Mitty’s New Teachers: Starting from Home
Being new at a school is always challenging, behind a screen or in person. While we heard last semester what this unprecedented experience has been like for freshmen, there’s another perspective that hasn’t been explored: the teachers.
May 12, 2021
On Getting Used to Mitty
Each teacher had a different teaching experience before Mitty, ranging from Santa Clara University to St. Francis Cabrini to different public schools in the Bay Area. Mr. Michael Okoro was initially intimidated by the new environment that Mitty presented: “Prior to Mitty, I taught at Cambrian Academy. It is a small college preparatory high school located in the Cambrian area of San Jose. One of the biggest differences between teaching there compared to Mitty is the class size; a typical class [at Cambrian] had about 10-12 students. The smaller class sizes made the logistics of taking on distance learning a bit more manageable, especially at the very start.”
On the other hand, Ms. Emily Chortek recalled how “the school that I taught at last year was a public school in San Jose. We at the time didn’t have access to a lot of the finances, technology, and resources that Mitty has. So when the lockdown happened in March, it took us a really long time to transition. I would post lessons and activities for my kids to do, and I would expect them to turn them in every week, but there really wasn’t any other way for me to have any sort of synchronous or over Zoom in-person face-to-face teaching. It just wasn’t an option.”
All the teachers emphasized how helpful Mitty was during the transition to digital learning in response to COVID-19. Dr. Diane Hart noted, “When I signed on to start teaching at Mitty this year, they had these summer sessions for the teachers about how to use Canvas or how to screen-share from your iPad. There were so many resources that were really helpful that I did not have at my previous school.” Mrs. Lori Carbone had a similar experience, commenting, “At Mitty, our days are structured, and Zoom classes are required. I far prefer it this way. I did have some experience with Zoom before, but over the summer, Mitty did an amazing job preparing us for the new school year.” For Ms. Monique Tobbagi, it was a great new learning experience: “Before coming to Mitty, I was teaching eighth grade at St. Francis Cabrini. We did go distance learning come March, like everybody else. But we didn’t have a ton of technology. So when I got going with Mitty, I learned a lot more about technology, more about what Zoom can do. It was a big transition, but very eye-opening.”
Dr. Hart noted that her first day of teaching was “definitely really weird because I taught at school. It was one of my first times ever being at the school, and there weren’t really any other teachers around, so it was like a ghost town. I was sitting in this empty classroom and wasn’t really sure what it was going to be like when all the students showed up to Zoom. But the students are a lot more invested and engaged than the Santa Clara University students were. I would say the first day was kind of a pleasant surprise. It went better than I thought.” Ms. Chortek adds, “I’m gonna let you in on a secret; teachers were nervous too. I think if teachers aren’t nervous on their first day, then I worry that something’s wrong. You know, we very much want to connect with our kids. I knew that I was in really good hands. I trusted in my own teaching abilities and knew that if I wanted to have a positive first day with a positive outcome, then that’s what I would manifest.”
As a Mitty alum, Ms. Tobbagi explained that at the start of the year, she was “very excited. It’s definitely some mixed emotions because being an alumni from Mitty; I know exactly what the community is like on campus. When I took the job, I was so eager and looking forward to being on campus and having that energy surrounding me. So obviously, it was a little bit of a bittersweet transition last fall. But the kids were just so, so welcoming and forgiving at times when I wasn’t quite sure where something was or how things happen. So they’ve taken me under their wing a little bit as I’m trying to take them under my wing. But once the kids are on Zoom, hearing them, seeing them gave me kind of a reason to get up and come back to the screen each day.” Mr. Okoro similarly reminisces on the Mitty community’s hospitality: “Due to everything on campus being closed, it was initially difficult to get a real feel for what campus life is like. I did feel very welcomed by everyone that I interacted with and also a sense of pride to be a part of such a well-established and reputable community.”
On the other hand, Mrs. Carbone had a slightly unusual first day. Like many, she was affected by the wildfires that had wildly proliferated throughout the Santa Cruz mountains. She explained, “I was broadcasting from my home, and we were in the midst of the big fires. I was watching ash fly by the windows, realizing that once I shut this down, I had to pack up and evacuate. It was a bit unnerving to see the smoke going by the window as well. It was an interesting day.” This unusual situation only added to her first day nerves, which she compared to “being in the theater when you have a role, and you have that nervousness before you go on stage. But once you go on stage and you start launching into your role, then everything seems to flow. So it ended up being a great day—the students were phenomenal.” In general, the sentiment of new teachers as they first began can be summed up in the words of Ms. Shalini D’Souza, who said she “felt a little nervous as I had never taught virtually before. At the same time, I was happy to be teaching at Mitty and had the support of an incredible team.” Connecting with this supportive team was an aspect of the transition all the new teachers would rely on.
