SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) — “I’ll be honest, it’s been very challenging,” said Southwest Middle School teacher Porschia Mitchell.

“Getting adjusted to delivering content without actually being in a classroom is very difficult,” the seventh-grade English and language arts instructor shared while reflecting on the past few weeks of virtual teaching. “It is literally 20 to 50 times harder.”

Mitchell, who has taught five years in the Savannah-Chatham County Public School System and for 13 years total, doesn’t seem to be alone.

WSAV NOW spoke with four teachers leading online classrooms who all say they’ve encountered some challenges while navigating this new normal.

However, Mitchell says despite the few difficulties, she and her fellow teachers are built to tackle the obstacles of virtual learning.

“When you see those smiling faces, they’re going to feed off of your energy. So when you start your day, start with a smile, welcome them and tell them that you’re happy to see them just as you would do that in the regular building.”

Porschia Mitchell, Southwest Middle School teacher

“Every time you turn on that computer, every time you talk to a parent, every time you are able to talk to a student, remember why you’re doing this,” she said. “They’re the reason why.”

SCCPSS schools returned virtually to classes on Aug. 19. The school board approved a hybrid learning plan on Thursday, which still means some portion of students’ schoolwork will be online when the limited hybrid model begins in October.

In Liberty County, parents had the option to send their children back to school or remain virtual.

“Right now, 60% of our students have chosen virtual learning and the other 40% will be coming back,” said Sharyl Westlake, who teaches environmental science at Bradwell Institute.

“Our freshmen and seniors will be coming back Monday the 21st, and then our sophomores and juniors will come back the following week on the 28th, so we’re working through how to move our students through the hallways while social distancing,” the 26-year teacher told WSAV NOW.

As the two counties started their school years fully virtual as a response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the teachers say their online students weren’t the only ones learning something new.

“I am working harder than I’ve ever had to work as a teacher because everything has to be built from the ground up right now,” shared Jaime McGrath, an advanced content fifth grade teacher at Savannah’s Jacob G. Smith Elementary School. 

“But rather than kind of wallowing in, ‘oh my goodness,’ it’s saying, ‘okay, what can I do to make this seamless for my students so they can come on, and parents can come on and say, ‘Hey, this works, we’re getting the best education we could possibly get’?” he said.

These teachers offer us a glimpse into their virtual teaching lives and reveal what they’ve experienced on their journeys as online instructors.

 ‘I miss the students being in our classrooms’

Of the many differences the educators have observed as they lead their classes through computer screens is the lack of a more personal connection with the pupils.

Liberty County-based second grade teacher Tiffany Gallob shares that for her, it’s been a struggle. 

“One of the things that’s really important to me, and I think all teachers in our school, is classroom community,” the Taylors Creek Elementary School teacher said.

Gallob, who has been teaching mostly from home since school started on Aug. 13, is now back in her brightly decorated, student-friendly classroom — all alone, until next week.

“How can we create that classroom culture, especially this year,” she said. “Last year, we were fortunate that we didn’t go out of school until March, so we had all year to have those relationships with the kids.”

“It’s that hyperactive teaching, where everything has to be laid out and ready to go so that it’s a seamless experience for them because a 10-second pause online is too much.”

Jaime McGrath, Jacob G. Smith Elementary School teacher

This academic year is slightly different as brand-new students enter her virtual teaching environment.

“I’m very fortunate because I am able to teach some of my kids a second time because I taught them in kindergarten, so I do have the connection with them,” said Gallob, who teaches mathematics, social studies and homeroom science. “We really have been trying to foster that relationship because we don’t get to see them yet, you know, since we’re not together.”

It’s also much harder to initiate fun science labs when all the students are at home, says Westlake, whose daughter also teaches science at Bradwell in the room next to hers.

“I miss the students being in our classrooms,” she shared. “Labs are a big part of my class, that’s how we catch those kids and that’s how they love being scientists.”

Westlake and her teaching aide have led online classes from their classroom at Bradwell. 

“Every unit, we have labs, and it’s really difficult to bring chemicals into the home,” Westlake said. “I’m teaching environmental now, so it’s a little bit easier. We can always bury trash out in the backyard, but it poses a problem if you live in an apartment and you don’t have a backyard, so there’s a lot of limits to being able to do labs at home.”

McGrath says now more than ever, teachers have had to work harder to connect with students and ensure they’re still understanding the material their young minds are absorbing. 

