With the 2019-20 school year at an end, the spotlight recently shined on those graduates who didn’t get their traditional farewell from high school.
But the 2020 grads — with their virtual commencement ceremonies and car parades — aren’t the only ones finishing off their schooling in an unusual manner. There are also the teachers heading into retirement after ending their careers while sitting at computers at home instead of in classrooms full of students.
One such teacher is Vicki Palmer, who spent nearly 30 years in the Pequot Lakes School District as both a teacher and a paraprofessional and is one of about a dozen teachers retiring from the district this year. Palmer decided long before the coronavirus hit she would retire at the end of this school year. But she could never have imagined her career would have ended the way it did.
Anticlimactic is the word she used.
“What’s hard is that there’s no closure,” she said during a Google Meets interview in late May. “You don’t really have the goodbyes with your colleagues or your students.”
Since distance learning began in March, Palmer worked with her high school English students virtually, hosting classes online and communicating electronically.
“It’s rather impersonal,” she said. “You don’t have the opportunity to watch them or observe them like you would in a classroom.”
It’s easier to pick up on any issues or challenges students might be having when they’re present in the classroom. It’s much harder to do that virtually.
And it’s impossible for Palmer to dish out hugs, which she loves to do.
“I miss them,” she said of her students.
Staff at Pequot worked to keep up relationships with their students as best they could through Patriot Time, a program establishing advisory groups. Teachers would check in with their advisees at least once a week with video calls and bring in an interventionist to talk with students as well to address any concerns.
“It was a very hard time for the kids, too,” Palmer said. “Even if they don’t like school, per se, they missed the whole environment and social interaction.”
But despite the challenges — academically, socially and emotionally — Palmer said the time spent distance learning hasn’t been without its positives.
There’s technology skills, for one.
“I have probably learned more about technology in the last four months than I ever thought I would. And I enjoy technology,” she said.
The Pequot Lakes School District planned to move to a new learning management system next fall, but distance learning presented the opportunity for teachers and students to test out the new software and essentially get a crash course.
For students, Palmer said they seem to have learned more accountability and responsibility, along with a greater appreciation for being able to go to school.
Outside the virtual classroom, Palmer saw positives for students as well.
“I don’t think they realized what it was like not to have something planned every day, every night, every weekend. So I think for a lot of students that might have been a good thing,” she said, noting students seem to have more free time to spend with their families.
More free time is in Palmer’s future, too, as she hangs up her teaching hat and plans to pursue her various hobbies, including gardening, raising chickens, sewing, crocheting, reading and perhaps some professional editing. Music will undoubtedly have a place, too, as Palmer and her husband John are two the members making up Wyld Rice Band, widely known in the lakes area.
But regardless of the plethora of hobbies to keep her busy, Palmer will undoubtedly miss her students, colleagues and being in the classroom in general.
“They were all good years,” she said of her time spent at Pequot schools. “Otherwise I wouldn’t have stayed there that long.”
If schools reopen to in-person classes in the fall, though, she plans to be a substitute teacher. And if distance learning continues, she has some words of advice for students.
“Be patient. Do as much as you can. I think after this spring experience that a lot of students have realized that they can’t just sit back,” Palmer said. “... There will probably be a lot of different opportunities, and I just hope the students take advantage of them.”