Three teachers reveal what it was really like to teach during the pandemic

Gillian Martin, a Toronto teacher, takes a photo wearing two masks and a plastic shield during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The school year in Toronto has come to a close after months of fluctuating from in-person to remote learning, a constantly shifting classroom setting that often mirrored the city’s pandemic predicament.

In the silence that follows, three Toronto teachers took a moment to reflect.

'Surreal'

For Gillian Martin, the best word to describe this school year is "surreal."

After more than 20 years in the industry, “It was like being a brand new teacher,” Martin said.

Some days, she walked into her middle school classroom at Holy Trinity School, double masked, shield on, to a room of empty desks.

Students had the choice of learning from home or in-person at varying points in the year and Martin was determined to make both groups feel seen, even when she was looking at a sea of digital icons.

“For someone who thrives and built their career on their ability to connect with human beings, it was crazy, just crazy,” Martin said.

She smiled, wished students a happy birthday and asked how their new puppies were doing, but on the inside, “Your heart takes a beating.”

Daily, Martin thought about the perseverance of her students who gave up all of the joys that make young people’s lives burst with colour just to keep the adults in their lives safe.

“There is this narrative of this being a lost year,” Martin said. “I didn’t see a lost year... I saw a year of strength and resilience.”

'It's bittersweet'

Sharing is typically a core principle Rebecca Geniole strives to instill in her Grade 2 and 3 students at Herb Campbell Public School and Plowman's Park Public School. But amidst a pandemic, that was a challenge.

Kids couldn’t face one another in a classroom community circle or run up to a friend to show off their new art project. When a classmate’s marker ran out of ink, another student couldn’t simply lean over to offer theirs.

“It was really sad as a teacher to see,” Geniole said.

“All these opportunities of sharing that we typically encourage and having that classroom community, they were limited.”

Even the layout of the classroom shifted. Instead of groups of desks, which Geniole, a third year teacher, normally carefully curates to ensure students with different strengths can bolster one another, desks were individually placed in a row as a safety precaution.

Since Geniole’s students had never seen her without a mask on, her principal printed photos of each teacher smiling, which they wore on lanyards around their necks. “It just helped to humanize the teachers and make us more approachable,” she said.

On the last day of school, Geniole said, “It’s bittersweet.”

Referencing her students, she added, “We went through so much together.”

'Lots of work to do'

At the start of the school year, Richa Peters, a Kindergarten teacher at Highbush Public School in Durham, and her colleagues would spend an hour or more, washing toys to keep her students safe.

Eventually, they created bins for different days of the week, so that certain toys would only be used on designated days, instead of scrubbing each one every single day. As a proxy of the year as a whole, their approach evolved over time.

As classes winded down, parents stopped by the school with their kids to pick-up items left behind amidst the rush to online learning.

From these interactions, Richa sensed a shift in her students. “All the kids who would chat with us online were absolutely quiet face-to-face,” she said.

“I guess we have lots of work to do next year.”