Teachers Kaylan Haizlip and Helen Smith talk as Ms. Smith clears out her classroom. Photo: Isabel Battista

It’s already clear that this school year is like no other. With masks, social distancing and a tent over the gardens, the changes to the Arthur M. Blank Family Upper School are visible to everyone on campus. However, there are some changes to the school that cannot be marked by extra precautions or new traditions. Several upper school teachers have decided to step back from teaching in the classroom this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Among these are history teacher and Model United Nations advisor Helen Smith, history teacher Emily Stevens, math teacher Kimberly Goodstadt, chemistry teacher Melody Walter, English teachers Hayley Conroy and Erica Barbakow, and The Knightly News’ own Lee Wilson. Some of these teachers have been able to maintain some connection to Pace this year through part time, remote work, and all hope to be back physically at Pace next school year.

Of course, if students have watched any assemblies this year, they’ve likely already seen Ms. Smith make at least one of her infamous Model U.N. announcements. Ms. Smith is continuing her work with the Model U.N. program even though she is not in the classroom. “I’m very thankful for Model U.N. because I get to interact with students and I get to meet people who are not in my class,” said Ms. Smith.

Besides participating in several online courses, the latest being a “six-week art history class from the National Gallery in London on Late Medieval Art,” she has also enjoyed being able to stay up late reading, sleeping in later as well as spending more time gardening. “One of my favorite statements that I read is, the closer you are to the event that you’re reading about, the less you learn from spending time learning about it,” said Ms. Smith. “Try to look with a longer view.”

She advises students that she would have had in AP Comparative Politics & Government to continue reading, learning and discussing, and she is excited that ICGL Associate Director Ted Ward is teaching the course this year. They both have the same philosophy about reading and learning more beyond the Advanced Placement curriculum. “Don’t let the desire to be perfect get in the way of the good,” said Ms. Smith. “This year we’re facing unknown obstacles, and we all just have to roll with it.”

Another history teacher who is not on campus this year is Ms. Stevens, who has enjoyed being able to wake up a little bit later and spend more time with her cats. According to her, she is taking time this semester to “switch from teaching history to curating history.” “I’ve inherited boxes and boxes of family history,” said Ms. Stevens. “As I organize and digitize the photos, letters and records, I’m seeing the world through the eyes of my ancestors, which is fascinating. I even found a note from my grandmother in which she reflected on the 1918 flu pandemic.”  

Later on in the year, Ms. Stevens plans to switch her focus to planning for next year. She’s hoping to make her curriculum more anti-racist, in part by drawing attention to how those with power structure society to ensure their ongoing advantage. She will also be coordinating the Upper School’s awards process.

For students who would have had Ms. Stevens this year, she advises them to “try and find ways that cause you to interact substantively with the material. Try to find ways to make the material relevant and important to you, because that matters.”

Her main piece of advice for new teachers is to “be patient with yourself,” especially for those who stepped into their roles at the last minute. Ms. Stevens is struck by the resiliency of the Pace community. “There’s something really valuable in being in the same space together that we couldn’t recapture fully on Zoom,” she said. “You should never underestimate the power of casual interactions, and I miss those.”

“When I had to make this decision about returning or not, I was met with nothing more than support and positive messages from faculty and students,” said Ms. Goodstadt. “It’s just been really nice to hear from those people and feel that they’re supporting me through this as much as I’m supporting them.” Ms. Goodstadt said that her life this year away from the Pace campus is quieter and less anxiety-inducing, and she has loved being able to be a “dog mom,” play video games and work as a math tutor.

Ms. Goodstadt advises students to make sure to do their homework and “to try to have fun because it doesn’t only have to be serious.” “I’m hoping that [students] are still smiling under those masks, but you can’t really see it,” said Ms. Goodstadt. “It’s definitely not as bright as it usually is, but stick it out. It’s worth staying.” Ms. Goodstadt stressed that she loves the Class of 2021 and that she really wishes that she could be here for their senior year.

Dr. Walter has undergone a lot of change in the past two school years. “It’s mind boggling that I have missed two first days of school,” said Dr. Walter, “one for having had a baby and then one because of a pandemic.” Besides spending time with Ethan, her nearly 13-month old baby, Dr. Walter has also started a virtual chemistry tutoring program, Dr. Mel’s Tutoring.

Two of the biggest lessons that she has learned since everything shut down in March are that “parents are superheroes” and that there’s “a lot of resilience about me, that I didn’t necessarily know was already in me.”

“I miss the class dynamic,” said Dr. Walter. “I think something that is inspiring and exciting is everything that each person brings to the table in a classroom. And so, if you think of it from an experiment perspective, the experimental conditions and the number of variables are infinite because, say you have 16 students in a class, each person brings their own variables to the class, which impacts their learning. I miss the interactions of everyone within the classroom and helping facilitate chemistry learning in that context.” Dr. Walter wants to remind students to “think like a proton and stay positive” and “remember that we’re all in this together.” 

Mrs. Conroy, who typically teaches Creative Writing and 10th grade Literary Genres Honors, will continue her role as the faculty advisor for the Knight Gallery virtually. “I am very excited to start Knight Gallery meetings and reunite with my amazing staff,” said Mrs. Conroy. Meetings take place every Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. on Zoom, where members of the group discuss student-submitted poetry, prose, short stories and more.

Ms. Barbakow had planned to return from maternity leave this year to teach two AP Literature classes, one Honors American Literature class to juniors and one Honors British Literature class to sophomores. Instead, she will be putting off her return to the classroom for another year.

Although Ms. Wilson is physically away from campus, she is still coordinating the freshman Transitions program from home and co-advising the newspaper staff along with English teacher Robert Kaufman, who is in the Knightly News classroom. “I’m grateful that I’m able to work remotely and still maintain my connections with the newspaper staff and with colleagues,” she said. “It was a wrenching decision to not be on campus this year. I miss all the day-to-day, in-person interactions with students, but I’m glad I can remain involved.”

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