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Pandemic puts Peterborough math teacher's problem-solving skills to the test

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South Meadow School math teacher Michelle Hautanen, shown in front of the building in Peterborough on Tuesday, said students "were the shining point" of the past year. "They were the ones that got you through the day.

PETERBOROUGH — It’s the last period of the day, and Michelle Hautanen walks with purpose into her classroom at South Meadow School, where nine 7th-graders are waiting for her to begin their math class.

She passes a bulletin board with an indigo background, adorned with brightly colored motivational messages like “I will embrace challenge” and “I can come up with creative solutions.”

Those may as well be the mantras for Hautanen, and all area educators, as they continue to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic.

As she settles onto a stool near a computer at the front of the room and prepares her materials for the day’s lesson on linear expressions, Hautanen also puts on a wireless headset, and soon welcomes two more students who join the class remotely via Zoom.

She doesn’t stay on that stool for long, though, and spends the next 45 minutes in near-constant motion, managing two classrooms — physical and virtual — simultaneously.

Hautanen, 50, of Peterborough, begins Tuesday’s lesson by walking her students step by step through a few problems as they work on their school-provided Chromebooks. She periodically pops back to the front of the room to check the work the remote students have put into Zoom’s chat box.

“I need my roller skates today,” Hautanen jokes as she crisscrosses the room once more.

After the class finishes going through questions together, Hautanen distributes papers to her in-person students to finish the period with individual work, speaking into her headset as she passes out the worksheets.

“You can type your answer in. I’ll be right there to check,” Hautanen tells her remote students.

In the last few minutes of class, Hautanen’s 7th-graders grow restless, and ready their backpacks to head home.

“Stay at your spots so we keep our six feet of distance,” she reminds her 12- and 13-year-old students, all of whom are wearing masks.

Then, at 2:15 p.m., the announcement comes through the speakers. Hautanen’s students are dismissed, and another school day is in the books.

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South Meadow School math teacher Michelle Hautanen helps Gus Hatmaker, 13, of Peterborough with his work on Tuesday.

Finding a routine

This sort of class period has become fairly routine for Hautanen. Educators throughout the region and across the country have adapted to a diverse array of in-person, remote and hybrid learning models throughout the pandemic. These different methods have led to often unprecedented changes in how schools interact with students, families and staff members.

South Meadow, like all elementary and middle schools in the ConVal district, has offered in-person classes five days a week since the beginning of the school year, aside from a pair of planned remote-learning segments centered around winter and spring breaks. Families also have been able to choose to have their kids learn remotely throughout the year.

Regardless of the medium for instruction, though, Hautanen said maintaining some sense of consistency has become more important than ever for students and teachers during the pandemic.

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South Meadow School math teacher Michelle Hautanen on Tuesday refers to content visible both to students in the classroom and to those learning remotely.

“So, in other words, just having a routine to fall back on, the students find very comforting,” Hautanen said. “... I think for a lot of kids, they feel like the rest of their life is kind of out of their control, but if you can keep school very routine and very familiar, it kind of gives them that touchstone so that they know they can still be themselves at school and they don’t have to worry that we’re still there.”

Hautanen’s own pre-pandemic routine was upended in March 2020, when schools statewide transitioned to remote learning at Gov. Chris Sununu’s order.

Thankfully, she said, all students at South Meadow — which enrolls about 360 middle-schoolers primarily from Peterborough, Greenfield and Temple — already had Chromebooks. So teachers spent the week leading up to Sununu’s order — when they had begun to hear that some mandated shift in learning environment was on its way — reviewing with students how to use digital tools like Zoom and Google Classroom.

When the switch to remote did happen last spring, Hautanen said she started by recording video lessons for her four 5th-grade math classes, and making herself available via live video for students who needed extra help. This was a lot of work, and Hautanen found it difficult to separate home and school.

Teachers were expected to be online and available to students during normal school hours, she said, “but then it was hard when a student would email you and say that they could only go online when their parents got home after 4, and they’d want to meet with you. So you’d meet with them at 4 because you couldn’t go anywhere else.”

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South Meadow School math teacher Michelle Hautanen on Tuesday discusses content visible both to students in the classroom and to those learning remotely.

Beyond meeting with students online and preparing assignments and video lessons, Hautanen also had to find time to review students’ work and provide feedback — all resulting in a lot more work than usual.

“So it was a time-consuming endeavor,” she said.

ConVal — which covers Antrim, Bennington, Dublin, Francestown, Greenfield, Hancock, Peterborough, Sharon and Temple — ended its 2019-20 school year two weeks earlier than initially planned, leaving the first two weeks of June for staff members to prepare for the fall.