On Connecting with Faculty
Dr. Hart explained that “Everyone I’ve interacted with has been just so friendly and welcoming and helpful. There are a bunch of the other math teachers who teach the same classes as me who’ve always been reaching out and asking if I need help or just keeping me on track, even sending me their schedule. And definitely Ms. Kate Caputo. On my birthday, she sent me a nice birthday card and a little gift certificate. Everyone’s trying to make me feel as welcome as possible. I felt like I was friends with a number of the math teachers even before I met them in person, so that’s been great.” Mrs. Carbone added on, describing how “Everyone in the world language department is amazing. Ms. Hopkins always reaches out, for example, and Ms. Lopez and I meet every week. They’ve made me immediately feel like part of the family. One teacher was just so sweet when she knew we had evacuated—she ran out and got me a gift and a kind card.”
Ms. Chortek reminisced about Mitty’s welcoming environment, commenting, “Even when I was being interviewed for my position at Mitty, during the interview process, I felt so relaxed and so welcomed. I spoke to Ms. Caputo and Mrs. Kate Slevin at the time, and they just made me feel like we were having a conversation. I didn’t feel like I was sort of being put in the hot seat if you will.
“There are also plenty of people that I can call or text firsthand and say, ‘Hey, I have questions. Do you have time to meet on the weekends?’ Or they’ve been willing to take time out of their busy days to sit down with me and lesson plan or troubleshoot. I’m so grateful for those relationships and that feeling. It really is incredibly invaluable.”
Ms. Tobbagi has had a similar experience, sharing, “When we first started, in June, they had a whole new teacher meeting, and they gave us some good gear to kind of get us feeling like a part of the community as well. And my mentor Ms. Christina McDougall has been amazing—she’s so easy to contact. She’s got so many great ideas that I’m just learning from, as well as Ms. Hopkins, who I knew prior to Mitty because I actually taught her kids. She has been doing a great job of answering any questions and becoming a great friend through all of this as well. And without her, it probably would have been a very scary transition. I’ve also been helping with volleyball, so I’ve been able to meet the students, and do things face to face and meet some of the other coaches.”
Ms. Tiffani Lewis-Lockhart, the new head librarian, had a particularly unique experience: “Back when I first started, I needed to get the library cleaned up since it had accumulated things we didn’t really need anymore. I hate throwing things out that could still be useful, though, so I was constantly sending out emails like, ‘Come get free stuff!’ I got to meet a lot of the faculty and staff that way. Sometimes they’d just stop by to chat and see the weird things I had, even if they didn’t actually take any of it. That was pretty fun. I never did manage to get rid of the giant fake rat that is supposed to be a Halloween decoration.”
On Bonding with Students
In regards to becoming closer with students, Dr. Hart explains, “I liked watching the morning announcements during sixth period because I [felt] like that [gave] me a better sense of what the community is usually like. And the Christmas rally, that was really fun. And every day, I like to ask a little icebreaker or question for attendance. Sometimes there’s dumb things like what’s your favorite fruit, or sometimes I’ll ask, ‘What’s your New Year’s resolution for 2021?’ So those sorts of things definitely helped me kind of individualize each student. Before Christmas break, one thing I did that I thought was kind of fun was I asked all the students to send me pictures of themselves wherever they’d normally complete their online learning. This gave me a sense of where most people are located and what they looked like when they’re not on screen.”
For Mr. Okoro, getting to know each of his students individually was key. “I tried forming relationships by sharing details of things I’m interested in and also allowing students to tell me about their interests. I also tried making myself as available as needed to assist students in whatever way I could. I think the biggest thing was to allow everyone to understand that we are all in this together,” he explains.
Also, getting involved with student activities, Ms. Lewis-Lockhart remembers “trying to meet kids by going to student club meetings.” She adds, “I love to be a part of anything that’s a fun activity for the students. I think I’ve been involved in 2-3 trivia games at this point. The last one I went to with BSU/LSU was really fun. Mr. Greg Walker and I were in a bit of a showdown. I don’t recall who won, but as long as he’s not here to say otherwise, let’s just say it was me.”
Mrs. Carbone’s students have been extra creative in building relationships. Mrs. Carbone states, “I had several students in the speech and debate program, and that’s always exciting. They’d let me know when they were going to be going off to their tournaments, and we would check in when they’d come back. Additionally, it’s been wonderful to see performing arts students so engaged in their work, especially in this different medium. I can think of a few musicians who compose music and ask me, ‘Can we play my music during our pause?’ And we did, and it’s been fun for the class. I’ve also been trying to pop in and out of breakout rooms and speak to them individually. I had students who, over the weekends, will be like, ‘Oh, I’m down here doing my rock climbing,’ or they’ll send me a picture: ‘Guess where I am, I’m rock climbing.’ These small updates are really sweet.”
