2020 was a year like no other. What many thought would be a two-week school closure in March continued into the next school year and will likely continue in 2021. Unprecedented disruptions, coupled with educational innovations, have created a year that was barely recognizable.

We asked the 2020 AEF Teacher of the Year Ambassadors what their year was like, and how it’s impacting their plans for 2021. Here’s what they had to say:

Arizona Educational Foundation’s Ambassadors for Excellence 2020 from left to right: Nate Rios, Ben Collinsworth, Lynette Stant, Taryn Tidwell, Sheila Rowe. Photo courtesy of the Arizona Educational Foundation.

Ben Collinsworth, early childhood educator

teachers reflect on past year Many years of my career were spent at the Emily Meschter Early Learning Center in the Flowing Wells Unified School District. I love teaching young children (my students ranged in age from 3-5), especially in my school where half of the students were on IEPs for anything from autism to mobility challenges. That’s where I was when the pandemic hit and schools were closed in the spring.

Last spring, I worked with my team to create a YouTube channel with lessons that families could watch on their timeframe. We couldn’t really expect kids this young to sit through a full day of virtual lessons, so the learning had to be done at a time that was convenient for the caregiver. We also created paper packets so that the kids had something tactile in their hands – that’s really important for young kids. That really only went as well as you would expect… so not amazing.

But we were able to do virtual and socially distanced end-of-year performances. This is something we do every year and it’s what I most look forward to. Our students learned songs, parents were the audience and we would play a slideshow of favorite pictures of the year. This year it was all through Zoom and it was so emotional. I knew that I wouldn’t be seeing many students (including some that had been in my classroom for years) again.

After the school year ended, we really didn’t know what to expect from the 2020-21 school year. It seemed like plans changed every week, which made preparation challenging. When I found out a virtual first grade position was open in the district, I snatched it up. My new role would be all virtual, asynchronous teaching.

Teaching in this new role has been so different for me. I realized quickly that I would need to rely on parents as teaching partners. I can’t do it myself… It’s a new grade level – I’ve never taught elementary school before. And doing it virtually has been a steep learning curve.

Oddly, I still don’t know what some of my students look like. They’re not required to have their camera on or attend Zoom sessions, and while it’s strange, I get it. Part of this entire experience has reminded me of the importance of grace, patience and priorities.

In some ways, I’m doing less work. But it feels like more. Teaching virtually is an entirely different exercise than teaching kids in person. Despite the fact that I have an education degree, I was not well-prepared for this. The skills I had developed were no longer accessible to me, because they necessitated me being in the room with my students. I could see how they approached a problem, ask them questions in the moment, and guide as it was needed. But now learning is happening in the home.

As we move into 2021, I’ll need to be flexible to redefine my role. While I used to teach children, I now teach content. What I loved most about teaching was being with the students – that’s why most teachers do what we do.

Nate Rios, high school history/government teacher

teachers reflect on past year After more than a decade at Flowing Wells High School in Tucson, my family and I have relocated to the Marshall Islands. We have a 3-week quarantine here and then my wife and I will begin teaching again. And it will be in-person and without masks, since the Marshall Islands is one of the few places in the world that hasn’t had a single death (and only a few cases) of COVID-19.

It’s going to be a big change for me and my family and it wasn’t one we sought out. But when the opportunity presented itself, we couldn’t turn it down. In the past few years, I’ve worked myself to the bone. I couldn’t stay and continue to burn myself out – that was negatively impacting both myself and my family.

Plus, my two children were ready to be back in school and we knew this was the sort of adventure we wouldn’t be able to otherwise afford. When we arrived, the community had our home outfitted with a Christmas tree, snacks and other essentials. It’s already making us feel at home and part of their community.

I’ll be working with students in the K-6 school, where I’ll be doing everything from subbing to one-on-one instruction to working in the library. After 13 years working in high school – and having just finished a master’s degree in education leadership – I’m eager to get practical experience with younger students.

2020 was a refining experience. All of the good out there, and the bad, was amplified by the COVID pandemic. I wanted to push for positive change. To find ways to make things happen. For me, that meant refocusing on what was most important to me. I spent a lot of time considering what in my life was important, rather than what was urgent.

Moving classrooms from in-person to online requires teachers to reinvent the wheel. Classroom management is totally different. You have to reconsider how you present material. And it’s far more challenging to understand which students are “getting it.” I didn’t have the training or familiarity with online tools that I needed, so the switch was very disorienting.

