"What's The Priority?" Wyoming Teacher Of The Year Talks Teaching During A Pandemic

Oct 2, 2020

Credit Alexis Barney/Natrona County School District

Alexis Barney teaches fourth and fifth grade at Evansville Elementary School in Casper. And this year, the Wyoming Department of Education has announced Barney is the state's 2021 teacher of the year. Barney said she's humbled to receive the award and views it as a privilege to represent the state's teachers. Wyoming Public Radio's Catherine Wheeler spoke with Barney about how she has been focusing on her students' mental health, especially since the pandemic.

Alexis Barney: I think this whole climate that our country and our world are facing totally changes education. We've seen a big change in education. And we know that there's a lot of limitations now. I want to believe that rather than dwelling on those limitations, those obstacles, those barriers- I don't think we can let them deter us. I think teachers can use them as tools to create memorable educational experiences for their students, instead of seeing these things as walls, such as, 'Oh, I can't teach in-person. I need to teach online.' Or even something as simple, as we've had to change the entire way we're teaching, no more paper materials, we have to go towards using the computer. My students aren't as comfortable with the computer. That's a barrier. But instead of seeing them as limitations, I think we can find a silver lining that we can work with in order to turn our cant's into can's and make magic in different ways. It's going to look different; it's going to be totally different. And that's okay.

Catherine Wheeler: How is it going teaching under these circumstances now? Whether that includes a pivot to online or with these new standards that we have for in-person teaching.

AB: It's been a learning curve for both myself and my students. And so I think there is a time where, as educators, we have to say, what is more important? What's the priority? Is it that the students are able to come to school or to attend class, whether that's in-person or online and feel valued and feel recognized? And that their emotional needs are met? Or is it that we are hammering the academics and trying to make up for all of the lost time? And I think the former is the priority. We need to slow down and, as educators, we need to recognize that those students need emotional support. We have to take slower steps to get them to the point where we know that they can succeed. And that's not always academic that might be, 'How are you today? Are you doing okay? Can we talk about it? Okay.' Or even technology, technology is totally different now. And so taking those smaller steps to get them used to technology, getting them used to the new way of learning, and then the academics will come, we have to build those relationships, and those connections with students to make them feel and let them know that they are valued. And to let them know that we're here for them and we care about them before they can start learning. And that's whether we're in a global pandemic or not. But now more than ever, that's extremely important.

CW: What are some of the ways you're approaching that in your classroom?

AB: I'm approaching this through having a lot of conversations with my students and really working hard to make those connections. I loop with my students. So, I have them for two years, I have them for fourth grade and then again in fifth grade. And I know that if I set that, that foundation now by connecting with them and really building that relationship and taking the time to build that relationship, both as a classroom family, but also one on one with each and every individual. Not only am I making them feel valued, but I'm showing them that I'm here, I care for them. And I'm really working to help them build those social emotional tools that will help them get through this. That comes through a lot of conversations, a lot of journal writing, talking about scenarios, role playing, things like that.

CW: Are you seeing efforts all along that mental and emotional health side coming along maybe in your school or district or even the state?

AB: I think a lot of people are recognizing that and able to kind of slow things down and say, 'Okay, so let's talk about feelings. Let's talk about emotions. Let's talk about coping. Let's talk about resilience. Let's talk about how this whole COVID situation has affected you. And now how can we move forward? Or how is it maybe still affecting you? And how can we cope with that? How can we become resilient?' That's been a huge conversation with educators, not only how can we promote that resilience in our students, but how can we help families as well? And how can we bring our entire learning community together parents, students, and teachers, in order to get through this in the most positive way that we can?

Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Catherine Wheeler, at cwheel11@uwyo.edu.