Ms. Chortek agrees: “The high school’s reputation sort of proceeds itself. So I had a pretty good idea of the type of student and community that I would be working with, which, in part, is why I wanted to come here. The students and teachers here are all just incredibly dedicated and very much value academics. This overarching theme of the importance of education in regards to using that education to do good in the world, to do something positive, to make a change, whatever that might be, is very much apparent. Also, every class, I’d always have my camera on. I can’t force my students to turn on a camera, but I’d always try to encourage them to turn them on. Especially if we were having a class discussion, I think it’s incredibly important to have eye contact, to connect that way visually with your students and your classmates, so that you’re not just talking into the void. Additionally, every class period, I’d always have a community-building question or an icebreaker question built into my warmups. Academics are important, but so is socialization. If I could provide opportunities for my students to engage with one another, I’d very much try to do that.”
Mrs. Carbone wasn’t the only teacher with musicians in her class; as Ms. Tobbagi explains, “We’ve done some projects to try and get a little bit of insight into what their life is typically like. I had one freshman who loves making music, so every now and then, he’d play a little riff of some music that he created for the class. I think that’s just a way to remind us all that we are who we are, and we’re excited to be able to share the challenge even through a screen and just how much better it’s going to be once we return to campus.”
On Looking Forward
As Mitty begins its 2020-2021 school year this fall, Dr. Hart says that she is “definitely looking forward to seeing Monarch Madness in-person next year and just being even deeper in community with the rest of the teachers.” Mrs. Carbone shared a similar view, explaining that she “misses being able to interact in a more natural way with the students––do things that are more spontaneous and fun and kinesthetic like getting up, moving, acting things out, and engaging in ways that aren’t impacted by the Zoom lag or video constraints” Mrs. Carbone also noted that she is “looking forward to starting up a French club. I’ve got a student that approached me about starting up a French club, so I’m really looking forward to doing that and also participating in the retreats. I really look forward to being in more of the service and outreach part of the community.”
As a science teacher, Ms. Chortek has been looking forward to more physical labs. She explains how “In the sciences, hands-on labs are so critical. It is so integral to give the kids a real hands-on experience because when you get out of school, that’s what science is like out in the real world. This year many of the labs had to be sent home lab kits. I think that the kids really liked them, but there are so many lab activities that I wanted to do this year but just couldn’t.”
Finally, the teachers are more than ready to embrace a future with fewer tech issues to be constantly juggling. As Ms. D’Souza puts it, “I look forward to having [all my] students in class and not having to worry about internet glitches and Zoom sessions and all the rest.”
Though there is much to look forward to as we segue into the next academic year, there were still always things that kept this year interesting. For one, as Ms. D’Souza says, “Having Wednesdays to catch up will be remembered fondly!” She also shared a Zoom memory we can all relate to: “speaking for several minutes . . . while on mute.” However, she says that all the troubles of Zoom learning were overshadowed by “the joy on the first day of the hybrid session.”
As with all of us, many of the teachers also shared adventures on Zoom. For example, Dr. Hart’s cat would get “very excited about lunchtime, and I taught seventh period, which is right around when my cat likes to eat lunch. And so a couple of times, she’s jumped up onto my desk and shown herself to my whole class and meowed really loudly into the camera. It’s things like that that keep things entertaining and help everyone realize I’m more than just a floating head on your computer screen.” Ms. Chortek and Ms. Tobbagi’s pets also made appearances during class, for example, Ms. Chortek’s cat, Maggie, would “come up and decide that she now needs to be the center of attention. So she’d come sit in my lap or sit on the floor and cry at me. Of course, when I’m lecturing, the kids are all like, ‘is that a cat?’ And so then we’d get derailed for five minutes, and I would have a show and tell about all of our animals, which I think it’s worth it. One of my students even has a hermit crab, and she was so excited to show it to me.” Ms. Tobbagi has a COVID puppy, and she thinks “a lot of teachers had the same situation. She’s been my love, my joy, and my ultimate distraction. I think the kids enjoyed hearing me telling her to stop barking or, ‘Hey, she’s eating my couch.’”
Mrs. Carbone’s musically-inclined class also found ways to keep Zoom entertaining throughout the year. “During my French II Honors class, I was having students sing carols in honor of Christmas,” she elaborates. “I gave them a little bit of time to memorize a specific verse of the carol. When one group came back, they kind of went rogue with a different song, but it ended up being so funny and so memorable. And they’re musicians, so they actually, in a very short amount of time, managed to put together the notes and sing the portion of this little song they wanted to do. It was all in good fun and in celebrating the Christmas spirit, and we all had just a great laugh.”