First grade teacher Maria Gulchuk holds up two pieces of paper printed with Zoom microphone images.
“We can’t hear you, friend, so make sure you click this one,” she said, putting the image of a muted microphone closer to the screen for her Adelaide Elementary School students to see — “so then you can see this one,” showing the unmuted microphone image.
The student followed Gulchuk’s innovative communication strategy and began to tell the class about their favorite pet.
During reading time, Gulchuk shared her screen displaying a digital version of the book so that students could look at the pictures.
She clicks through each page, reading aloud as eyes peer at the bottom of the screen, small heads peaking out in front of large office chairs or in their at-home desk situations.
The screen of first-graders is in constant motion, and despite the wiggles and fidgeting, Gulchuk seems to capture — and keep — their attention throughout the class.
Online school is underway for hundreds of schools across the state, and Federal Way Public Schools provided the Mirror with a look inside a virtual classroom during the first week of the 2020 school year.
Gulchuk, in her fourth year of teaching for FWPS, said the beginning of this year “was a different type of excitement.”
Usually in late summer, teachers would be setting up their classrooms, prepping name cards, collecting supplies and thinking about how the classroom environment will feel once students arrive.
“This year, it wasn’t like that. I went into my classroom thinking through the virtual aspect of things, and what supplies I’m going to need to teach virtually,” she said. “It was just a completely different mindset going into the school year.”
Aside from supplies and studying, Gulchuk worried about the relationship-building aspects through a screen.
“How do we build community? How do I get to know the students and their families?” she said. “It was also taking into consideration that I’m basically coming into the homes of students because I get to see their home environment and thinking, how can I be considerate of that fact?”
Within the first day, Gulchuk noticed her students’ situations, which brought another round of questions needing creative solutions.
In one instance, a student’s mom was in the background interpreting the lessons for her daughter to understand. Another student, Gulchuk noticed, was attending school while at their parent’s work office.
These individual challenges mean more preparation for teachers, and also a new sense of teamwork with families.
“It takes teamwork,” she said. “I honestly can’t do it myself … It definitely takes a lot more on the end of the parents this time around.”
As for her Zoom feature images, Gulchuk credits her inspiration to the teachers she follows on Pinterest and Instagram, who may have started the year earlier than FWPS and have been providing feedback on tips, tricks, what works and what doesn’t.
So far, Gulchuk has learned visuals are key. Frequent breaks are necessary, and so is teaching with an optimistic outlook.
“This is not how we ever imagined to do school, and if you’re on edge and frustrated and mad about it, I think the students can sense that even though you’re at a distance,” she said.
“We’re going to learn either way.”