When she was first hired as a third-grade teacher in Oswego, Kansas, Marissa Morris’ principal recalled her hitting the ground running, getting her classroom ready the same week.
Four years later, the Columbus native took over a new third-grade classroom — one in Red Bridge Elementary in Center School District, Kansas City, Missouri. She made it bright, cheery, and welcoming. She implemented a flexible seating plan. She invited her students to add to a word wall that described the feelings they wanted their classroom to evoke. And, she began getting to know their families.
Now, that classroom sits empty and Morris is adapting to teaching her 23 students from home, remotely, during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“When word first came that we were going to do this, I was in shock. How would we make it work?” said Morris (BSEd ‘14, MSEd ‘18).
As that unfolded around her, there was a bright spot: she learned she had been named Pittsburg State University’s Outstanding Elementary Educator, an award given each year by the College of Education. (Ordinarily, the award is presented in a ceremony held on campus; this year, that won't happen.)
The shock of the pandemic and the surprise of the award didn’t last long; Morris flew into action, searching the internet to find viable resources and checking social media to see what other teachers are doing.
“That’s all I could do,” she said. “There isn’t really a guidebook for something like this.”
But she also remembered two important lessons that came from faculty at PSU during her own time as a student: be flexible and open minded, and learn empathy as it applies to teaching. Some children don’t have access to devices they need to learn, or parents might be out of a job for example.
On March 23, Morris sat on one side of her classroom and her co-teacher sat on the other, and they mapped out strategies for not just teaching, but also keeping families informed. By March 24, they were rolling out a “soft start” to online learning.
Morris is using Seesaw, sort of a Facebook-style app for elementary students, that allows her to push out assignments digitally, post videos of herself reading books aloud, and communicate with students as they return to where they left off before COVID-19: tackling fractions and multiplication tables, beginning to read chapter books, learning Missouri history, and investigating matter and magnets.
Specials teachers are being creative, too, she said: the music teacher is asking students to write notes on sidewalk with chalk, then send her a photo so she can play the melody. The PE teacher is recording videos of herself exercising.
“It’s really making us step out of our comfort zone," Morris said. “I thought I was using a lot of engaging technology, but now I’m doing it way more.”
Morris said she was surprised to learn in she’d been chosen for the award.
“It was an honor to get the phone call,” Morris said. “I remember being a student teacher, sitting there watching the award being given to an outstanding educator, thinking ‘I hope I get it someday!’.”