Amie Ell, Peter Knowles, Jenna Mobley and Kelly Hume stand outside Columbia High School on April 21. 

The days of “classroom management” as students distracted each other with side conversations gave way to seeking “classroom engagement” for teachers at Columbia High School during the pandemic, English and social studies teacher Kelly Hume said.

Math teacher Jenna Mobley said she was, at times, teaching to a virtual classroom populated with black boxes as students weren’t required to leave their webcams on.

Science teacher Amie Ell said one teacher put it best, saying “she was like a stand-up comedian for her house plants.”

Ell said students communication skills and ability to connect with one another seemed “repressed” when they did return to in-person learning.

Ell taught through a video screen with a substitute in the room for the first three weeks of the return until receiving a COVID-19 vaccine. She said she asked students if it was “this quiet in all of your classes,” when she returned to the classroom. Students nodded.

“I said, ‘Do you guys want to work on some skills for getting more comfortable talking with each other again?’” Ell said. “I thought, ‘Oh, they’re going to be like oh that old lady she’s so weird,’ but their smiles and their nods were huge under their masks.”

Ell, Mobley, Hume and social studies teacher Peter Knowles worked together on several committees to plan for this year. Knowles said this year has, in a way, allowed teachers to “start from scratch” and think about what parts of “the old way” should be left behind.

“I think that’s an opportunity to restructure how we all think about what it is we’re trying to do while we’re doing this thing called ‘school,’” Knowles said.

Hume said the past year has particularly changed the way she looks at assessing students’ understanding of material. In her classroom, the days of multiple choice tests on paper are gone, she said.

“A lot of my assignments now, they have the ability to either type out their answer or they can leave me audio recordings,” Hume said.

“They can record themselves answering it and discussing it or explaining how they did something, and I’ve just found that’s been so much more enlightening to really help me know what they understand and what they’re able to do,” she said.

Knowles, in his 29th year with the district, said his file cabinet full of multiple-choice tests may never be used again.

Ell and Mobley have been working with another teacher to develop curriculum including “social-emotional learning” (SEL) items. Ell said students may not be able to make-up for time lost this year in terms of academic content, but they have gotten stronger in other areas — especially those involving technology and communication.

One student contacted Mobley on a day off to ask for help with an assignment, she said in the past she might have had to seek that student out.

“That level of self-advocacy is a huge skill, and it’s really hard to ask for help,” Mobley said.

Knowles, Hume, Mobley and Ell are part of a “Professional Learning Community” group and have compiled an online list of tools for teachers from apps and websites to articles about teaching philosophy. They listen to podcasts and read educational journals, sometimes ideas come from social media. Ell hasn’t been able to get Knowles onto TikTok yet, but she’s not giving up.

Knowles said he has been studying the concept of “learning loss” during the pandemic.

“If the goal is to have kids retain an important finite amount of information in their brains then I think we’ve lost ground that we can’t get back, but if the goal is to equip them for dealing with their lives — whether it’s through SEL, self-advocacy or figuring out how to deal with something they don’t know — then I think we’ve actually moved forward pretty well,” Knowles said.

He credited Ell, Mobley, Hume and many other teachers in the district with being comfortable trying new things. He said that willingness to adapt and collaborate was key in finding success this year.

“We really didn’t have a map going forward, I think we just sort of left a trail behind us,” Knowles said.

All four teachers continue to meet with others throughout the district one Saturday a month to share resources and provide one-on-one help to teachers who need extra help with some of the new technology.

Hume said helping other teachers with technology offered some of the professionally fulfilling “Aha!” moments they normally would have experienced with students.