Two Clackamas High School teachers talk about teaching during COVID-19

Biology teacher Angela Shroufe in her classroom at Clackamas High School. Photo courtesy of Angela Shroufe.

Angela Shroufe and Cynthia Rochester are teachers at Clackamas High School. I met with them over Zoom to discuss the challenges that teachers are dealing with in the wake of COVID-19 and distance learning. 

The Clackamas PrintJust to start off, what subjects do you teach and how many students are you currently teaching? 

Cynthia Rochester: I teach stats. And I currently teach 90 students.

Angela ShroufeI am teaching both Biology and AP Biology right now. In Biology, I have, like 65 kids, and in AP I have 30. So I have, in total, about 95 kids.

TCP: How does this current number of students compare to a normal year and your overall workload?

Shroufe: Well, that was one of the positives that I wrote down. Because of the way they set up the schedule, the students and the teachers are focusing on half of their classes at any given time, because we’re in quarters rather than semesters. So both Cindy and I have three classes of students that we’re teaching, which means we’re dealing with half the number of students at any given time. Because I have fewer students that I’m getting to know right now, I have fewer students that I have to keeptrack of like missing work. And it’s way easier for me to have one on one time with my students and to track those that really need that extra support. So that’s a little tidbit about how many students. 

Rochester: I typically usually have about 35 students in each of my Stats classes, up to 40. So I think that because the district offered the hundred percent online, I lost about five students per class, which made my numbers in each class a little bit smaller. So that was nice. I typically have anywhere from 105 to 120 stats students, and this year, I have about 90. 

TCP: Do you feel like you have found your footing despite the challenges that have arisen? Does it feel like the year is somewhat starting to feel normal?

Shroufe: Since my very first lesson on the very first week of school, I’ve learned more what works, what doesn’t. We’re using Google Meets, which has a little bit less as far as features for students. And as the year has gone on, they’ve opened up features for kids, we’ve been able to have breakout rooms that are super easy. And even just having, you know, 20 to 30 minutes where kids can connect with each other and work on projects or be more social in class is a huge benefit. And so part of it is that we’re learning but part of it is that we’re getting better and better technology each week. We’re getting things like polling, so that we can ask questions, and everybody has a very easy way of responding. I think it’s both us learning and also the technology.

RochesterYeah, and I also think just lesson planning, having more of the kids engaging in the small groups now that we have Google suites and we can put them in breakout rooms like you can in zoom, has changed the game instead of having three or four devices open to have different Google meetings. Now I just click a button. So I’ve been able to have my kids do more small group learning and discussions and they are more engaged and connected with each other which has been helpful. I will say that it has also increased the attendance level during synchronous time that kids know that they need to come because they’re going to engage in an activity. So they’re showing up online.

Shroufe: Yeah, I mean, I will say since you brought up attendance and it really fits in here. But my attendance has been really good. Like yesterday, and today’s an example, out of all of my classes, I only had two students that did not attend the synchronous lesson out of 95. And I think that’s really amazing. And, you know, I’m teaching two sections of biology, which is just a general class. It’s not like the high fliers or the low flyers or anybody. I mean, it’s just a general population of kids, and they’re showing up and they’re doing their work. 

Rochester: I think that’s how you structure the class. Because I think when you emphasize that kids will be engaged in working together, the expectation is they have to be in class, versus if you’re doing a lecture, they can tune out or not even show up. So I think, building those lessons of engagement, even though we’re online, and I think that is modeled in our classrooms, at face to face. So I don’t think it was a huge jump for us to move to online and be able to set up those lessons, because we’ve already done that in class. 

TCP: As a teacher, what are the most significant challenges that you’re having to overcome in this new system?

Rochester: I think isolation, not being able to walk down the hall and talk to colleagues, I think we have managed to put our little groups together where we group text each other, and we meet up and we’ve helped each other with different features of Google together. So making our own little, like, unofficial, professional learning communities, where we’re helping with those has been very helpful, but it’s isolating.