When our school went back to in-person learning for a week, it felt unsafe. I used sick days because it felt so unsafe. Other educators I know have been forced to quit because they can’t risk catching COVID-19.

All the while, I was balancing teaching 120 kids from home, while also parenting my own kids. It created an opportunity for me to reevaluate and reprioritize how I was spending time.

As I look forward to my new teaching role in the Marshall Islands, I know that the world is different, that I’m different and that I can move forward with new priorities. I can set boundaries for myself, understand my role in my community and know that my value isn’t about where or what I teach. It’s about my own physical and mental health; how I can give back based on how I’ve first given to myself.

Sheila Rowe, reading and writing specialist

teachers reflect on past year I’ve been teaching reading and writing at Coyote Ridge Elementary School in Glendale for ten years. 2020 was definitely a year of ups and downs. It has forced me to grow a lot as a teacher and I been pushed out of my comfort zone.

This year I’ve done more parent/teacher conferences than in any year past, as we all try to find our way. In some ways, parent communications have been the biggest part of my year.

The virtual learning environment has changed everything and in some ways, I’ve enjoyed trying new approaches. My old routines no longer worked, so I’ve taken risks with technology and learned to develop relationships with students in new ways.

Using tools like Google Meet, I’m able to create breakout rooms, which give students a sense of responsibility. I can’t move as easily between groups to monitor progress as I would in the classroom, but these are opportunities for growth. Students are developing independence, responsibility and more. And it’s showing their potential for leadership.

Overall, there have been some silver linings to the pandemic. There are great things happening – students are learning 21st century skills that will elevate their future. Our youth are so adept at technology – they pick up new things very quickly. I’ve also been on the receiving end of their compassion and encouragement, as they congratulate me for trying new things and succeeding. It’s been a year of growth for us all!

I’ve been honored to be a part of this occupation where so many professionals have adapted so quickly to a revolving door of obstacles. These obstacles have taught us of our own strength and resilience, in addition to the potential we have to continue innovating and growing our field.

Moving forward, I’ll be more willing to try new things and change my approach. I won’t be too quick to discard the technology that we’ve embraced in 2020. Even after school has returned to in-person, there could be opportunities to continue virtual small group instruction and other tools to better educate students and prepare them for the future.

Taryn Tidwell, music and performing arts teacher

teachers reflect on past year I’ve been teaching choir and musical theater at Shepherd Junior High School in Mesa for the past seven years. I’ve always had a passion for the performing arts. They’re meaningful, memorable and can help students grow their confidence and social skills. And as a cancer survivor, I know just how much music can heal.

2020 started with a bang. We put on the school musical in February and we performed at Disneyland. So, when COVID-19 reached Arizona, our students were really grateful for what they’d had the opportunity to do. It’s been that lens of gratitude that colored the rest of the year.

I spent most of the summer preparing for the unknown of the coming year. I filled every week engaged in profession development. I networked with other educators to source ideas and best practices. I had to, because I knew that my livelihood literally depended on the success of the program.

This year has been all about innovation. I wanted to help students connect to each other – and me – and create the memories that they would during a typical school year. We used WebEx to hold a virtual concert. It was like a series of mini recitals, all brought together online. That turned out to be one of the best things we could do for morale. In the second quarter, when our school returned to in-person, we held a concert that was live-streamed to the audience.

Throughout all of this, I’ve sought ways to help students be empowered through learning. They’re helping each other through tech issues and supporting each other during an unusually stressful time.

But to create all of this, I had to reinvent my lessons. What would have been student-led and experiential had to be re-tooled for the virtual environment. Every time our learning format changed, it required a significant investment of time.

The pandemic also helped me get actionable experience as part of my master’s degree program in educational leadership. The chance to observe our district’s leadership team and how it mobilized during this time of crisis has been invaluable.

My watchwords for 2020 have been Perspective, Innovation and Gratitude. I’ve had some really cool experiences, spiritual moments and I’ve learned things I never would have had before. This year has led me to re-evaluate my priorities. Where in the past, I would give, give, give, I needed to remember that I’m not replaceable and that I need to take care of myself.

In the coming year, I’m not taking anything for granted. I’m going to be grateful for every opportunity I have, especially when it comes to performances. I won’t soon forget what this year has been like, with all of its inspiring moments, but I want to put all of these tools to use. There are so many new resources at my fingertips and the things I’ve learned will impact my classes for years to come.