Rebecca Vitelli (left) teaches her Pre-K class at the Colonial Early Education Center

Rebecca Vitelli (left) teaches her Pre-K class at the Colonial Early Education Center

Moving lectures and PowerPoints onto a screen can be a fairly logical transition for a teacher in a pandemic situation, but how about those teaching Delaware’s youngest students?

2020 Delaware Teacher of the Year Rebecca Vitelli is a pre-K/special education teacher at the Colonial School District’s Early Education Center.

She was recently named to one of Governor Carney’s working groups to help decide the steps Delaware will take as it looks to bring public and charter schools back into the classroom for 2020-21.

WDEL’s Sean Greene asked her about making the transition and the challenge of continuing special education when you’re not face-to-face.

How have you, teaching at that level, had to adjust your teaching game to suddenly not having your students around you?

REBECCA VITELLI: "It has been – as everyone has felt – quite the transition. Not only professionally, but also emotionally. I teach the little ones, I teach preschool and children with special needs, it’s an inclusion classroom and it’s very different online, but it’s also been very heartwarming in the sense we see how more than ever connection and relationships are so, so powerful. We are, and I think many places are doing this, valuing the connection over the content right now.

Transitioning the preschool world into online, we are still going classroom circle time, so we use Zoom meeting. Let me tell you, Zoom circle time with preschoolers, if you want a fun time, that’s where you want to be, because they are so full of energy, they are so joyful, they are so excited – you know Zoom etiquette? It doesn’t exist – but they are so happy to see you, and see their friends. They want to connect just like we want to connect with them.

I’ve also done one-on-one meetings with my families and students every week, and provide whatever works best for the family and friend of that time. Sometimes it’s teaching and coaching the family, sometimes it’s just talking with the family, sometimes it’s just chatting and catching up. I think the big thing, as we are handling ourselves with grace – because we’re all first-year teachers right now – how we also have to handle our families and students that way. In preschool, it’s not just connecting with the students, we have to connect with the parents. They need help with the tech, they need help with the learning, and we always value families – they are their children’s first teachers – but in this way of education it’s critical that they’re there, because they need help just accessing it.

It’s been a huge partnership, and it’s been really inspiring for me, because in some ways I’ve been able to connect with some of my families – unfortunately not all – more than I ever have before. It’s been really empowering to coach them online with visuals, with lessons, how they can work with their children with special needs, it gives me a whole new way to work with parent involvement."

As a teacher, you develop in-person bonds with your students, how has that changed for you?

"It’s been hard. I continue to tell everyone that I feel like almost every week it gets harder. While I get more into a routine, my emotions, my wanting to connect with them, grows and grows in so many ways. I’m very thankful that for so many of my students I’m able to connect with them, have those Zoom sessions and one-on-one sessions, and what’s nice – I’m in preschool, there’s a million things going on in a preschool room – one-on-one attention is something that’s tough to give in a room, but on a screen, I’m able to give them the attention they’re craving. It’s nice in that sense, but of course we miss them, and the more you seem them, the more you wish you could be with them.

The ones that I can’t reach, the ones that it’s more challenging, or experiencing a more difficult time, my heart truly goes out. As teachers, all we do is think about our kids and families, and we want to help. We want to have a sense of creating that safe space and environment, and a lot of that is out of our control right now, which is hard. For me, it’s being mindful and graceful with myself, because I’ve moments where I’ve had big feelings, and I’ve had to realize I can’t focus at the moment, because I’m feeling all of this. I think teachers need to do that. I think self-care is more important than ever. It’s harder to ever to separate home from school, because we’re working from home, but I think it’s important we take care of us, because in order to give our best to our children and families, we have to be at our best. We are literally modelling that, and if we’re not our best, we’re not going to be able to model that.”

You mentioned teaching special ed students, that’s become a very big issue. How much of a bigger challenge is dealing with those standards?

"There has been a lot of discussion, brainstorming, and collaboration on how can we help these students with special needs. In my classroom, I have six students with special needs, the IEPs we’re still following, we’re still working on these goals, that expectation of that learning is still there. If anything, this really highlights how for some children, learning through a screen is not their best way. That’s okay, we all learn in different ways, but for some children, learning through a screen is really, really hard. It’s been a lot of creativity; it’s been ‘you think I’m animated in the classroom, we got a double-animated when we’re online, we’ve got to ramp it up to Rebecca 10.0!’ You try to make it as engaging as possible so that they’re attending, they’re listening, and paying attention to the visuals.

From us, I’ve mailed. I’ve reached out to the families, asking if they need visual schedules, pasting communication boards, communication books, yes/no cards, bathroom scheduling, and I’ve made all of that and mailed it out to them. Snail mail, best thing ever right?

I’ve mailed it out to families, and when they have those resources, I’m able to talk them through what we’re going to do, we’re going to choose a breadth to start, and then they can get a little reinforcement, if they need it. It’s coaching the families on how to break that down, and how to build the child’s engagement online, because it’s hard.

I’ve heard from families that home is the off-time, and school was the high-demands time. Now that they’re being asked to do things on-demand at home, it’s hard. It’s a hard transition, not just for students with disabilities, but for all children.

That ‘first-then’ mindset, that it’s time for this, and then we can do this, putting routines into visuals, which is so helpful, because honestly under the age of eight they think in visuals, so making the day visual and breaking things down is helpful for everyone."