Walking into Cedar Shoals for the first time on March 15, Makayla Powell finally got to meet the students she had been teaching for eight months face to face. Powell was a senior at the University of Georgia during the 2020-21 school year and began her student teaching experience last September over Zoom. She struggled last year, feeling the lack of connection with her students online.
“Teaching last year was very isolating. Even though we were on Zoom calls every single day, it was like I didn’t really know the students I was talking to, and for me building relationships with students is the most important part of everything,” Powell said. “That relationship that you have is how you get kids to buy into what you’re teaching and do the assignments that you want them to do.”
Brittany Moore, multicultural literature teacher and Powell’s mentor last year, witnessed the troubles Powell faced connecting with students.
“I knew at times she was discouraged because she wanted that student feedback loop where you can see students react in real time to what you’re saying, and there is a detachment from them with online learning,” Moore said.
However, having a second teacher in the class helped Moore and Powell engage their students.
“I was thankful to work with another teacher, because in some classes students felt disengaged. That was a huge problem, kids not participating, but with two people in the virtual room that were already conversing with each other, it stimulated conversation for other people to jump in and we were able to go back and forth. I didn’t feel so alone in a sea of blank screens,” Moore said.
Additionally, even though the 2020-21 school year presented Powell with many challenges, the four-day week schedule offered a reprise.
While navigating the new school year as a ninth grade literature teacher, Powell understands that many of her new students experienced the same lack of social interaction as she did last year.
“Something that I’m seeing a lot with freshmen is that they are a little crazy in class, but a lot of them haven’t seen their school friends since the end of seventh grade,” Powell said. “These relationships seemed kind of silly and maybe not as important, but when you think about how much development comes from socialization in school specifically, you realize how big of an impact not being able to just see school friends everyday has.”
The circumstances Powell faced last year as a student also shape how she teaches now.
“She (Powell) understands the struggle of being a student: getting work done, doing your homework and dealing with family. She gives us opportunities to get our work done and learn any way that’s possible,” freshman Jamar Bailey said.
After the discouragement of her first experience of teaching being online, returning in person helped Powell regain her confidence in her career choice.
“More than anything it (online teaching) made me realize how much I wanted to be in the classroom,” Powell said. “Just being in the classroom (in the spring) was like a breath of fresh air. It was a little uncomfortable at first because I hadn’t fully taught in a real classroom before, but then once I got settled, I felt excited to come to school.”
Powell was initially a linguistics major, but realized teaching English was her passion.
“I really liked language,” Powell said. “I don’t know what I thought teaching was about before, but I just kind of had this realization that I could be a teacher and it wasn’t a career path that was so weird and far away.”
Once Powell realized she wanted to teach, she knew that she would pursue literature.
“I would get in trouble sometimes because I would read books when we weren’t supposed to in class,” Powell said. “That’s what informs so much of my teaching: bringing kids to love books. When I was younger, my family moved around a lot, and it was difficult for me to feel grounded a lot of times. You don’t have all of the emotional intelligence to process or understand what you’re going through and how you’re feeling. Reading helped me understand what I was going through.”
At the end of her year of student teaching, Powell faced the important decision of where to continue her teaching, ultimately deciding Cedar was the place for her.
“I just realized what a special place Cedar was. It can be a little bit of a wild wild west sometimes, but the students here are so great and they just need someone that is going to support them and tell them that they can accomplish their goals. They can graduate and do these things that they haven’t thought they could do before,” Powell said.