Shroufe: I would definitely say the same thing, that I miss the social time with other people. But the social time, a lot of the time for teachers, since we’re so busy, has so much to do with planning, just being able to jump into someone else’s classroom and say, “Hey, you know, my lessons didn’t work, what can I do differently?” I’m missing the students too. I am. I mean, as a teacher, I want to be with students and walk around from lab table to lab table. I just love to hear about what’s going on in their lives. And when you log into a class, and all you see are icons of students’ names, it’s really, really hard. You know, when you try to make jokes, and no one laughs and interacts, there’s no one there, it seems like. And I would say the second thing that’s really tough is that it’s really, really time consuming. And both Cindy and I are very experienced teachers, we both taught the subjects that we’re teaching this year for a number of years. So the curriculum, the content, and the knowledge is all there. But changing it to be an online class is so time consuming, it’s adding every single link, it’s figuring out the groups that are going to be in those breakout rooms, so that you make sure that you have a leader and an ID that usually sits back. So I would say that most of us are spending. I know it sounds crazy, two to three hours on a lesson that we’re giving  takes about 60 minutes of in time in front of the kids. So, I mean, I enjoy it. I enjoy curriculum writing, but I don’t think people realize the amount of time that goes into making these lessons accessible to all.

Rochester: I think the challenge for me is communicating to the kids. And I’m not doing this because I’m super picky. But I have to come up with systems where your assignment isn’t getting lost in an email. (We’re) having to spend a lot of time training students on how to do things so that we can manage that because I think I’m working probably at least 60 plus hours a week to do a job I get paid 40 hours a week for. So, I mean, I always worked over 40 hours a week but I’m working substantially more hours on distance learning than I would if I was in the classroom.

Shroufe: You know, Cindy brought up a good point about the work that we are that we are accepting. I mean, I think both of us are being pretty flexible with students submitting work at their own pace. And I think that a real positive part of distance learning is that we are not having like those strict due dates on things. But for teachers, it’s crazy. Because we have, like, all these Google Classroom assignments. And so every week, you have to keep going back and looking at every single one of those assignments to see if kids have submitted late work. That goes back to that time consuming thing for teachers.

Rochester: Yeah, I would agree with that. And I also think I’m using more of a flip model where kids are watching videos on their own time. And I think the positive from students, of all types of students, are like, it’s really nice to be able to watch a video at my own pace and be able to refer back to it. But also, if they’re watching a video, they can, you know, watch 10 minutes of it, and stop and then come back to it later. But it takes time to make all those videos.

TCP: Have students started to acclimate to online learning? And what are some of the challenges they are facing, that aren’t normal to a regular year?

Rochester: I’ll say that I assume that youngsters know technology and are pretty good at adapting to technology. But I found in distance learning that that really isn’t the case. And asking them, I think the biggest challenge is that, even though they only have four classes, and that doesn’t seem like a lot, they’re learning different platforms in each of those classes. I had to kind of step back, because I made the assumption that it’ll be just quick like that and they’ll figure it out. And it’s not, they struggle just as much as we do with learning new technology. And I also think that trust factor of opening up and turning on the cameras and turning on their mics and talking, that I feel like kids are just starting to trust that they have a safe space in my class to do that. But now the quarter is going to be over and they’re going to move on and have to do that (again). I think in the third quarter, it’ll be better, because they will have had me for a quarter. And they would have that trust starting to build. 

Shroufe: Yeah, I agree. They’re missing their friends. They’re missing their social time. And I had a student say, “I’m really tired of my family.” (Laughs) 

Rochester: I had someone tell me that this week and I said, “Hey, I’m with you. We’re in the same boat floating down the river.”

Shroufe: They’re missing all the activities. I mean, we had a club rush last week, that was all online. And it was awesome, because we’re starting to get kids to be able to interact with each other not in a school sense, but in clubs. But I would say that you know how we’re seven plus weeks into the school year, and we’re just getting that really going. And I would say for probably both Cindy and I who teach college level classes, and they’re getting a lot less content. We are in front of our students for two hours. And then the rest of the time is asynchronous. They can choose to contact us during our office hours. And each week, we have two hours of live office hours. But they just don’t have as much content time in the class with us to get help. And then we have a strict requirement that we can’t require them to do more than four hours of work outside of class. So that’s a total of six hours each week for a quarter, which our quarters count for semesters. So if you start adding up that time it is going to be rough to try to get through that content.

Rochester: And for my class, I pulled out the stat 244, and they’re only going to be able to learn the 243 curriculum this year, so we already know, as a dual credit class, they’re only going to earn four credits of stats instead of eight.

