Local Educators Share Tips From Their Pandemic Experience

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By Jim Walker

Signal Staff Writer

What do you wish you knew before the pandemic began?

Joanna White, director of special education with the William S. Hart Union High School District, and Amy Gaines, special education program specialist with the district, recently had separate articles on just that topic published in T-CARE, the newsletter of the California State University Northridge Center for Teaching and Learning.

The CTL is the research, collaboration and professional development arm of the College of Education, and T-CARE, which stands for Teachers Connecting to Advance Retention and Empowerment, is a national peer-reviewed education publication.

All the articles in the Fall 2021 T-CARE came under the umbrella theme of “What I Wish I Knew” (as in before the pandemic began), and White and Gaines shared their hard-won knowledge from an experience that was tough on students, educators and support personnel, while those in the field of special education faced some unexpectedly unique challenges.

Learning From the Challenges

Previous to her current position, White’s career included being a general education teacher with the L.A. Unified School District, a special education teacher with Saugus Union School District, a program specialist with the Hart district, and supervisor of individualized education program compliance with the Hart district. This gives her a unique perspective, distilled from wide experience in the education system.

The title of White’s article was “Learning from the Challenges,” and describes those pandemic challenges, all while “living in the eye of the hurricane,” from the initial, expected to be temporary, shutdown of everyday, in-person activity at the district on March 13, 2020, to “building the plane while we were flying it,” to rejoining “one another … 18 months later.”

“Heading into such unknown territory, we were so naive about it. We didn’t know it would rock our world,” White said.

The article takes you on a journey, and her summary paragraph offers this: “What I am sure of is that it requires a level of humility that I don’t know that I would have uncovered had I not been challenged in the way that March 13, 2020, challenged me. And, for that, I am changed, and grateful.”

White said her motivation for writing the article was to express an appreciation for her colleagues’ Self-Forgiveness & Extend Grace to Those Around You.” She said her motivation for writing it was to validate the feelings that she and many of her colleagues were experiencing, while sharing some of the strategies that helped her maintain her equilibrium throughout the pandemic.

The article offers a bullet-point roadmap to success in such trying times, including being good to yourself.

“I agonize that I am not doing enough. Having friends and colleagues around to remind me that I need to extend the same grace to myself that I give to others has been key to my own balance and happiness.”

Other points include prioritizing partnerships, utilizing support providers, keeping things simple and focused, staying involved … and setting boundaries throughout distance learning.

The “boundaries between work and home are permanently blurred … (and) show deliberation by sharing your boundaries with your families. This also helps model for students a moderately improved work/life balance.”

Gaines’ article comes to this conclusion: “Ultimately, we are educators, not wizards or oracles. What we know to be true, good and timeless in education continues to be true, good and timeless – even during a crisis. What I wish I knew in March 2020 was that we already know what to do.”

Amy Gaines Joanna White

Working during the pandemic was like “building the plane while we were flying it. … Heading into such unknown territory, we were so naive about it. We didn’t know it would rock our world.”

— Joanna White

“It was a frightening time, but once we got into a rhythm, elements of it were beautiful.”

— Amy Gaines

dedication, flexibility and ingenuity. “Educators are all used to pivoting, but this was way beyond that.” She added that it was inspiring “to watch colleagues and individuals transform their practices in such novel ways.”

Self-Forgiveness and Grace

Gaines has more than 20 years of classroom teaching experience, primarily with students with exceptional needs. She has taught in remote regions of Japan, with LAUSD, at CSUN and now with the Hart district. She recently co-authored two book chapters — a supplemental chapter on distance learning in “What Really Works with Exceptional Learners,” and a chapter on collaboration in “The Practical Guide to High-Leverage Practices in Special Education” (slated for publication in 2022).

Gaines’ article title was “Practice Relentless

Appreciation and Compassion

“We offer our respect and admiration to all of our colleagues – teachers, service providers, school psychologists, speech and language pathologists, occupational therapists, behavioral support, and our incredibly valuable mental health providers, all of whom are delivering trauma informed care to students throughout this valley on a daily basis,” White said.

“We were one of the first school districts in the county to get back up and running after the shutdown — in less than a week.”

Gaines agreed, and added, “It was a frightening time, but once we got into a rhythm, elements of it were beautiful. We learned so much about our capacity for connection, resilience and creativity, and saw clearly how student learning really is predicated upon the strong relationships we build with our kids every day.”

You can view an electronic copy of the fall 2021 issue of T-CARE at bit.ly/3LYZyhB.

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