Grace Maloney’s classroom looks like what you might expect a third-grade science and social studies teacher’s room to look like.
There’s a white board, maps hung up on the walls and trash cans with heat lamps set up for experiments. The only difference? There are no students.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Maloney, who graduated from Mercer University’s Tift College of Education in May, is teaching virtually, at least for now. She’s one of many new teachers facing this unique challenge during their first year on the job.
“I’m not only brand new to teaching,” she said. “I’m brand new to teaching like this.”
Despite being virtual, Maloney, who teaches at Skyview Elementary School in Bibb County, said she still wants to make science labs interactive and fun for her students.
“I don’t want them to have to sit in their chairs and stare at computers all day,” she said.
For a unit about heat energy, she sent her students outside to touch different objects and notice how warm or cool they feel.
“One thing we recently did was brainstorm ideas on how to limit the effects of the sun, like putting white construction paper over an ice cube versus black construction paper,” she said.
Maloney set up trash cans with heat lamps in her classroom to mimic the sun and conduct experiments for her students.
“I’ve gotten into a pretty good routine with it,” she said. “Every week I think of something that I want to implement with my students.”
Another 2020 Mercer graduate, Katelyn West, also teaches at Skyview Elementary.
One of her biggest challenges, she said, has been being able to find the children who are struggling to get them the help they need.
“Because they’re not here with me, I can’t see any mistake they make and correct them,” she said.
However, once she started having her first-grade students join her in small groups of two to six students, she was better able to identify those who needed help, she said.
She even plans to bring some of the methods that she’s implemented virtually, such as naming a secret star student, into the classroom when students return in person.
“In the beginning, I really struggled with students’ attendance,” she said. “Now, every day has a secret star student. At the beginning of the day, I remind students that one of them is the secret star student, and if that person does everything they’re supposed to, the whole class gets a reward.”
West said she comments on the secret star student’s behavior throughout the day, and all the students check themselves. The prize is a dance party. They are first-graders, after all.
“There will come a day when I can look back at all of this and laugh,” she said. “There’s never an uneventful day.”
Across town, another Mercer alumna from West and Maloney’s cohort teaches first grade at Springdale Elementary School.
Kasey Thom said she’s working on building strong relationships with her students.
Although it can be hard to do that virtually, “when you’re 6 years old, you don’t really hide who you are,” Thom said. “We just try to have fun together. …
“I feel like I’ve really been able to connect with my kids and have those personal relationships. They know I like to be silly and funny and love to dance. We’re still able to have fun together.”
Every day, Thom logs on to her school-issued laptop and iPad, as well as her personal computer to teach. She uses the school-issued laptop for live video classes and the iPad to film her teaching for students to watch later. She keeps up with attendance on her personal laptop.
Thom was a student teacher at Springdale last year, and she said everyone there has been very supportive.
“They’re constantly checking on me,” she said.
Even though any return to in-person learning still will look different than in previous years due to masks and social distancing, Thom and her fellow alumni said they are excited for students to come back to the classroom.
Maloney is especially eager to hear her students sing the songs she’s taught them to help with their vocabulary.
“I’m excited for them to come back, so we can sing together,” she said.