At the time, though, the end of the year felt like a finish line, Hautanen said.

“It was great to feel like we had kind of finished it,” she said. “I think at that point, we were all hoping that we would come back in the fall the way every other school year had started.”

Return from remote

But for Hautanen and about 70 other school staff, parents and community members who joined ConVal’s reopening task force, the work was just beginning. The group, which was divided into several committees, worked throughout the summer to design the district’s school-reopening plan.

As part of that plan, South Meadow School divided students and staff into five “pods” to limit the interaction between the groups, and minimize the impact on the school in the event of a COVID-19 exposure. As a result of the pod system, Hautanen, who is in her 20th year at South Meadow, went from teaching four 5th-grade math classes to one class each in grades five through eight.

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South Meadow School math teacher Michelle Hautanen, right, and Principal Ann O'Bryant flank the computers-and-whiteboard setup that allows Hautanen to simultaneously teach students in person and online.

This system has its benefits, she said, like connecting with more students and gaining a deeper understanding of how math curricula develop throughout middle school.

“But it’s also been a huge time commitment to basically master quickly three new subjects,” she said. “I mean, you know your content in your grade level, but knowing it and teaching it are often two different things.”

Ultimately, that means Hautanen’s days this year are just as long and stressful as they were last spring when schools switched to remote learning.

“The difference is that it’s more in the planning than in the meeting with students after hours,” she said. “The planning for the four different grade levels, and for the remote and in-person at the same time, that planning piece is actually, I think, longer this year than it was in the spring for us.”

Hautanen said she’s grateful that the three children she has with her husband, Brent — son Alex, 27, and daughters Anastasia, 25, and Natalia, 21 — are grown, and mostly out of the house.

“I cannot imagine having done any of this and having had an elementary-school student at home,” she said.

A balancing act

Even though her kids are older, Hautanen said this school year has still caused its fair share of stress, particularly at the beginning of the year.

“I volunteered for an outside classroom in the fall because being outside felt more comfortable to me than being in the classroom,” she said. “Even though we were assured the air-filtration systems and so forth were good, there was just something reassuring about being outside.”

Over the past seven months, Hautanen said she and her students have grown increasingly comfortable with COVID-19 protocols like masking, distancing and frequent sanitization of shared surfaces such as desks and pencil sharpeners.

Thankfully, she added, South Meadow has had very few coronavirus cases. However, her pod did have to switch to remote learning shortly before Thanksgiving because several employees needed to quarantine, leading to staff shortages.

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South Meadow School math teacher Michelle Hautanen instructs students whose desks are spaced far apart, as well as children learning remotely, on Tuesday.

After experiencing remote learning, Hautanen said students and staff have adhered to health and safety measures in order to remain in school.

“When you can be in-person, I don’t want to say it’s worth the risk, but you don’t focus on it as much,” she said. “Everybody knew that they had to work together to stay safe. And I think the kids took it seriously, the adults took it seriously.”

Still, this school year has pushed Hautanen more than any in her career. She said the challenges do not always stem from the stress of the pandemic, but also little issues that she never had to deal with before, like technological challenges for remote students.

“I think I’ve probably cried more this year than in the entirety of my career of teaching,” she said. “Because when the Zoom crashes and kicks you out of your online class, and a student gets left as the teacher, and all of your connectivity issues kind of crash, you kind of keep it together in front of the kids, and then you kind of go somewhere and privately put your head down and try to juggle that.”

So, she added, this year has taught her how to prioritize balancing her personal and professional life.

Hautanen has adopted several stress-relief exercises, like the Zentangle method of drawing — a way to create images by drawing structured patterns called tangles — that she also has shared with her students.

And with students and teachers alike finding themselves in new and uncomfortable situations during the pandemic, Hautanen said the experience has helped her grow as an educator.

“I think it fosters more empathy for all types of learners, and for trying to anticipate how you can help them,” she said. “I always thought I did a good job in meeting kids where they were and helping them grow, and I think through the experience of this year, I know that I still have lots of work to go. It’s going to be a never-ending process, because technology is constantly changing, things are different for different kids’ home lives.”

And that connection with students, Hautanen said, lies at the core of her work as a teacher, during the pandemic and beyond.

“The kids were the shining point,” she said. “They were the ones that got you through the day. It was all the other little things that were hard to manage.”

Jack Rooney can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1404, or jrooney@keenesentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter @RooneyReports.

Jack Rooney can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1404, or jrooney@keenesentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter @RooneyReports.