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1st grade teacher Caitlyn Vella is a planner. She likes a good routine - knowing what needs to be done, and devising a plan to make it happen. This summer may have been the single most frustrating time of her 9-year teaching career, as executive orders, guidance and regulation seemed to evolve and change on a weekly basis - making it very tough to work out her back to school strategy. But if the COVID-19 pandemic (and being a teacher during these strange times) has taught her anything, it's that sometimes the best plan is one that leaves the door open for more learning, more growth, more mistakes, and most importantly more improvement.
The oldest of five children, Caitlyn has been teaching her whole life. She jokes that aside from her younger sister, her siblings were born at five year intervals, and for her, that meant she was constantly teaching kids in their various stages of life. That, combined with her love of learning new things and sharing that new knowledge, pretty much set her on an unbreakable path towards becoming a teacher. Right after graduation, she was hired at The Dearborn Academy (TDA) - nine years later, she couldn't imagine teaching anywhere else.
Located just outside Detroit, TDA serves a unique population - many of whom are immigrants and/or English Language Learners (ELLs). The school has a high number of both Arabic and Spanish speaking families, which means that TDA is a key resource in the community for students and parents who seek language support. Caitlyn absolutely loves the welcoming community that is her school - to her, walking through those doors means you'll immediately feel welcomed, no matter where you come from. But with that commitment to language access also came a whole added layer of challenges for TDA educators as COVID-19 struck.
The initial shutdown was really heartbreaking for me - I become so attached to my kids. Not being able to say goodbye and have that closure was really hard. Then from a logistical standpoint, language accessibility quickly became a huge concern as we worked to finish out last year from a distance. Many of our students (and their parents) are learning English as a second language, so we had to think about how we could best communicate complex instructions, technologies, and how to support students, etc.
Amidst the school shut down, TDA held a number of virtual parent meetings to help explain the new instructional strategies, expectations for the remainder of the year, the technology the school was incorporating, and to answer questions. It wasn't easy, but educators, parents and students learned so much - heading into this year, they were ready to hit the ground running.
TDA has begun this school year 100% virtually. Every parent and student attended an individual orientation with their educators to discuss Class Dojo, Google Classroom, Zoom and other technologies, as well as expectations for the year, translation resources and more. Now a few weeks in, Caitlyn is really enjoying being back into the flow of teaching - and she feels the lessons she learned last spring and over the summer have paved the way for an even better year.
One big thing I learned last year was that 5 and 6 year olds simply don't know how to use technology for academics. They might know how to navigate an iPhone and some games, but when it comes to the foundational skills of using a computer - things as simple as moving a mouse around and where to click - they were lost. I spent a lot of time last spring working on those skills alone. I've also learned a lot as a virtual teacher - and the learning curve has been steep! But honestly, when I log onto Zoom and see their faces, and see them happy to see me, happy to learn - it's all worth it. I know we can do this.
And while Caitlyn loves a good plan - she admits that the way she was teaching six months ago when the shutdown began, compared with how she was teaching at the end of that shutdown, to how she's teaching today, is completely different. That evolution has been important - and it's felt almost like a blessing in disguise. She noted that the most important thing is flexibility. If something's not working, it's ok to try something else - and if that doesn't work, that's also ok! The key is to just keep trying until you find that thing that works for you, works for your kids, and gets the job done.
Despite the madness the pandemic has brought to her life, Caitlyn is simply happy to be back to teaching, and more proud than ever to be part of the TDA team.
Everybody at The Dearborn Academy is here for those kids. You can tell 100% that every choice that we make, everything that happens, is because it's the very best thing we can do for our students and families. That is something I am so proud of - it's the reason I became a teacher.
We asked Caitlyn how she came to love being a 1st grade teacher. Below is her answer.
I actually went to college to become a certified Special Education teacher - I graduated with my certification in both Elementary Education & K-12 Special Education. I was initially hired to The Dearborn Academy as a 3rd grade teacher, and I taught that for one year. That was the first learning curve, as I had anticipated stepping into a Special Education role vs. a classroom role, but I actually really enjoyed it. After that year, a Special Education position at TDA opened up and I accepted. I taught Special Education in that role for a couple years, but when the opportunity opened up to move back into the classroom as a 1st grade teacher, I took it and fell in love. There is a huge amount of learning that happens at that age - learning to read and write, and so much more. I absolutely love it, and I've been in this role ever since!