Jennifer Vaught

Jennifer Vaught, a second-grade teacher, stands in her classroom at Colonel Wright Elementary.

For teachers, one of the biggest themes throughout the pandemic has been formulating and maintaining relationships with students even in an online classroom. For Jennifer Vaught, a second-grade teacher at Colonel Wright Elementary School, this held especially true.

Vaught struggled with the transition to online school, mostly because she was worried about being able to support her students as well as she wanted to.

“I couldn’t do my job how I normally would, and didn’t feel like I had the tools or the training or definitely the experience, to feel very confident or successful in meeting the needs of my students,” she said. “We had to adapt quickly and then adapt over and over to the ever changing new regulations, and nothing was certain. That was really difficult.”

Vaught said that normal routines and ways of doing school were thrown out of the window, which made things difficult in many ways, especially emotionally. It was a lonely time for students and staff both, she said.

“Even though we worked hard to make those meaningful connections with students over screen, it still just couldn’t replace that face-to-face relationship that we were used to having,” she said.

Because communication with the kids was more difficult due to the online format, Vaught said working with the families was more important than ever.

“I think no teacher would argue that the fact that strong relationships with students and families are important and have always been important,” she said. “But I think going through this year and a half of pandemic has really made it clear to all of us that these relationships are most important. And it definitely took a village.”

Families stepped up to support and teach at home, Vaught said. She said families and school staff became more of a team, which was incredibly rewarding.

“We all kind of learned together a new way of doing school so it made those family relationships with the school a whole lot more meaningful and strong,” she said. “ Our staff and our families have really shown to be resilient and courageous. Throughout this we’re all showing up and doing our best and working together, trying new things … That’s something that’s really been inspiring to be a part of.”

Vaught said by March 2021, the hybrid school model was much needed. She said the teachers missed being with the students and the students missed being with each other.

She said that during hybrid learning, she had 12 kids in her classroom for half of the day.

“(That) was really important for I think some healing that needed to take place after all this,” Vaught said. “Just having more adult-to-kid ratio, interaction, building those relationships, talking about what we’ve been through and how we felt, and then just figuring out school all over again.”

However, even with the half days in the spring, full-time in-person school came as a shock to everyone’s systems this fall, she said.

Vaught said there have been learning gaps that needed to be addressed, and it has been difficult as a teacher not to feel overwhelmed.

“There’s pressure to kind of make up for what has been lost, some might say,” she said. “But it’s also important to just take a look at the big picture and think about it a little bit differently, that nothing has really been lost. These kids have still been learning and growing.”

One of the biggest focuses this year has been on social and emotional learning, Vaught said. Her classroom currently uses a “Mood Meter,” where kids are taught to identify the emotions they’re feeling and place them on a square.

The meter has four sectors: Red, yellow, green and blue. Red and yellow are on the top half, and blue and green are on the bottom. The top indicates high energy levels, whereas the bottom half is lower energy levels, and the left side is uncomfortable feels whereas the right is comfortable feelings.

As such, the red quadrant is high-energy uncomfortable feelings such as anger or agitation, and the yellow quadrant is high-energy comfortable feelings like excitement or joy. The blue quadrant is low-energy uncomfortable feelings like sadness or exhaustion, and the green quadrant is low-energy comfortable feelings like calmness and a more peaceful happiness.

Vaught has also found a way to use mornings to focus on students and their emotions.

“One thing I’ve enjoyed this year is we do breakfast in the classroom,” she said. “So the kids kind of trickle in in the morning for about 15 minutes, as they get dropped off, and they come in and they’ll get breakfast, or have a morning activity to work on. But I use that time to really connect with each kid one-on-one in the morning and check in with them and see how they’re doing. It seems to start our day off really well. All the kids feel like they’re welcome, and they’re excited that I’m excited that they’re there and they know that they are important to our school to me.”

Vaught said she’s been glad to help students through social and emotional learning, because emotions have been difficult throughout this past year and a half.

“It has been a scary time and so much is out of our control, and just navigating this fear with staff and students and families in our community has been hard,” she said. “But I think because so much felt out of our control, the things that we could control became even more important, like just loving the people in front of us. And being intentional about creating the world that we want to be within our realm of influence. For me, this starts every morning, in my classroom with each student that walks in the door. Again, I can’t tell you how excited I am right now that they are actually walking through the door. So it’s been pretty cool to be able to be neat, in person and full time. And definitely, you know, there are challenges, and they feel so full and so busy right now. But it feels more like how it was supposed to be.”