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Hard Work and an Eye for Luck: An Educator Reflects on COVID and Partnership Teaching

Partnership Schools’ teachers have been back in their classrooms, teaching both in-person and remote learners, since the first day of school in the fall. Gabrielle Kane, who is in her second year of teaching fifth grade at Sacred Heart School in the Bronx, reflected with us on her experience so far, and her reflections enrich our understanding of what it takes to teach in this extraordinary, challenging year.

Gabrielle, who got degrees in economics and rural sustainability before getting a master’s degree in education, grew up in both New York and Ireland. She has taught in both places, and when she talks about this year, she keeps repeating one idea:

I’ve been really lucky.

I grew up in a small country, in a small town, and to come to this big city—to The Bronx—and to find such a strong community at Sacred Heart was a surprise. I thought it would be a bunch of strangers just getting along.

Instead, every teacher here falls in love with the kids, and then with their siblings. [Principal] Ms. Akano is the first principal I’ve worked around who really knows the kids, knows the families, and knows the teachers; she’s aware when everyone needs something. I’ve worked under unapproachable leaders before; this is so different. And Ms. Diaz in the office—I don’t know how we could get through this year without her. She knows the families, and if I’m having a problem getting through to one of the remote parents—if I need a translator—she’s always “I got this, no problem.”

It may seem strange, but this is the first place I’ve worked where people are genuinely happy when they come together in the morning. They’re not as happy this year, but still positive, still hoping—and that’s been key, because this year is hard. Among other things, I haven’t seen my mom since the summer of 2019. She’s still in Ireland and she’s a breast cancer survivor, so I have to be careful. My sister, a COVID nurse in Galway, Ireland, has just recently recovered from her own battle with COVID. They are all staying strong and supporting me. One good thing that has come out of this is Zoom. I can see my family regularly, including my 99-year-old Nana, who has been amazing. I look forward to returning to them in the summer to celebrate, hopefully COVID free, her 100th birthday.

Some of Ms. Kane’s fifth graders, helping her honor Breast Cancer Awareness Day.

My dad died when I was only ten, and I firmly believe that it gives me a unique insight and greater depth of understanding with kids who are going through tough situations and in turn creates a greater bond that benefits all. It’s also a benefit for both me and the students that I have had the opportunity to travel prior to this year. When we studied The Renaissance, I was able to show them my own pictures from Rome. Additionally, my mom has come on Zoom to introduce the students to our family’s pet donkeys back in Ireland—once again, creating a greater bond with the students and encouraging curiosity in their growth and potential.

Going through pandemic teaching has not been easy—guiding work online and in person, contacting parents and students to a degree that was unfathomable before, the emails that extend far past school hours—but I’m proud of what our faculty has done together.

I feel lucky particularly when I talk to friends who teach in other kinds of schools. It was scary, but I’m glad that we did the choice in September to come back in person, with a remote option for families. I love the relationships you can have with the kids in person; the crazy questions they ask before they really think it through. In remote teaching, I can’t walk by and do the quick “hey, revise that.” I am praying every day for when I can have them all back to build those relationships. Relationships are key to a classroom; there needs to be a relationship for them to feel the comfort to ask a question, or explain on a day when they are not themselves.

I took a drink of water in October and the kids were like, “Oh; that’s what you look like!”


You can see it when kids who have been remote are coming back in person—you can see it in the social skills, the communication with other kids. We had some come back last week, and they are so used to being in their own little worlds, zoning out. They are shy around kids they’ve known since Pre-K, and they’re in fifth grade. Some kids haven’t left their apartments, and when they come back they get to play outside, which is so wonderful.

I’m so glad we’ve done this [fully in-person or fully remote] instead of hybrid; it provides a structure for us all, and being back in person—a bit of normality—also helped de-stress everyone. There were lots of learning curves, though. I didn’t know how the kids would deal with it, and I only see their little faces when they are eating. I took a drink of water in October and the kids were like, “Oh; that’s what you look like!” But you know when they are smiling. And I never thought the kids would be so obliging with wearing the masks, but they do it. It’s sad that it’s normal, but it is; they don’t even need the dots on the floor. They just keep the distance, sometimes with a gentle reminder; they are still kids and this social distancing is new to all ages. But these are some of the small reminders and jobs teachers have taken on this year without question.

