In the weeks since the coronavirus forced schools to close, teachers across the country have rallied to reach their students and keep them engaged in learning. During Teacher Appreciation Week, we celebrate the commitment and ingenuity of educators like Cristina Correa, a high school art teacher at IDEA College Prep in San Juan, Texas.
How did you get into teaching?
I never anticipated being in the classroom. I had a baby boy right after finishing my undergraduate degree in college. I moved back home to the Rio Grande Valley and there was an opening for an art teacher. My son was four days old. I took him with me to the interview. I told myself I was going to teach for one year. That turned into two years, then three. Then a friend recommended me for a job at the new IDEA school. Principal Sam Goessling was looking for someone who could teach art. I taught a kindergarten class in front of 10 administrators. I became a founding teacher at IDEA College Prep San Juan and am finishing up my 11th year at the campus.
What has your experience been like at IDEA?
I credit IDEA for keeping me in education. They believe in strengthening their teachers and giving them autonomy. I love that you can be a leader at IDEA and not have to leave the classroom to move into administration. They find so many different ways to empower their faculty.
The coronavirus pandemic has upended education for schools, teachers and students across the country. What was it like when your school closed?
For a while the crisis seemed far away, and then it got real. Most of our kids don’t have regular access to health care or insurance. They live in homes with extended family, sometimes up to 11 or 12 people, so if one person is sick the whole family will get sick. So we were thinking about student safety and community health from the start. Just before spring break, we learned kids would be out for two weeks and teachers were going to return for distance learning training a week after spring break. I was with my AP Art History class when we got the news and my students felt it. My seniors believed it was the last time they were going to leave the building before graduation. The kids in the class all signed and dated my marker board.
How have you adjusted to remote teaching?
We brought home everything for the first few weeks. Then we were told to get more supplies, because it would be more long term. When I went back to my art room, I started crying. The classes are a safe space, not just for students but for teachers. Some of us spend more time there than we do at home. The idea of not being in our classroom is really hard. As teachers, we had to let go of the structure we knew. We have to be flexible and open to alternatives to the way students will produce. It’s our job as teachers to close any gaps. At IDEA, we have the autonomy to decide how we close the connectivity and learning gaps and ensure students are not left behind.
What are you doing to close those gaps?
In terms of art, I’ve been telling kids, let’s try something new. If you don’t have white paper, use lined paper or candy wrappers. That’s OK. They’re still creating, problem solving, posting their work. For the kids who don’t have Internet access, we have been putting together packets. With one project, I had students record a favorite family recipe and cook it. Kids are literally submitting their food creations as their art projects.
What are some of the challenges your students are facing?
A lot of our students have had to work. Their parents have lost jobs. There’s a lot of anxiety because families have very limited income. Kids miss the interaction with each other, but are doing the best they can.
Have there been any silver linings?
Some kids who were struggling felt a lot of stress because, sitting amongst their peers, it was apparent to them that they were behind. Now that they’re working independently in their own safe space, it has allowed them to shine. Kids are producing work that they never did in the classroom.
What does the future of school look like for you, as a teacher in this moment?
There are lots of unknowns. But the learning kids are doing right now, even if it is pieced together day by day, is preparing us for when this is over. This experience is empowering us to figure out ways to teach all children. When we return to the classroom setting, we’re going to have all of these tools we didn’t have before. It’s so important that we keep teaching. That’s been the main thing I have thought about. We have to keep school going for our communities, our future, our country.