What Karla Brewster has missed most is standing at her classroom door at Robert Asp Elementary in Moorhead, greeting her 25 kindergartners every morning, and saying goodbye to them every afternoon.
"I always had a policy: You can give me a high five, you can give me a fist bump, or you can give me a hug,” she said. “And most of them hug because they're 5 and 6. So that's the hardest, just being physically away from them, because I just love them, I really do."
Minnesota schools moved to distance learning in March, and will end this year with students and teachers separated: No last-day field trips or end-of-the-year pizza parties in the classroom.
For many teachers like Brewster, losing physical contact with students is the hardest part of distance learning.
"I am sure every teacher misses the children. If you ask anybody, they'd say that,” said Brewster. “We've worked really hard on this plan for distance learning, but not being with the kids — that kind of leaves a hole."
Brewster believes connecting with students is essential to effective teaching.
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"The thing that I've learned in my 38 years of teaching is that teaching isn't really about delivering finely crafted curriculum or teaching perfect lessons,” Brewster said.
“Teaching really is developing relationships. And once you have those relationships, they're sucked in and they will just learn for you because they know that you care about them and they care about you."
Often, those relationships are lasting.
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"I have fourth graders whose parents have messaged me and said, 'So-and-so has missed seeing you at school so much.' Well, that child was in my room five years ago. I mean, that connection is everything. If you have that connection, you can really teach them," she said.
Brewster has been doing what she can to maintain that connection with her kindergartners. Earlier this month, she received permission from the school district to deliver May Day baskets — with books and pencils and bookmarks — to the homes of all 25 students.
And one little girl missed her teacher so much that her grandparents arranged to meet Brewster in a nearby parking lot, just to say hello.
But they couldn’t hug. "So I had pulled out this huge piece of plastic and I said, ‘We can hug with this plastic!’ And we did. It was really nice,” Brewster said.
“Because: Kindergartners are huggers.”
Even if, in a pandemic, you've got to wrap them in plastic to do it.
The transition to a virtual classroom hasn’t been easy for Brewster or her students, but she said the 5- and 6-year-olds are starting to find connections through regular video chats.
“The first few that we did, they would just stare at the screen. They wouldn't respond, it was just like, 'There's my teacher.' But it's really changed over time,” she said. “I had a little boy last night, he's kind of sitting back in the easy chair and he just put his hand right on the screen like he wanted to touch me. And then he started to giggle, well when we heard that giggle in the classroom, that was golden, and, so you know, it's not the same, but it's kind of evolving."
And it’s not just students who are adapting to distance learning, said Brewster. She’s seen relationships among her fellow teachers grow stronger — and has seen teachers forge more meaningful relationships with parents, because they are regularly encouraging parents as they take on an expanded role required by distance learning.
Brewster said that, while the end of the school year won't be normal, she's promised her students that when it's safe for them to get together, she'll throw a pizza party — even if it's next year.
And even though she’s planning to retire when this school year is over, she won’t be far: She’s also planning to return to the classroom — virtual or otherwise — as a substitute teacher next year.