What It’s Like Being a Hawai‘i Public School Teacher During the Pandemic
Students left for spring break and never returned to Farrington High School.
Editor’s Note: For our July issue of HONOLULU, we searched for stories from people all around O‘ahu about the moment COVID-19 became real to them. We spoke with a critical care nurse, care home operators, a mail carrier, a hotel worker who lost her job, a police captain and more back in April and May about the ways their lives at work and at home suddenly changed. Check back on honolulumagazine.com every week for a new story. Pick up the issue on newsstands in late June, subscribe or visit our online store.
Ellie Kantar, a 28-year-old English language-learner teacher, just completed her third year at Farrington High School, where she is also a co-adviser forMic4Peace, a student Micronesian club, and the sophomore class of 2022. Originally from Minnesota, she’s single and lives with her brother in Mānoa. Here’s the full version of her story in her own words, as told to Robbie Dingeman.
Ellie Kantar (middle) with two students.
Photos: Courtesy of Ellie Kantar
It really became real during our spring break. That’s when they made the call to extend the break for students. Then there was a lot of confusion about whether teachers would be coming back the week after and what our job would be looking like. That week, I think I might have watched a press conference almost every day. Between the superintendent, the mayor, the governor, the union, there was just new information coming out every single day and things were changing so fast. It just all of a sudden went from something that was happening globally to something that was happening right here.
Essentially, we had a week to shift everything we were doing into some kind of distance learning, which, particularly at Farrington, has been a big challenge because of the access available for our kids in different situations. So those first few weeks were really chaotic. We knew that students were going to be at home and nothing official had been announced in terms of the timeline. But the way that everything was looking, we kind of thought that it might be awhile. I feel like nobody really anticipated the rest of the school year. At least, I did not.
I’m an ELL teacher, which means all of my students are learning English as a second, third, fourth or fifth language. Most of my students tend to be Pacific Islanders, Filipino and Micronesian students. The situation that they’re in at the beginning of the year might not be the situation that they’re in four months later, six months later. So it was important for me to be able to speak to my students, speak to their families. I’ve been really lucky. In some context or another, I’ve been able to talk to them all. I’ve had to kind of get creative with how I’ve reached out to kids. For some students, it’s been a little bit of a grapevine, contacting other students I know that know them so that they can contact me, calling family members, emailing, going through all of the possible platforms we have to figure out which works best for that specific kid.
Learning right now is hard. When I think of my specific students, I think of my students who have extra responsibilities with siblings, with extra jobs helping their families, making sure their families can pay their bills, helping with older relatives’ work because they might be immune-compromised and they want to stay home. The enrichment is so important to keep kids on track. But I feel like the consistency and the community that they get from their school, teachers and classmates is almost more important right now because, for so many of them, their life has just been turned upside down.
One of the biggest things for me is I have realized that my kids are not necessarily doing work during our designated school hours, which has meant that I’ve had to become really flexible in terms of how and when I’m communicating with them. I’ve had to just become very accessible. It’s something that I’ve been able to do, that maybe not every teacher can do. I can sit down and respond to an email or a message from my student at 7 p.m. if I need to but not all teachers are in that position. I try to tell them that the more they’re communicating with me, the more I know that I can help them.
One of the hardest things for me is that you lose that interpersonal connection. You become a teacher because you want to work with students, you want to work with other teachers. I have colleagues that I’m used to collaborating with, teams that I’m used to sitting down with every week, students that I see every day in my classes, kids that I see at lunch. It’s just not the same when you’re talking to people on video, whether it’s kids or teachers I’m collaborating with. It’s nice to have ways to maintain those relationships but adjusting to not actually physically being in the room with people has been harder than I anticipated
I’ve had one student I’ve really been surprised by. He’s really struggled with attendance, so he’s really struggled with his grades because he’s just missed so much of our class. He’s actually been engaging more during this distance learning than he was during the school year. It’s really made me rethink how I want to set my classes up for next year when we can go back to face-to-face classes eventually, about different strategies I can use to help kids who, for whatever reason, aren’t coming to class.
I’ve just been really shocked by how many students really enjoy the video classes. It’s just become very clear that that relationship of seeing your classmates every day, and seeing your classmates when you can, it’s really important to the students and it’s really important to me, too. When all of this started happening, teachers kept talking about how it’s important to be there for your students, it’s important to set a time to see them, to reach out to them. And after I had my first day when I had videoconferences with my actual classes and I was able to speak to my kids and check in with them, I realized, it’s just as important for me to see them.
Being able to sit down with my kids and talk with them during the day is the best part of the workday, definitely.