McAllen teachers, students find companionship amid distance learning

As McAllen schools wrapped their first week of online courses Friday, both teachers and students have said they feel confident in their new learning environments, albeit not permanent. The only problem is they long for normalcy.

Gwen Philips, a freshmen English teacher at McAllen High School, sent a message to her 150 students saying that she missed them and hoped that they were doing well. That message was sent on March 23, the day classes were supposed to resume after spring break.

Students’ response to her message nearly brought her to tears Friday.

“I got an overwhelming response from my students,” Philips said. “They all said the same thing: We want to go back. We want to see you and be in the classroom with you again.”

Philips, a Mission resident, said that the teachers of her school were well prepared for the transition to online courses, since they are already encouraged by their administration to use technology in their classrooms.

“We have so many different types of tech platforms that we were already integrating into our lessons, so the transition wasn’t difficult,” Philips, 31, said. “We are working hard to make sure that our students get the best education they can. We are getting on conference calls on how to make these classes as effective as they can be for our students.

“I am making myself available to parents and children to help them navigate online classrooms, because there is a learning curve and some are not tech savvy, so that is how we need to adjust.”

This is Philips’ second year as a teacher after graduating from South Texas College. For online courses, assignments and materials are provided online through Google Classroom, and if her students need her help, she is available to video chat with them through Zoom.

“It does not matter how much you decorate and put up though, what matters are the students and that they enjoy what they are doing. As a teacher, you want them to interact with each other and be 100% involved, which now, is going to be tricky. Great lessons are interactive ones, so with online teaching, that is going to be the challenge.”

Currently, Philip’s Pre-AP English students are reading “Of Mice and Men” by John Steinback, while her college-prep students are going over “The House on Mango Street,” by Sandra Cisneros. Both novels are coming of age stories Philips hopes will strike a chord with students whose lives are experiencing sudden changes.

“I hope they (students) are seeing how our school district came together to make sure that they were OK, that they continued on with making sure they got a quality education,” she added.

Adam Sabedra, a fifth grade dual language teacher at Jackson Elementary, said he also wants his 41 students to learn how to adjust.

“I tell my students that we have to be flexible,” Sabedra said. “We have to be as flexible as possible. I tell them that as a teacher, I am not there anymore to help them keep track of their time, that they need to be responsible now.”

Sabedra said video chatting with his students was refreshing, considering the circumstances in a post-virus world that demands social distancing.

“I loved being able to see them and their smiling faces,” Sabedra said. “It was wonderful to see that they were doing OK. They were all just excited to see each other again.”

Jenny Gonzales, a third grade student at Victor Fields Elementary School in McAllen, said she learned about division and imagery in her first week of online courses.

“It’s odd, but it’s OK,” Gonzales said, “I miss my friends and teachers, they’re really kind, because if you make a mistake, they understand.”

Gonzalez’s oldest brother, Fabian Ortiz, a sophomore at Memorial High School, was unable to compete in the last two tennis tournaments of the season since UIL suspended such activities.

“I would not say that I am happy with the way we are going to end the semester,” Ortiz said. “Being at school is always one of the fun parts, and missing a little part of high school is going to suck, but it is what it is.”