Connors Elementary School teacher Nesrene Griffin, third from left, poses with her fourth-grade teaching team at the Lewiston school, before the COVID-19 lockdown. Submitted photo

Days start early and end late. A barrage of emails, phone calls and meetings. Stress, anxiety, sadness. And the days are empty of the one thing that makes their jobs worthwhile: kids.

Teachers miss their students, “their awesome little selves,” Philip W. Sugg Middle School teacher Nicole Sautter said in a recent interview.

The Lisbon school and all others have been closed since March 16 to help limit the spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

Teachers spend their days checking on the well-being of students, answering emails and phone calls from parents, adapting to a new normal of distance education.

It’s been difficult.

“This is hard, much harder than classroom instruction,” Lisbon Superintendent Richard Green said. “I haven’t talked to a teacher who said it isn’t harder.”

But, he added, “People have stepped up like nothing I’ve ever seen.”

Sautter said she is still trying to figure out how to do it.

Nicole Sautter works at home April 21. She teaches seventh grade at Philip W. Sugg Middle School in Lisbon. Submitted photo

“When the process first started, I was really gung-ho and excited about trying to make the best of a bad situation,” she said.

She put a lot of thought into how to meet students’ academic and emotional needs, she said. She thought she had a good plan and she was proud of it.

“But when the first day got going, I thought, ‘This is going to be rough,’” she said.

Trying to trouble-shoot with students over social media would take 20 minutes, she said, as opposed to the few seconds it would take in a classroom.

“It’s difficult to see where students are getting hung up, why the work is not getting done. Are they having a hard time emotionally?”

Remote teaching has been “exponentially more difficult and interactions with students much less genuine than in the classroom,” Sautter said.

She thought she could replicate her classroom online, “but it’s not filling the void. Just being in the classroom — it’s the connection with my kids, listening to them generate ideas and talk to each other and share cool lingo with me.”

Her day typically begins at 8 a.m. and ends late into the evening. She checks email and reads the superintendent’s daily agenda. She monitors Google Classroom to see whether students have questions. She meets with colleagues on Zoom, a videoconferencing platform. She meets with parents online or by phone to get feedback on what works and what teachers can do better.

“Our message to families is that all we need from them is to provide structure,” she said. “We don’t expect them to do our job.”

But she worries about her students.

“It’s been definitely an emotional journey,” she said. “We are encouraged to separate ourselves professionally, but I have a lot of concerns about the kids.”

Some are quiet during Zoom sessions and she can tell they are not comfortable, she said.

“I’m hearing a lot of them saying, ‘I just want to go back to school.’”

So does she.

“No matter how hard I try or how many hours I throw into this, it will never come close to what it’s like in the classroom,” Sautter said.

Having students walk into her classroom is a “luxury” that Edward Little High School English teacher Jennifer Braunfels misses, she said.

Edward Little High School teacher Jennifer Braunfels attends a video conference with a colleague earlier this month. Submitted photo

She says she works “extremely odd hours,” often late into the evening. “It’s definitely a much longer day. I’ve been at this for 21 years and this is the most work I’ve ever done.”

Braunfels tries to begin her days at normal school hours by answering staff and student emails, going on Google Classroom to see whether students turned in work overnight, using Zoom to meet with students.

Once her own three children are in bed for the night, Braunfels prepares audio recordings and posts them online or uses them in the next day’s Zoom classes.

She sometimes works with a full class. Other times, one on one.

She said she is lucky to have been a teacher for many years because she can take instructional materials from the past and find creative ways to use them online.

But she misses the face-to-face with students, and she worries about them.

“I’m filled with emotions,” she said. “I’m really sad and really worried about the kids I haven’t heard back from.”

Teachers have been reaching out with emails and phone calls, but not all students have responded. Braunfels said she hasn’t heard from about 10 of her students. One kid she finally reached was the only one in his family who was working, she said.

Some of the students who haven’t responded are seniors who need credits to graduate.

“They will have to make those up at some point,” she said. “I foresee we will be doing some summer courses to get kids caught up.”

Edward Little High School teacher Jennifer Braunfels attends a videoconference with a colleague earlier this month. Submitted photo

Other students have told her they are depressed, she said.

“I have the sense they’ve given up because they don’t get prom, graduation, senior trip. They don’t get the things they’ve pictured since kindergarten,” she said. “That makes me very, very sad.”

Auburn Superintendent Katy Grondin said she believes teachers are doing their best to balance the stress of their personal lives with the strong desire to stay connected with their students.

“Teachers are being creative with morning meetings, read-alouds, videos and online lessons,” Grondin said.

Their days are filled with connecting with students and families through online platforms, she said.

“I could not be prouder of our teachers and all of our staff for all that they are doing during these unprecedented times,” Grondin said.

In Lewiston Public Schools, teachers were given time to get their personal houses in order and become familiar with remote learning.

They will begin offering new material and remediation classes online May 4 and will continue through the end of the school year.

“While this approach was quite different, it was our contention that teachers’ lives were about to get rocked as much as students’,” Superintendent Todd Finn said.

Since April 6, Lewiston teachers have been checking in with each of their students twice a week, attending virtual professional development sessions, creating Zoom classrooms, making videos, sending cards to kids and volunteering at food distribution sites.

“I am seeing innovation, love, compassion and teamwork the likes of which I’ve never seen before,” Finn said. “I am incredibly proud of our teachers.”

Nesrene Griffin, a fourth-grade teacher at Connors Elementary School in Lewiston, says she doesn’t feel much like a teacher these days.

Nesrene Griffin was the 2017 Androscoggin County Teacher of the Year. She teaches at Connors Elementary School in Lewiston.

“I feel like my job has shifted,” she said. “I feel like I’m doing more of an administrative job, organizing and getting things together.”

She says she is luckier than some because she can work a full day without interruption.

“Other co-workers have young kids,” she said. “They are juggling home schooling and getting their (professional) work done.”

Her day consists of phone calls, emails, texting and connecting with parents and students on the social media platform Flipgrid, she said, adding that students “have really taken to it.”

She also serves on committees and mentors other teachers. She answers texts at 9 p.m. from parents who are essential workers and can’t get in touch during the day.

“I’m trying to get things done with lots of meetings and parents calling at the same time,” she said.

And she has other irons in the fire.

“Teachers just don’t teach in the classroom,” she said. “We have other things in our lives, connecting with communities and bringing things home.”

For example, Griffin is working through a grant from the Maine Education Association on organizing a multicultural event.

It was supposed to take place in May. The idea was to invite local parents to teach the community about their native music, food, arts and crafts, she said.

“We are now thinking of having it virtually and having different Zoom meetings,” she said. “There’s a lot of thinking outside the box about how to do things virtually.”

Griffin also is working with Educate Maine to get books to donate to pupils who don’t have access to books at home.

“We’ve really tried to make sure the needs of students and families are being met,” she said. “A lot of teachers are bending over backward to connect with families.”

Because of the high number of immigrants in Lewiston, the district has an online interpreter that can translate text messages into different languages, she said.

She said she’s not worried about her students, though they miss the social interaction and academic engagement.

“They’re bored, but they are learning new technology skills, learning to adapt out of their comfort zone,” she said.

“Kids are resilient,” she said.

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