BAR HARBOR — When Barbara Keene and Jane Monahan began teaching in the late 1970s, computers were a futuristic concept; now, each of them depends wholly on computers to provide instruction during a pandemic.
“It was a crash course in using this technology and we were all scrambling,” said Monahan about remote learning that began mid-March in response to COVID-19. “It’s a lot different than classroom teaching. The thing I miss most is the interactive time I have with my kids.”
Monahan has been teaching second grade at Conners Emerson School for the last 11 years and is set to retire in June. She began teaching preschool in Massachusetts in 1978, took a break from teaching in the ‘80s when her family also moved to Maine, and began in 1997 at the Bar Harbor school.
“My first job at Conners was as the second grade Ed Tech,” she said in a conversation with the Islander last week.
In the last 23 years Monahan has been teaching on Mount Desert Island, she has also taught kindergarten and been a reading recovery Title 1 teacher at Tremont Consolidated School and in Bar Harbor.
“I love little kids. I love the kind of teaching I can do with little kids,” said Monahan. “You can be really natural and funny. They’re little goofballs. It’s just fun to be around them.”
Keene, who teaches reading recovery Title 1 at Trenton Elementary, began her career as the
resource room teacher at Conners Emerson in 1979. Special Education was a new concept at that time and she was in charge of scheduling, testing, reporting and supervising Ed Techs for students in Kindergarten through eighth grade.
“It was a really big job,” she said. “I would be home on weekends typing reports. I would hand-write my reports and then type (them).”
One of the first computers at Conners Emerson was donated by a family from the island and given to Keene. With it she was better able to see how her students were progressing and how to address their needs.
“The job evolves depending on the needs of the students,” said Keene. “This last change is huge. This whole crisis has brought about this huge surge of publishers allowing access to books online. They’ve made them free and available.
“I have more titles at my fingertips than I probably do in my classroom,” she added. “A few clicks and I find the right book for my student.”
Even though she and Monahan are maneuvering a different course than they have over the last three to four decades of teaching, Keene is having more positive experiences with remote learning than negative.
“It’s been great because I’ve been able to talk with parents,” she said. “Parents have been wholly committed to remote learning. Everyone on my caseload has access. It could have gone the other way.”
Even the students’ teachers have been able to join in on reading lessons, which typically take place outside the classroom.
“The thing that I miss is just the physical presence of being in the room, being shoulder to shoulder and learning,” said Keene. She announced her retirement in January after missing several days at the beginning of the school year because of health problems.
“This is a big part of who I am,” said Keene, getting choked up at the thought of it. “What I’ve really loved is being able to develop close relationships with students.”
Those relationships have been built through individual learning and some nontraditional methods. During her years in both Bar Harbor and Trenton, Keene inspired children by connecting them to seniors at Sonogee Living Center, creating a pollinator garden, a snack cart where they sold fresh fruit, baked bread and pancakes and made soup with them.
“Some of those wonderful traditions are what kids look forward to,” she said, emphasizing a most important lesson to impart on children. “I’m part of a community and how can I contribute to it.”
As with anyone who takes their role as teacher seriously, both Keene and Monahan strive to reach every child.
“Writing lesson plans for me has always been at least an hour, hour and a half,” said Monahan. “Maybe I overwrite them.”
And sometimes all of that time and energy is for naught.
“The thing I’ve always really loved about teaching is how you have to think on your feet so much,” said Monahan. “I find that really stimulating… You have to be at the top of your game because the kids deserve it.”
Conners Emerson Principal Barb Neilly noted her admiration for Monahan’s ability to connect with students and families and her calm demeanor during her 16 years at the school.
“Her number one goal was to build a sense of community in her classroom from the first day of the school year, right through to the last day of school, even during remote learning,” added Neilly in an email to the Islander. “She helped seven and eight year olds learn about what it meant to be fair and kind to one another, while gaining their ‘voice.’”
Throughout their careers in teaching, both Keene and Monahan have earned a masters degree, furthering their education for their students.
“I think teachers are always thinking about how we can get better at what we do,” said Monahan, emphasizing how that has changed in the last couple of months. “We were told right off the bat, this is not school, you can’t expect kids to do what they do in the classroom.”
As they wind down to the last days of the 2019-20 school year, Keene and Monahan are spending a lot more time on the computer connecting to their students and teaching peers.
“Every morning at 8:30 we have morning meeting,” said Monahan. “That’s my only live meeting… It’s not the experience you want.”
But, she hesitates to complain about what she and Keene are missing out on as they close this chapter of their lives.
“Out of all the things that have happened with this pandemic, this is so far down on the list,” said Monahan. “I’m sad. I feel like my last year was hijacked by the coronavirus. I feel like I’m not going to get the same sense of closure.
“I haven’t seen a live child since March 13,” she added. “And I may not get to see them for quite a while.”