TCP: Clackamas is an incredibly diverse school with students and staff coming from every racial, religious, and socio-economic group; are the challenges that have arisen from COVID-19 affecting them differently? And if so, how?

Rochester: I don’t know how, because I haven’t gotten a chance to get to know my students enough to know, personally, what’s going on. The connectivity was a challenge at the beginning. And there were students that had to get Chromebooks and hotspots. And they were not ready to go as some of their other students. So I’m sure kids who were on free and reduced lunch and whose parents were in service industries that they lost their jobs, had to find a way to get to the school, get the equipment they needed, so that they could be on the distance learning with us. I can tell you that there are some kids that are always getting bounced off of my class, time and time again. So there’s connectivity issues there, that you just have to be flexible. You know, if they keep getting kicked out of class, they just come back and I meet with them to make sure that they get the information they need. But I think North Clackamas has done a good job of making sure that people had what they needed to make distance learning successful for their students.

Shroufe: Yeah, I agree with that. I think one thing that we’re trying this year, is that we have implemented Cav teams as a homeroom. And our Cav teams are grade specific. So Cindy has a group that was kicked out. They’re a group of freshmen who are known to be struggling students, so they gave her a smaller group, so she could really focus on those students. I have a group of seniors all over the board. And what I’d say about that is, when you bring up the idea of diversity, each month, we’re focusing on a different group of people of a culture to talk about. So from the middle of September to the middle of October, we did lessons on Hispanic culture. And now we are moving into the LGBTQ plus community. And so our goal is to focus on different diverse communities every month so that students see ideas on different cultures and the way people are. 

TCP: What are some things that would reduce challenges that students and teachers are facing?

Rochester: I think for the isolation, they’re starting to do this putting us in small groups at the beginning of staff meetings, so that we have a chance to talk with each other and or at the end, or they give us a question and put us into small groups. So we’re not in a group of 170 people, but we’re in smaller groups of like 10, so that we can have a conversation and connect with other colleagues from different disciplines. And other than that, I think they’re trying to be accommodating and flexible, like what we’re doing with our students. I think as things come up, they are looking for ways to be creative to be flexible. The theme has always been grace and flexibility. And I think that’s what we all need to have right now. 

Shroufe: Our administration is trying to, as best as possible in the situation we’re in, keep us positive, sending out positive quotes or videos, trying to get inspired. They’re allowing us to get things home to kids if we need to. So if we turn in copies, they’re making copies every week. And those are being mailed out at the beginning of each quarter. And if teachers get things together, those get picked up by students’ families. So I put together a lab kit for my AP Biology students for my current students now, and then I’ve made new ones for my next group. And it allows them to do labs at home. And it’s made such a difference in my curriculum that we do at least one lab a week. I demo it, and then they set it up, and then we come back to the next class and talk about it. So it’s not something that they haven’t done, it’s something that they’ve really been a proponent of is trying to get those materials home. They’ve also done a good job in situations where we needed textbooks, but we couldn’t have the textbooks at home, so they contacted textbook companies so that we could have online access to those textbooks. So I think they are doing what they can. But I would agree with Cindy, we need some social time at the staff meetings in small groups. And I think they’re starting to recognize that. 

TCP:Do you think that students are receiving the education they need right now?

Shroufe: I think that what we’re doing is the best and safest method to provide education for our students. Right now. 50% of the North Clackamas staff either lives with someone at high risk or is high risk themselves. And I don’t know if it’s a secret, but there was a COVID-19 case of a Clackamas staff member last week. Um, and so it may not be the best, obviously, the best is being in class, in our classrooms. But in a situation where we have a pandemic, I think that this is the best method that we can provide, and having live lessons with students.

Rochester: And I would say the same thing, I think that I believe my students are learning, I know that I’m not going to be able to cover all the curriculum that I’m teaching that I did last year, but the curriculum that I am covering, I do believe that my kids will be able to master it. And I think it’s giving them some really good skills for when they leave high school, how to advocate for themselves, how to take online classes in college, if they’re going that route, and how to be flexible, and how to advocate and how to engage. It’s all those skills that they need to have before they leave high school. And I think that CBl is making that, making students really look at that. And so I think it is the safest and best way to deliver our curriculum right now.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.