Welcome to “Cloverdale In Conversation,” a monthly feature with a local newsmaker.
This month, Walter van Halst is our guest. The Lord Tweedsmuir teacher had a ‘virtual’ sit down with Malin Jordan to talk about life during COVID-19.
Walter talks about living and teaching in a pandemic as well as some of the challenges facing educators in our new reality.
Malin Jordan: Tell me a little bit about yourself. Where did you grow up and how long have you been teaching?
Walter van Halst: I was born and raised in Cloverdale. I grew up on my dad’s farm on 168th and Highway 10. I’ve been teaching for 23 years. I teach history, political studies, and social studies. I’ve been at Lord Tweedsmuir for 12 years; before that, I was at Clayton Heights for five years; before that I was at Tamanawis for five years. I started my teaching career at Princess Margaret and taught there for one year.
MJ: How do you feel now that school’s back in session, online, and you’re remote teaching?
WvH: It’s definitely a new and strange experience for everyone. We have to have patience, yet still have a balance between patience and accountability.
MJ: Has your perspective on teaching changed in any way throughout this crisis?
WvH: It’s easy to say this isn’t real teaching because we’re not in the classroom. For most of us that have been teaching for quite a while, there’s definitely a sense that we can’t give the kid the same experience that we can in person. In person we can ask them questions, they can ask us questions, and we can have meaningful discussions. It’s also a very powerful thing, the connection you have with your students. If you’re someone that loves teaching, and you care about the kids, you can build very strong connections with them and have very profound discussions when you’re in the classroom. So, with remote teaching, there is a lot of uncertainty.
MJ: How do you fight through that uncertainty?
WvH: We have to make the best of it. This isn’t a paid sabbatical for teachers. We have to find a way to reach kids. It’s hard this way — it’s not the same — and everything’s kind of an open book in a way. At the same time, we’re so lucky to have jobs. There are a lot of people out there that are really hurting right now.
MJ: How has the social-distancing and stay-at-home instructions affected you in a personal way?
WvH: I have a mother in a long-term care home. I just visited her through the window. I love her, but we can’t go in and see her right now. The care home she’s in now hasn’t had a problem, but an adjacent building did have an outbreak. I listened to that on live radio while I was marking papers. I was gutted and I thought, “Oh my God! That’s it!” Listening to that in real time, had quite the impact on me. But they found the care-worker and isolated everyone and there hasn’t been an outbreak in her building, yet. But we’ll still be on edge for another 10 days or so.
MJ: Self-isolation and COVID-19, obviously, are serious things, but humans always cope by finding humour in morbidity and stressful situations. Have you found any humorous moments through all of this?
WvH: I saw two dinosaurs purchasing alcohol the other day (chuckles). That really gave me a good laugh. I thought it was great these women dressed up to go out and do their errands and make people laugh. They got a lot of honks from cars, as you can imagine.
MJ: Have you found any silver linings in this crisis?
WvH: Yes! When people go walking now, although they are practicing social distancing, they are saying “hi” a little more than they would normally. I think it might lead to us being a little kinder to each other — to helping each other more. We all have a duty to give back — whether it’s kids chalking support messages on sidewalks, or people donating to the food bank, or people banging pots to support frontline health-care workers, or giving a pint of blood.
MJ: I keep hearing about people binge-watching shows online. Are you binge-watching anything at the moment?
Yes! I’ve got Netflix. I’m a big fan of a show called Money Heist. It’s set in Spain. I definitely finished up season four in a short amount of time.
MJ: Have you been in contact with any of your fellow teachers?
Oh yes. I have seen two other teachers, who are both colleagues and friends, at a safe distance. We had a social-distanced coffee.
MJ: Did you bounce any teaching ideas off each other?
WvH: Oh, yes, very much so. We talked about education and what each of us is doing. But we also talked about this whole period of time and what a bizarre, kind of surreal period it’s been. We’ve all had about a month for it to sink in, but there is still, in some ways, a sense of “I can’t believe this is happening.” You get up in the morning and you sort of wait and you hear the daily briefings and so on, but in some ways you look outside and things look kind of normal, but then you quickly recognize, “no they are not.”
So it’s as much friendship as anything, but there are definitely a lot of teachers collaborating at this time.
MJ: Man is a social animal.
WvH: Yes, we are. And we have a need to interact, to talk, to exchange ideas, and to have companionship. It’s a very unnatural act to be self-isolated for so long.
MJ: Finishing out the school year online is going to be challenging for everyone. Do you think teachers will be able to build better relationships with some students, in that there will probably be more one-on-one time over the Internet?
WvH: There are far less opportunities to build relationships over the Internet than there is in person. It’s the daily contact. It’s the laughter in the classroom. It’s the unexpected situations in the classroom. It’s the shared experiences in the classroom. It’s the extracurricular activities — sports, clubs at school, and events.
You also have to think about graduation, the dinner-dance, the commencement ceremony, these things are very powerful at building a sense of community in the school. So it’s unfortunate that those things are lost (through this).
MJ: What do you say to the Grade 12 parents who won’t see their children graduate from high school, at least not in the traditional way?
WvH: I don’t think it’s an either-or. In the past, some schools have held graduation ceremonies at a later date. It’s rare, but it’s happened. Even if it took until the late summer or the fall, I think the kids would be happy to see each other. It’s a big part of the Grade 12 year. And if it’s not too far (in the future), I think the kids would still want to do it.
MJ: How do you think the kids will feel when they do finally return to school?
WvH: I think in September, or whenever we resume normal instruction, the kids will probably value school a little more than they did before. I think the kids see school the way most adults see work. They don’t get paid. So their attitude is, “I guess I have to be here and do this. Can’t wait for Christmas. Can’t wait for spring break. Can’t wait for Summer.” That’s how kids are; and we all like our holidays. Maybe I’m an optimist, but I think kids will look at school and value the regular, daily instruction in the same way they value their interaction with each other.
MJ: Do you have any advice for parents as they start their version of home-schooling?
WvH: All parents should make sure their son or daughter has a valid Surrey School District email address. The address needs to be linked to MyEdBC (MyEducationBC). That’s the system we use for marking and for attendance purposes. Teachers are using a myriad of platforms right now. I’m trying to keep it simple by using email because I know everyone knows how to use email.
MJ: How do you keep things simple for parents and students?
WvH: Communication is important. This is a different time for all of us: students, teachers, and parents. We’re all in this together. It’s an unforeseen situation and we all have to make the best of it. Teachers aren’t trying to make this difficult for students. We have to walk a delicate tightrope: we want to make sure the kids are getting their learning without giving them too much work, or giving them work that neither they nor their parents can cope with. If you’re a teacher and you see this as paid time off, you’re criminal. The country is in a crisis.
I’m structuring my assignments so that I take the pressure off kids. I’m creating an opportunity for them to learn, to show me what they’ve learned, without the assignments being overly complicated.
We’re all trying to adapt. It’s important that we are productive as teachers, yet try to be flexible and understand that every kid and every parent is unique.
We have a lot of challenges to overcome.