First-Year CPS Educator Reflects on the Pandemic and Hope for the Future

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By: Camille Jackson, Loyola Senior

March 13 will be the one-year anniversary of the United States officially declaring the coronavirus pandemic a national emergency, and Chicago Public Schools and Chicago’s Teachers Union have finally agreed on a phased reopening starting with pre-Kindergarten and special education. 

Through all of the chaos, people have demonstrated an incredible amount of perseverance, creativity, and community during these times.

While reflecting on the highs-and-lows of navigating her first year of being a history teacher at Disney II Magnet High School (3815 N. Kedvale Ave.) during a pandemic, recent Loyola University Chicago ’20 alum, Paula Katrina Camaya shared her dreams for the future and the hope she has for her students to become change-makers in the world.

*Interview has been edited for length and clarity

Jackson: Wow, this is a wild time to be a teacher. What inspired you to become a teacher?

Camaya: I became a teacher kind of for two reasons. One, I had a really great AP US history teacher in high school named Corey Winchester. He is probably one of the only Black male educators I’ve ever been taught by. In his class, he did a very good job of just painting an inclusive, diverse, picture of US history revealing a lot of truths; It was powerful. Our curriculum was very culturally aware and that learning experience was so transformative to me. I remember thinking that I want to do something like that. Then, when I was in college, I was figuring out what to major in, doing a lot of community organizing in Chicago, working with immigrant youth, and immigrant and Filipino communities as well. I realized I really liked working with other young people. I thought I could probably combine all these things I learned and do this through teaching. 

Jackson: What are some of the philosophies or pedagogies that shape your teaching?

Camaya: Yes, there’s so many! There’s a lot of people that I look up to. People like Paolo Freire, Bell Hooks, Fred Hampton. There are so many people, some educators and some not, who really informed my teaching. If somebody ever asked me this, I think maybe the best way that I would describe being a teacher is being or trying to make my way towards being an abolitionist teacher. I see myself first as a community organizer, and then like a teacher, thinking about the ways I can give my students the resources they need, to become agents of change in their own communities and in the world. That’s why I believe in making sure the curriculum is culturally relevant, is useful to students, is personal, and making sure that we’re talking about injustices, systems, racism, and race, all in the hopes of making sure students feel like they have agency and they have the power to enact change. 

Jackson: Since you’ve been teaching for less than a year now, what has been your experience teaching during this time?

Camaya: Yeah, it’s been kind of all over the place. How I describe it to people is remote learning is not as bad as I thought it was going to be but it’s not as joyful, or great as in-person teaching is. I’ve definitely had many struggles with online learning like making sure students are engaged. Remote learning, personally, can be harder to build relationships with students and with colleagues. Instead of popping into a person’s classroom or asking for advice really quickly, I feel like I have to really go out of my way to be like, “please meet with me at this time so I can get help so that we could talk about this” with my coworkers. Then, for the students, they are just dealing with a lot. There’s so much behind the screen that I don’t know such as what their learning environment is like. There could be so many distractions or just not really knowing what’s going on at home. I’ve had a lot of students whose family members have been sick with COVID or recovering, and students whose family members have passed. There’s just a lot to juggle all while we’re in community virtually. Then on top of that, just as a first-year teacher, literally navigating everything such as creating my own lessons and curriculum and knowing the pace, and seeing what works and what doesn’t work. 

Jackson: You mentioned building community, what are some ways that you’ve been building community with your students? I feel like your students really appreciate you and all the effort that you’re putting in, and knowing how much you care for them. I hope you never doubt that they feel that you’re an awesome teacher.

Camaya: I hope so; I love my students so much! They just do their best every day. We do things like having circles sometimes, which virtually is kind of hard because instead of kind of like going in a circle and having like a talking piece and having like that aspect, it’s kind of like really heavily facilitated by me. At the start of the year, we used to do a lot of fun Friday stuff. We would play Among Us at the end of class, or people who wanted to stay, we would do show-and-tell, playing a lot of music, trying to engage with each another and meet students where they’re at. We do a lot of other activities such as mood boards and check-ins. Sometimes, they just need that break, to talk about things, and to make friends since sharing social media is the only way for them to do that as of now. We have a lot of, I hope, fun in my classrooms. 

Jackson: Recently after long negotiations, CPS and CTU, decided to reopen schools in phases. I was wondering, what are some of your thoughts on the reopening plan and its impact on students and teachers?

Camaya: I see that remote learning is very difficult for teachers and for students and we’re all really doing our best, but I think opening up schools in-person just forces a lot of teachers to make the choice of either going back to be able to provide for their family or risking your life. That’s not really something I think teachers signed up for. I’ve been against reopening especially because CPS has so many schools that, depending on the neighborhood, are extremely inequitable, negatively impacting many Black and Brown communities. I teach 9th through 12th grade, and CPS has no plans to return back as of now unless they’re a part of special education or a cluster program. I’ve had so many conversations with students about how they had younger siblings who had picked to opt-out of in-person learning because they know it’s not safe or they live in intergenerational households. Negotiating has taken so long and it’s definitely been very stressful. I think students are kind of like, just there for the ride. I know a lot of colleagues who are supposed to return, who didn’t want to or didn’t feel safe, even though we have new metrics and better safety protocols. 

Jackson: As a teacher during this time, what are your hopes for the future? 

Camaya: I would love to meet my students in person one day, and I want to give all of them a hug. I think about remote learning and how it is now, and I would really love, if this is really our reality for the foreseeable future, to see a lot of changes to remote learning. Our students are on screens for so long, all day, every day, each week. Seeing changes making one day a whole asynchronous day for them to catch up on their work and for teachers to plan. Just finding ways to make remote learning more manageable and more accessible. 

Jackson: In terms of accessibility, and having a more equitable future, what would you imagine that look like?

Camaya: With how things are now, I feel like we require a lot of community care.  I see a lot of organizations and a lot of groups organized like grocery drop-offs, mutual aid, and book drives, and all these things. I’d like to translate that to schools and making sure students and their families have groceries and enough to eat and supplies. I want to make sure they have books and access to stable internet, Wi-Fi, and technology. I’d want to do that for students on a school-wide level. In the meantime, all I can really do is make sure I’m meeting students where they’re at and teaching them the things they need through having really important conversations about what’s happening in the world.

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