Connecting with Students Beyond the Screen

By Angela Deines

“They want to hug me and I want to hug them. I just told them that I love them and that we’re going to be okay. Their classroom…it’s been taken from them and that just hurts my heart.”

Carolyn “Mrs. O” Orndorff, UTW member, talking about her Buckner Elementary second-grade students
NEA-Topeka members Stephanie Karrer, left, and Scott Ritter.

While the COVID-19 pandemic forced educators across the U.S. to leave their classrooms and deliver instruction online from home, many Kansas NEA members took the time to show their students appreciation off-line for participating in their online continuous learning.

“It was a good way to get out from behind the screen,” NEA-Topeka member Scott Ritter said. “It was also a ‘hey, we miss you and we want to thank you for holding up your end of the bargain’.”

Ritter, an English and Language Arts teacher at French Middle School in Topeka USD 501, is describing the visits he and Stephanie Karrer, fellow NEA-Topeka member and math teacher at French, made to recognize their students who stayed connected to their teachers and completed their online classwork.

“The change to distance learning was a struggle for students, families, and teachers,” said Karrer, who came up with the idea from other educators’ social media posts. “It felt amazing to recognize students who were attending the Zoom video meetings, persevering with distance learning, and completing their math assignments.” 

Over a three-day period, Karrer and Ritter visited nearly 75 different homes, delivering bags with water, snacks and a note. They said the students were excited to see them and showed their appreciation while adhering to social distancing.  

“I wanted to deliver the treats so students still felt connected to school,” Karrer said. “I’m also a believer in rewarding kids for positive behavior and effort.”

“To reach out and give them some attention,” Ritter said, “it felt good to get out into the community. It’s such a new and strange time for us and we didn’t get that closure.”

Items that Carolyn Orndorff, UTW member, put in STEAM bags and delivered to her second-grade students

Affectionately known as “Mrs. O”, United Teachers of Wichita member Carolyn Orndorff said she also didn’t get the closure that’s customary at the end of the school year with her Buckner Elementary second-graders. She said the social-distanced porch visits with her students and their families who are struggling helped her through the transition to continuous learning.

“Relationships with these kids is everything,” she said. “I just had to make sure they were okay. That helps me sleep at night.”

To give her students some activities, Orndorff said she put together “recess in a bag” that included play dough, pencils and a box of crayons. Friends also helped her put together treat baskets for her students and their families.

Like Ritter and Karrer’s students, Orndorff said her students’ faces “lit up” when she saw them. Making sure they honored social distancing, she said they exchanged “air hugs” in place of the actual hugs they used to get every day when they came to school.

“They want to hug me and I want to hug them,” she said. “I just told them that I love them and that we’re going to be okay. Their classroom…it’s been taken from them and that just hurts my heart.”

Orndorff said she usually helps chickens hatch in her classroom during the spring. Because Buckner is a STEAM school, she said there would have also been a STEAM week in late spring. To give them some semblance of normalcy, she said she delivered STEAM bags to her students that included binoculars, bug catchers, compasses and bird books and encouraged them to send her pictures of them being scientists.

 “This is feeding my soul, just seeing them,” Orndorff said. “They give me so much back.”

Sariah Dizmang holds a sign she received from her second-grade Fowler Elementary teacher.

A little more than 160 miles to the west of Wichita, Emily Dizmang, KNEA Southwest UniServ president and president of the Fowler USD 225 Teachers Association, was part of a caravan of other Fowler Elementary teachers who put signs of encouragement in their students’ yards to stay connected during the COVID-19 crisis.

“We wanted them to know that we still care about them,” she said. “With this happening so abruptly we couldn’t say goodbye. We wanted them to know that we’re just a click away.”

Like so many educators across Kansas and the U.S., Dizmang said all she wanted to do was give her students a hug and she could see they wanted to do the same. However, they could only wave and shout greetings to each other from a distance.  

Colt Dizmang holds a sign he received from his fifth-grade Fowler Elementary teacher.

“They never ran up and hugged us like they would have,” she said with emotion welling up in her voice. “You wanted to wrap your arms around them. It’s probably been the hardest thing. Sometimes that’s the only hug they get.”

A “positive” that came as a result of the pandemic, Dizmang said, was that she saw an increase in participation from parents who were previously “difficult to connect with.” 

“Some of those families I’m hearing from, I wish I could have heard from them all year,” she said. “It was nice to have those conversations. I heard a lot of appreciation, that ‘our kids couldn’t do this without you’.”

Jill Terhune, left, UTW member and counselor at Wichita West High School, delivers a Class of 2020 sign to a senior working at SONIC.

Back in Wichita, Jill Terhune, a UTW member, spearheaded the effort to put signs in the yards of graduating seniors at Wichita West High School.

“There was a group of us and we were talking about how we were going to connect with our kids, especially our seniors,” she said. “With 80 to 83 percent of them on free and reduced lunch, mostly free, we knew we would have to be creative in lots of different ways. Someone said ‘let’s do yard signs’ and I said I’d make it happen…because that’s just what I do.”

Terhune, who has been a counselor at Wichita West High School for the past six years and in Wichita USD 259 for more than 20 years, said the signs that read in part, “Once a Pioneer, always a Pioneer”, were a way to let the Class of 2020 know they are still part of the close-knit West High family.  

“Some of them escape to school (for security) and we’re constantly worried about them,” she said. “We wanted something more direct and personal. Our school is a family unlike any other school I’ve been in….It’s hard to explain. We really take care of our kids.”

Terhune said it was worth and time and effort to see the students and their families when many of the Wichita West staff caravanned in their cars to distribute the signs while being mindful of social distancing.  

“Seeing their faces and having them be reminded how much we care about and believe in them,” she said, “it was just so overwhelming.”

Gabe Costilla, UTW vice president and half-time release instructor at Wichita West High School.

“It felt really great to see them and give them a little bit of motivation and encourage them to finish strong, especially the ones that we hadn’t seen,” added Gabe Costilla, UTW vice president and a half-time release instructor at Wichita West.

Terhune said it was a tough spring for the Wichita West family in many ways but having the staff come together for their seniors was special.

“It’s been extremely hard on us,” she said. “We’re such a big family. Our teachers were incredible. They made it happen.”