Teachers Help Students “Do Hard Things” during COVID19

Dec. 8, 2020
PE coach and students - all masked - gather in a circle outdoors
Featured Video Play Icon
Trevista physical education teacher "Coach Chris" Simmons teaches his students how to play a game

To say that 2020 has been ‘challenging’ doesn’t quite encapsulate the difficulty of living through the COVID19 pandemic.

Back in March and April, a better word to describe the difficulty – at least for Trevista physical education teacher Chris Simms – might have been ‘impossible.’

“Doing the Zoom. I felt like I couldn’t do it,” said Simms, who goes by Coach Chris at Trevista. “My principal […] was putting a lot on my plate – things that she knew I could do but I was scared to tackle that. I didn’t feel I could be successful, because (it was) out of my normal.”

Coach Chris Simmons is pictured speaking during an interview

Coach Chris Simmons, a PE teacher at Trevista, discusses pandemic anxiety and fatigue

That challenge with adjusting to different circumstances is something every Denver Public Schools student, family and educator continues to take on, whether at school, at work or at home. For the final few months of the 2019-20 school year, every DPS educator and student was in a fully remote learning environment.

This fall, as DPS reopened in-person learning opportunities for the youngest students (ECE to second), Coach Chris focused his PE curriculum on bolstering students’ self-confidence – something he knew he needed as well, and would need if classes were to shift back to a fully virtual setting. On the day we visited, his class was playing a round of “I’m Awesome Tag,” where tagged students have to say “I’m Awesome” loudly and clearly five times before jumping back into the game.

“Our motto here at Trevista is that you can do hard things,” Coach Chris said. “Kids are getting frustrated and quitting a lot. I want them to have the skills to express their emotions, but I also want to give them that challenge to fail, so they can overcome it.”

Ashley Crossland – also a Trevista teacher – used a curriculum called Second Step to help guide students through hard things as they learn to be social and emotional. Crossland says one of the main ‘hard things’ for students during in-person learning was expressing emotions and thoughts while wearing masks.

“There’s frustration from kids not being able to understand, and having to speak louder through the muffled sounds they get,” Crossland said. “We’re just teaching them, if you can’t hear someone, you can say, ‘Can you repeat yourself?’ and how to vocalize frustration with one another instead of just shutting down.”

This effort on bolstering students’ social and emotional skills and well-being happened at every grade level, and across every learning environment – whether in-person (when the opportunity was available for the youngest learners in DPS, until November 30) or in remote learning.

Kyle Grundy, a school psychologist at Sandra Todd-Williams Academy recorded several video lessons for her ECE students using puppets to soften the tougher, timely topics her students were asking about, such as “What is COVID?” or quarantining.

“Our top priority is the physical health of our students, and right after that is the social and emotional well-being,” Grundy said. “Social and emotional learning is important for all kids, not just our young learners.”

Grundy encourages families understand that any student – whether in ECE or high school – is still a relatively young learner.

“Some of our older kids may be reverting to some younger behaviors, and that’s pretty normal. Just open conversation with your kids about what’s going on. That’s going to help them through this time.”

Whether in person or fully remote, Coach Chris says the most important thing is making sure students feel safe.

“We want this to be a place that when kids come here, they know that we love them and we care about them,” he said.

It’s a constant these students will have throughout all the hard things they’ll do this school year and in their lives.

“I feel like if you give kids that and they know they’re in a place where they’re loved, and a safe place, then they’ll give you their best,” Coach Chris said.