Teachers were left scrambling as they endeavored to make their lessons as engaging over a computer as they were in classrooms. We talked to Jean Lawson, who has been a special education teacher at Springfield’s Truman Elementary School for fourteen years, about how she’s continued to help students since the start of the pandemic. Springfield has the option for virtual or seated, in-person learning, and Jean has chosen to continue teaching virtually for the time being.

What was a typical workday like for you before the pandemic?

I teach kindergarten through fifth-graders, so I had a wide range of students, all who had autism, which significantly impacted their learning. I was teaching these students all of their content at their grade level.

How has that changed?

Initially it was a scramble to figure out how we’d continue to work on Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) goals. We did a lot of phone calls, because our students with autism don’t do so well with Zoom conferencing. Just before we reopened, I transitioned to be fully virtual for our students with autism. I took a really close look at their IEPs with their parents to figure out what they are able to work on, and we’ve tweaked that as we’ve gone along.

Can you give us a few examples of adjustments?

I have one student who was not engaging at home. One time, he kept talking to his mom about something, and I said, “What is he saying?” She said, “Oh, he’s been watching Paw Patrol on the TV, and he wants to watch it.” I looked up the Paw Patrol theme song, and we looked at that. Immediately, he got engaged on my screen. I was able to scramble and find a “Paw Patrol A to Z” and a “Paw Patrol Counting,” which aligned with goals we were working on. Now, everything is centered around Paw Patrol. He went from not engaged to engaged because his special interest became the theme for his learning.

What do you think would surprise people about teaching during the pandemic?

What I have heard from teachers is how exhausted they are by teaching during the pandemic because of the increased amount of time required and the change in their role. Teachers are caring people who see their students as part of their family and their tribe, and when you aren’t able to have them in the classroom all the time, it’s emotionally draining. I have found that teaching this way has helped me to refine my teaching skills.

Can you give me an example?

I’ve looked closely at students’ goals and how to create an efficient session with them. When we have students in the classroom all day long, we have to be everything for every grade level. [Virtual teaching] has helped me to be efficient and help them be more independent in their learning environment. I’m creating specific schedules for each student for the time I’m with them and focusing on working on their goals within their special interests. It comes down to making the best use of every moment I have with the student.

Jean’s students, from left, Garrett, Matthew, Adien, and Donovan, work with her on various projects before the pandemic. Truman Elementary School is now open, but Jean is still teaching virtually.