Now that we’ve gotten more into the routines, we’re more hopeful.

Ms. Kane and some of her remote learners.

Hats off to these kids learning remotely, though. Down to third grade, they are sending troubleshooting emails, they know how to send and submit different Google forms; they have shown how versatile they are by doing better with some of this stuff like editing PDFs than I hear about from my friends who are teaching high school. I wouldn’t have considered editing a PDF prior to this year as an adult, let alone at nine years old. It’s because of the kids, and because of the previous grades—the empathy and caring they’ve been taught.

I’m lucky that I have the best teaching partner ever, Maribel Mangual. She knows the curriculum really well, and she knows what the students will struggle with, so she really knows where we need to focus this year when we’ve got less time. This is a year where our time is stretched very thin, but teachers are in this career because of their big hearts and caring nature. Pandemic aside, teachers work outside school hours to ensure their students get the best experience and support. This year, the hours have extended again. Teacher training does not include the juggling of teaching remotely and in-person. But we do it because we love our jobs and our students.

Gabrielle Kane and Maribel Mangual, teaching partners, in a peaceful pre-COVID moment.

I’m lucky because I love technology. So I’ve enjoyed the learning curve of remote teaching, like using different tech platforms for extra help. The online accessibility for SETSS (special education) has been particularly great, so parents and kids can access services from home more easily than they could before—but again, there was a learning curve.

With Maribel knowing the curriculum really well and my loving the technology, we’ve worked really well together. I’ve never had that collaboration before. Everyone at the school really works together. We share resources, and teachers like Ms. Murray in fourth grade and Ms. Holcombe in first do not forget about their students when they leave their classroom. The school is a genuine family.

I’ve learned more in my two years with the Partnership than I did working on a Master’s degree. I taught secondary school in Ireland, and last year when I started here I hadn’t taught math, I hadn’t taught reading. The first year was really tough—a real lack of sleep—but the network professional development and coaching were solid, and I could build relationships with other Partnership teachers I still talk with. And the professional development we do each week on the school site builds on what we do together as a network. The collaboration extends past SHS; it connects all schools within NYC and now two in Cleveland.

Teaching to the standards of Partnership is always above and beyond; the rigorous curriculum scared me. But I love that I get to push myself and the students. We teach big content, rigorous content, and the detailed curriculums like CKLA provide a guideline for teachers and students, as opposed to us just picking resources. The kids know CKLA from previous years, and they welcome the familiar structure; some of them don’t have that kind of structure at home. The Teach Like a Champion strategies like Control the Game and hand signals for things like going to the bathroom are also simple things that make the day flow, and they make a drastic change in how many kids are engaged.

And I love the new curriculum. [Partnership Schools are incorporating both CKLA and Reading Reconsidered in fifth grade.] The kids loved Bud not Buddy and wanted to keep reading. We did end up reading the last chapter before we were supposed to. Reading Reconsidered includes more emotion-building; the kids are digging deeper and inferring more. I love the mix of that and the grammar and morphology in CKLA. Their CKLA Renaissance essays are amazing too, and they loved the classic Don Quixote, which a lot of our parents also remembered.

I never would have thought fifth graders could have written persuasive essays with a hook. I wish I would have learned these skills earlier; that kind of writing, talking in front of their classrooms, and giving feedback. Feedback is not easy at any age, knowing how to give and receive it without hurting feelings; Sacred Heart kids are so empathetic. I wouldn’t have done that in fifth grade. I love fifth grade; they have maturity but they are still kids. They are eager to learn and responsive.

Last spring, on Crazy Hair Day, Ms. Kane honored essential workers with toilet paper roll curlers.

Teaching is one of the most rewarding jobs: the light bulb moments, the feeling of being needed. The fact that some students really do depend on your advice and support. A sincere shout out for all the teachers going through this pandemic teaching. Additionally, I hope any teachers just entering teaching are aware that this is not reality. Whether in the near future or distant—please God near—the job will return, and it’s really more than that; this is a vocation.

Gabrielle Kane teaches fifth grade at Sacred Heart School, Highbridge, The Bronx.