Teachers reflect on blessings of teaching during pandemic, look forward to summer

Sr. Theresita Belemjian, OP, teaches her first graders at St. Isaac Jogues School in St. Clair Shores. She wears a clear mask for one of her students who is hearing-impaired. After she began wearing the clear mask, she realized all her students were aided by seeing her mouth moving and her facial expressions. (Courtesy of St. Isaac Jogues School)

After another year of mask-wearing, hybrid classes and changing curricula, local Catholic schools say students, staff have been resilient

DETROIT — As teachers navigated their way through off-and-on remote learning, mask mandates, and in many cases, a restructuring of the school day to allow for social distancing, the past school year wasn’t an easy one

But as the 2020-21 school year comes to a close, teachers around the Archdiocese of Detroit are counting their blessings despite the difficulties. 

“It’s been challenging, but it’s also been rewarding. Overall at Cristo Rey, I think we’ve made the best of a difficult situation,” said Brian Shinn, a science teacher at Detroit Cristo Rey High School. “There’s a lot of collaboration among the staff hereand an unbelievable love and concern for the kids. If that means we have to stay late to help a student learn a particular concept, we do.” 

Shinn had to learn, too. He had never used Zoom before the school switched to remote learning, and he doesn’t consider himself tech savvy. But with the help of fellow teachers, he learned how to teach in a new way. 

Brian Shinn, a science teacher at Detroit Cristo Rey High School, was grateful for his fellow faculty members who helped him navigate the world of virtual instruction. He was impressed by the resilience of his students during nearly a full year of remote learning. (Courtesy of Detroit Cristo Rey High School)

“Teaching remotely will never replace having kids in the room, but there were some positives for me personally as an instructor,” Shinn said of the school, which has been fully remote until recently but will return to 100% in-person instruction in the fall. 

Being a biology teacher during the pandemic gave Shinn the opportunity to apply real-world examples in discussions with his students. When the vaccines were approved for emergency use, the class studied vaccine development. For anatomy and physiology class, Shinn spent extra time teaching about the respiratory system and the impact of COVID-19 on the body. 

Shinn infused some fun into his online classes as well, taking a day here or there to play games with his freshmen, and pausing during a Zoom session to meet one of his student’s guinea pigs.   

“I teach anatomy and physiology, but it’s much bigger than that,” Shinn said. “High school is so much more — it’s friends and traditions. As teachers, we can get micro-focused on our classroom. Sometimes we need to take a step back to look at the bigger picture and enjoy our time with the kids.” 

At St. Isaac Jogues Catholic School in St. Clair Shores, first grade teacher Sr. Theresita Belemjian, OP, saw many graces throughout the year.   

Sr. Theresita Belemjian, OP, teachers her class about Blessed Carlo Acutis, a teenager and computer programmer who was beatified by Pope Francis in 2020. (Courtesy of St. Isaac Jogues School)

“I have marveled at my students’ growth this year, after essentially missing the last quarter year of kindergarten (in spring 2020),” Sr. Theresita said. “I’ve seen it in terms of the academicsbut even more than that, in terms of the social aspect, which is such an important part of kindergarten to prepare them for first grade where they are now.” 

As her class began the school year and learned to follow protocols such as mask-wearing and working in pods, Sr. Theresita focused on the positive. 

You had to be adaptable, and there were times that were just plain hard, but then you have that supernatural perspective and remember that my kids are here, in front of me, Sr. Theresita said. “Having them in the classroom was such a gift. They’re getting the opportunity to interact with one another and develop those social skills I saw them lacking at the beginning of the year. 

The public schools near St. Isaac Jogues were either remote or hybrid, causing some of those families to enroll at the Catholic K-8 school for in-person instruction. Having the opportunity to share the Gospel with students who might not have heard it before was exciting for Sr. Theresita. 

She also enjoyed teaching the virtues using the Education in Virtue program by the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist. For some students, it was the first time they heard about the virtues. 

Sr. Theresita said her students were able to put their lessons on the virtues into practice throughout the school year, with the pandemic presenting opportunities to practice. (Courtesy of St. Isaac Jogues School)

As they adapted to mask-wearing at the beginning of the year, Sr. Theresita would tell students, “We have to keep our mask on, so what virtue are we practicing right now? We need perseverance!” 

One of her students was proud to report that his mother let another customer go ahead of her in line at the grocery store, after which he informed his mother that she had just practiced the virtue of charity. 

“If these kids weren’t here with me in person, I wouldn’t have been able to form that whole person. I got to be an instrument in their formation in a special way, especially with the unique dynamic in my classroom this year,” Sr. Theresita said. “I’m so grateful for that.” 

Sr. Theresita was thrilled to learn that one of her students asked his parents if he could be baptized. 

“You never know what seed you’re planting. You usually don’t get to see the growth personally, but like St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3:6, God gives the growth,” Sr. Theresita said. 

Lisa Pierson, left, who works with students with learning challenges in St. William School’s Support Our Unique Learners (SOUL) program, said a weekly “social circle” sharing hour was helpful for her students. (Courtesy of St. William School) 

For students with special needs, the pandemic made learning even more difficult. But at St. William Catholic School in Walled Lake, students with learning challenges continued to meet in-person. 

Lisa Pierson has been teaching at St. William for four years, leading the Supporting Our Unique Learners program, or SOUL. The program serves eight students in fourth through eighth grade. 

SOUL is unique in that students who are cognitively impaired work daily with Pierson for language arts and math, and then spend the remaining subjects — religion, science and social studies — with their peers in the classroom. This inclusionary model allows students to receive a Catholic education while still getting the extra academic and social instruction needed. 

“This year, I decided my students would not have homework. The time we spent with them in instruction was enough, and what they needed most,” Pierson said. “This year, I was all about quality over quantity to take some of the stress off the kids.” 

Wearing masks hasn’t been an issue for her students.  

“Many of my students are more susceptible to becoming seriously ill if they get COVID-19 and so their parents have talked to them at home about the importance of the mask,” Pierson said. “I’m extra careful in my classroom, keeping them distanced and reminding them to pull their masks up.” 

Brian Shinn, a science teacher at Detroit Cristo Rey High School, poses for a photo with his students before the pandemic. The past year has been a learning experience for everyone, Shinn said. (Courtesy of Detroit Cristo Rey High School)

During times of remote learning, Pierson did her best to maintain routine, which she noted is especially important for students with special needsEvery Friday, SOUL students would look forward to “social circle,” during which they shared two things they did the night before. Sharing is fun for the students and allows them to learn to take turns and build social skills, Pierson said. She led the activity every Friday on Google Classroom when the school had to meet virtually. 

This school year, St. William has only been remote 24 days. 

“These students wanted to be in school because they know the routine and they know they have friends here, whereas they might have a hard time making friends and being social outside of school,” Pierson said. “They wanted to be here, and their parents have been grateful that they could be.”