing the social aspect and the interaction with their friends, even though they are able to do that through the internet, games or on the phone,” Cody said.

“But just that face-to-face interaction, some of them are missing that, as well as just the daily routine of doing school. I think it’s fun the first three days, kind of like a snow day. Then, it gets old really quick. I think some of them have gotten to that phase of, ‘When can we come back to school? When is this going to get normal again.’”