First-time teacher tackles pandemic at local private school

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. - Change has been the name of the game for the entire pandemic. But for one private school teacher, 2020 change was an understatement.

Private schools promise excellent academics... for a price, but online learning has made that promise complicated. Find out how private schools are handling this pandemic and hear from one teacher just starting out.

“This is our 40th year, of course, is one of the strangest years we’ve ever had in so many ways it feels like the beginning, you know, because we've had to rethink almost everything we do," John Lee, the Headmaster at Trinity School at Greenlawn said.

During the interview, students in next door came inside the room to pick up their belongings.

"What they're doing here is, their classroom is next door. Yeah. And it's a bigger classroom than this," he said. "They use this as their locker room.”

2020 has shown staff at Trinity at Greenlawn, a grade 6 to 12 private school in South Bend, to expect the unexpected.

“We had to rework all the spaces," Lee said.

For Headmaster John Lee, that's everything from maneuvering rooms.

“Yeah, this was the music room," Danielle Svonavec, the Dean of girls and a teacher said. “I was able to fit 20 as many as 22 students in here. And we had a piano in the back.”

To entire buildings...

"We've also got our athletic facility which is three miles north. Our 11th and 12th graders from the beginning of the year, they're learning up there every day," Lee said.

Making sure the school reopened in person last August was a top priority, especially at just under $14,000 a head.

"There probably wouldn't be some families who if it was just 100% online learning, who would have chosen not to come back I suspect that that's the case," he said.

“I have a son in the 8th grade, and a daughter in the 6th grade," Kate Kelly, one parent said.

Kelly said she fell in love with Trinity and its learning process but might have felt different if Trinity didn't go back to in-person learning

"Oh yeah. Oh yes, definitely. That was something my husband and I were thinking and praying struggling about and to keep our fingers crossed that that wasn't going to be something we had to confront because it would have been hard to write that check for computer learning," she said. "It was an adjustment to be in the one room. You know all day long. But again, he said hey we've got this great group of nine boys, I mean they're bonding. It's been almost seamless, I would say seamless, the whole transition this year.”

"So we have been in person, since the beginning of this school year," Lee said. "We did give students an option to learn remotely.”

For the dozens of staff and over 200 students, learning in 2020, completely changed.

"It was pretty difficult, to be honest," Lee said.

But for one teacher it was a new experience altogether.

"Yeah. I started in 2020," Dietrich Balsbaugh, a 7th-grade math, 8th-grade algebra, 8th-grade literature and Junior physics teacher said. "It was a very fast learning curve. Yeah, there's just a lot to get used to. I mean, there's, there's only so much training you could do for something like this. Because obviously, everything was going to be a little bit different, handling online and in person at the same time.”

Right out of school Dietrick Balsbaugh spent his first year teaching... during a pandemic.

“I remember, after the first week of school, all the new teachers are sort of floundering and trying to figure out what are we doing here? How does this all work? And one of the veteran teachers here came up to us and said, just wanna let you know, I've been teaching for 30 years, and this is a whole new world for me, too," he said. "So it was very encouraging to have the faculty there to help.”

And he’s still figuring out how to be an excellent teacher.

“That's one of your constant, like, oh, am I just ruining these kids' lives forever? Oh, no, what's gonna happen? If they don't understand how to graph an equation? Is that gonna? Is that going to spiral out of control and years from now," he said. “Early on, there was a lot of there are a lot of struggles with figuring out how did the cameras work? Let's not forget to unmute them at the beginning of class, something, something as simple as that. And I think I think it took a lot of time to sort of work through how do we care for both sets of students equally.”

The goal: making sure students aren’t too behind once the pandemic is over.

“We lost a little bit of ground as would be expected. We just could not accomplish the same sorts of things that we could, that we could in previous semesters," Svonavec said. "They're still I mean, catching up."

But with a $14,000 per year tuition cost, can Trinity live up to its high expectations?

“We have to manage expectations. I mean, there's we're limited right now, in the way we can communicate simply because we have these things on our faces. And our students, our students are, are, are limited because they have all these extra stressors on them," she said.

For a school founded on community, finding new ways to communicate, was a challenge in 2020. And their mission is to keep working toward the goal of perfecting it in 2021.

“It's so hard to learn as a new teacher, but sort of everyday sort of working better to get to get towards that goal of modeling what learning should be," Balsbaugh said.

“Maybe you'll learn some new things about yourself as a teacher or some new things about the school," Svonavec said. "There may be some ways that we have always done things that we reevaluate. There may be some things that we keep.”

Lee said private schools like Trinity might have an advantage because of the smaller size. Making sure students can be separated by transitioning unused spaces can be easier with just over 200 students enrolled.

Because private schools aren't funded by the state, finding funds can be difficult, but Lee says besides tuition, which has not been raised this year, they have also had several generous donors. So there are options.

If you have any questions or concerns related to schools, reach out to us! Learningcurve@abc57.com.

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