Not All Heroes Wear Capes: Recognizing Niwot’s Teachers

Sydney Rothstein, Co Editor-in-Chief

In the 2020/2021 school year, the only constant was change.  Everyone was challenged by the societal shifts caused by COVID, and for many that meant rising above the difficulties in order to succeed. Healthcare workers joined the frontline to fight COVID-19 and all kinds of essential workers risked their lives to keep the country alive during pandemic crises. However, for Niwot high school students the most important act of heroism of the past year was demonstrated by our teachers. 


When the rest of the world shut down, classes at Niwot continued virtually. While students weren’t able to see their friends, go to sporting events, or enjoy many aspects of high school life, they were still attending class online. Because of this, Niwot’s teachers felt a sense of obligation to make online school as beneficial as possible for their students. One of the hardest hit groups was the Freshmen class. Mr. Ross shared that he felt a responsibility to “tailor lessons, especially when kids came back in person, that were more team building oriented than I would normally do in the middle of the school year.” Ms. Feiran felt the same way about her group of Seniors, who have missed out on so many quintessential high school experiences. She said that at the end of her classes she would let students chat for 10 minutes to help classmates reconnect in a virtual setting. 


An unprecedented challenge for teachers this year was the fluctuation of teaching methods as the system oscillated between hybrid, in-person, and online. Ms. Feiran battled with the constant change, saying, “We (teachers) had to keep trying things that might fail so we’d try a different way. It was flexible to the point where I don’t know a teacher who hasn’t hit the wall at this point. We’re so flexible that we’re now completely non-elastic.” Not only did the difference between these three classroom settings affect teaching methods for teachers, but the chaos was a significant burden to their workload. Ms. Feiran said, “At the beginning of the year I was spending probably 60 hours a week just revamping again and again, redoing things.” 


For Mr. Rassmusen, science was a particularly difficult subject to teach virtually. All science classes at Niwot suffered in the online format as students missed out on labs and hands-on experience. When asked about his experience with online science classes, Mr. Rassmusen couldn’t help but laugh! “I don’t know if I’m excited by how that went this year […] The hard thing about science is that it’s very abstract because you’re talking about things you can’t see. To learn about things like stoichiometry is like telling students to take things they can’t see as fact.” Due to restrictions, he relied heavily on simulations such as phet labs, predictions, trial and errors, and dialogue to engage students. One of Mr. Rassmusen’s main goals for the year was to give students choice in their learning activities. He said that this method worked very well for the kids at home, where “It can be really disengaging listening to a teacher lecture while sitting in a comfy chair at home and listening to sub-quality webex.” He shifted his teaching methods so that there were multiple mediums through which students took in information, which is a method he plans to carry into following years. 


The technological learning curve due to an online format was markedly difficult for many teachers this year. Mr. Ross’ strategy was to explore new avenues: “From a teacher’s perspective, being flexible and being willing to and vulnerable to learn from students, because a lot of my students have vastly superior knowledge than I do in that (technological) realm […] was probably the most successful piece.” In this way, teachers and students worked together to solve technological problems that arose throughout the year. While many teachers did not have the training necessary to tackle technology issues, Mr. Rassmusen had a background as an instructional tech coach at Erie High and Erie Middle where he worked with other educators to help them implement technology into their classrooms. He expressed how this experience aided his ability to adapt to the virtual format and create engaging online lessons. However, even he was not immune to methodological differences of the online format, saying, “The hardest thing was trying to balance in-classroom instruction with online instruction because they are two very different modes of instruction. Trying to do those both simultaneously was very difficult to do well.”


While Niwot’s teachers are glad to leave behind the unique challenges of the past year, changing times have also inspired positive development in the methods of education. When asked what teaching methods he would carry over into following years, Mr. Ross said, “More than anything, giving kids the responsibility and the ownership to take on their learning has been really gratifying to see kids do well with.” He also enjoyed that, “Being paperless and having to integrate technology in class has been,  both from an environmental standpoint and a facilitation standpoint has been easier for kids and better for the earth.” Ms. Feiran says she plans to alter the way she distributes work after learning that her students were able to learn the intricacies of a topic by going at a slower pace, and Mr. Rassmusen hopes to continue diversifying his methods of instruction by including multiple medias. There are also likely to be changes in the field of education as a whole, and Ms. Feiran suggested that the methods used to assess the way students learn and demonstrate their knowledge will diversify. The college application process has already been influenced by these lessons learned as many colleges have become SAT/ACT test optional or even test negative. 


While there are many lessons to be learned from the changes in lifestyle over the past year, there is still uncertainty about the future of education. Mr. Ross, Ms. Feiran, and Mr. Rassmusen all expressed their opinions about what the future may hold for teachers and students in the education system as the effects of altered learning formats this past year ripple out. Mr. Ross said that he expects the experience have positive influences on the future of current students, saying, “This is probably the most significant school year that kids have ever experienced, perhaps not from a content standpoint but in terms of how you discipline your life […] your generation of high school kids is going to be more responsible in the long term.” The soft skills that students had to learn will likely create a generation that has more experience with accountability when it comes to academic/personal pursuits. However, Ms. Feiran expressed worry over how the general public will perceive the flexibility of educators abilities, saying, “What they’re saying to teachers is ‘teaching in person is the same as teaching online’, but hybrid vs in person vs online are three completely different ways to deliver and receive, and I don’t think (everyone) understands that.” At the end of the year, Mr. Ross was happy that positive lessons came out of the challenges, saying, “The biggest lesson of this year for me is how we as humans have the ability to grow and change and adapt whether we’re teenagers or adults.” Mrs. Feiran also expressed her love for her students, saying, “If it weren’t for the students I don’t know how we would have made it, which is always the case for teachers. The students are why you’re here, that’s why it’s meaningful, that’s why it’s ok at the end of the day.” Ultimately, Mr. Ross, Ms. Feiran, and Mr. Rassmusen shared that even though the year was difficult, their students were worth working hard for. 


So, Niwot Teaching Staff, your acts of heroism do not go unnoticed. When the world underwent drastic changes, students could count on your consistency to prioritize our education. As the 20/21 academic year draws to a close your students and the Green + Black staff want to take this opportunity to thank you for your dedication to our success: (to see student appreciation messages go to page 6)