“We have to stretch a bit further to have that connection with these children,” said McGrath, whose 11-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son are joining him at home in the living room for online learning experiences of their own.

Maggie is in the sixth grade at STEM Academy, while Cormac is in kindergarten at his dad’s school.

“[We have to] expand that connection even more with the entire family that they’re a part of, and to understand what’s going on in the family dynamic more than we ever had to,” McGrath said. “The virtual teaching experience is hyper-focused on what teaching really is.”

This has got to be hard for some students’

From poor internet connection impacting students to lower attendance rates in some classes, teachers say it’s been a learning process that comes with its share of challenges.

Mitchell says she’s encountered some issues while working with the It’s Learning online educational platform used to connect with SCCPSS students.

“I applaud the decision made to use the platform, but I do believe that there are some kinks with it,” she said. “Nevertheless, as teachers, we’ve adapted to it, we’re adjusting to it and we’re finding other ways to supplement it.”

She feels the 10 days of training she and fellow teachers received was not enough time to learn their way around the platform.

“Every day that we meet, every game we play, every review we do, they are opening up more and more because they’re beginning to feel safe, and they know that no one’s going to laugh at them.”

— Sharyl Eastlake, Bradwell Institute science teacher

“We got together during planning and pre-planning, and many of the teachers who were more tech savvy, said ‘hey, let’s do a Zoom together,’ and so we literally taught ourselves,” Mitchell said.

Westlake expressed concern for some of the children who have had to adapt to learning at home without their classmates in the same room.

“Oh my goodness, I know this has got to be hard for some students,” she said. “School is a social place, This is how you learn all your social skills, and we have so many clubs at Bradwell that students are not being able to be a part of.”

She says she realizes some of them have a harder time escaping distractions at home.

“Some students have four or five siblings at home, Mom and Dad is at work, so they have to not only do their own schoolwork, but they have to help their younger siblings do their schoolwork,” she added. 

Gallob shares that virtual instruction means less opportunities for spontaneity in her teaching plans.

“Even if I had a group that’s running really well, I kind of have to be like, ‘alright, we’ve wrapped up, we’ll have to pick back up next time,’ because the kids are on a schedule,” she said.

‘I’ve been able to be really creative’

Despite the barrier of a computer screen, some teachers are finding fun, engaging and out-of-the-box ways to connect with students.

McGrath has incorporated online lessons from his YouTube channel in his teaching.

“I took video lessons that I had been making and ramped up production so that I could teach students both here in Savannah and put them on YouTube,” said McGrath, whose channel has over 11,000 subscribers.

“I even get comments from grateful parents across the country from time to time because there’s an opportunity there,” he said.

Gallob says she gets her second graders up and moving by always starting her lessons with a dance and song that teaches them about math.

“It was a new experience, and I think if it ever has to happen again, I am better prepared for that. I’m also better prepared of how to be flexible and change things quickly.”

—Tiffany Gallob, Taylors Creek Elementary School teacher

She adds that pre-recorded lesson plans, while also benefiting the students, have also allowed her creativity to flourish.

“Like this year, I did a glow-in-the-dark video for the kids, and I also did one where it looked like I was changing clothes, which they thought was really cool,” she recalled.

Gallob also started introducing fun headbands into her virtual lessons in March. “Every day, I wear a new headband,” she said. At the time of interview, she wore one with two doughnuts on top.

“I want to make sure that I’m still engaging them even though we can’t be together,” she said.

‘Learn to laugh when things aren’t working’

As they each navigate the world of virtual teaching, the teachers seem to agree on preferring in-person lessons, as long as it’s safe to return to school.

“We love our lives, we love our own children, we love our students,” Mitchell said. “We’re doing what we have to do to make sure that our kids are safe and being taught in a great environment.”

McGrath says not being too hard on himself when things aren’t perfect has helped the process go a lot smoother.

“The advice I’ve had to give myself is learn to laugh when things aren’t working, to have that equanimity about it, to have a little levity and to say, ‘okay, guys, let’s do this,’ and just always have a way of moving forward, always to keep things working,” he said.

For her fellow virtual teachers, Eastlake recommends exercising patience during this unique experience.

“Teachers need to work together, share your knowledge with your other teachers in your school on how to do things,” she said, adding, “There’s been a lot of sharing going on in Bradwell in the last couple weeks, so I know that we all appreciate that; I appreciate that.”