Cameron Chilcote’s eighth-grade U.S. history classroom at Gaiser Middle School — the same room where he studied seventh-grade English 18 years ago as a student — is flooded with rows of empty desks, historical artifacts and personal memorabilia.
But he’s saving wall space for students to create their own personal story inside his first classroom — whenever he meets students in person.
“I feel like there’s more ownership for me to ‘wow’ them,” said Chilcote, “so when they come back and make it so it’s a memorable experience.”
Educators in Clark County’s school districts have spent the early months of the 2020-21 school year getting to know new faces and names of students through boxes on a screen by way of Remote Learning 2.0. But for Chilcote and other first-year teachers in Clark County, they’re also getting crash courses on chaos and change as they navigate their new careers in the midst of a pandemic.
Much like the students they teach, they’re learning as they go.
“Every day,” Chilcote said, “I’m learning something new.”
Chilcote, 31, spent six years as part of Skyview High School’s support staff, and was part of Concordia University’s final graduating class in the spring. He completed student teaching and was a long-term substitute in Battle Ground Public Schools before COVID-19 shut down schools in March.
College classes didn’t prepare him for teaching in a pandemic. Chilcote chooses to teach onsite at his Gaiser classroom, which is set up with a laptop, two monitors and a lighting ring sandwiched in-between. He’s only met one of his 157 students in person.
So far, it’s trial and error balancing class curriculum and crafting lesson plans to fit a remote-learning format, and then finding ways to connect with students since most are faceless avatars on a black screen. Bitmojis — an app to create virtual icons of yourself — and academic-focused TikTok recordings Chilcote creates are a big hit.
“It’s challenging me to be the best teacher I can as far as creativity,” he said.
Getting a boost
First-year teachers already face challenges of job unpredictability and after-hours responsibilities as they work to establish teaching styles and build relationships with students. But being a new educator in the most unusual of school years adds another layer of uncertainty and learning.
To help teachers adjust, there’s been extra support, school leaders say. New educator training and orientation, plus technology instruction for all teachers, were part of their professional development programs to help better prepare instructors for remote learning.
Teacher-mentor programs give instructors a boost.
Vancouver is one of three local districts receiving grant money via the state’s Beginning Educators Support Team through the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction to expand teacher-mentor programs.
Currently, Vancouver Public Schools has four full-time district mentors working with about 40 first-, second-, and some third-year instructors, said Mychael Irwin, the district’s director of professional development. Each new teacher is paired with a mentor who checks in throughout the year by scheduling class observations, critiques lesson plans and debriefs classes to help teachers grow into their roles.
Jay Jabari, a first-time social studies teacher at Hudson’s Bay High School, believes his football coaching background helps his own transition to the classroom. While his attitude toward teaching hasn’t changed in remote learning, expectations and understanding engagement have. He said he continues to fine-tune student engagement by building what he calls a family unit in each class.
“It became a progression of being understanding and accommodating,” Jabari said. “If I’m completely engaging and relevant and speak to their soul, I’ve got them. It’s a make-it-or-break-it situation, and that’s what I love about teaching. Every day, it’s a roll of the dice — either you’re going to get them or you’re not.”
Evergreen Public Schools has 23 first-time teachers, said district spokeswoman Gail Spolar.
Christian Swain, a first-year physical education teacher at Evergreen High School, has worked in high schools for more than 20 years in various roles, but never as a certificated teacher before this school year. March’s shutdown of schools meant many up-and-comers like Swain had their student-teaching time cut short.
Still, being hired in the same building he student taught in is a big lift, he said, and so far, adapting PE curriculum for an online setting and learning how-tos remotely has been a blessing.
“I’ve had to learn something I wouldn’t have had to right away,” said Swain, 45.
Yet even in the midst of obstacles faced, the teachers see reasons to be hopeful.
Building better teacher
Back at Chilcote’s classroom at Gaiser, he said overcoming hurdles is making him a better educator. He said it’s reassuring to know he’s not the only one navigating an unscripted territory of education, and he continues to embrace the ways this year is different from the one he imagined.
He sends each class off with a catchphrase: “Peace out, make good choices, and have fun.”
“These kids are super special — every single one of them in their own way,” Chilcote said last week. “At some point, hopefully, they’ll make some impact on the world that is going to be special, and hopefully I’m that teacher — the one that changed them.”