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Woodside teacher speaks on helping students learn and grow amid pandemic

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Johanna McNeal in her pre-K classroom at P.S. 398 in Woodside. (Photo courtesy of McNeal)

When teacher Johanna McNeal wakes up every morning, she looks forward to working with her students in the classroom and seeing their progress throughout the school year.

McNeal, a resident of Bayside, is a pre-K teacher at P.S. 398 in Woodside, where she teaches a dual language class in English and Spanish.

For McNeal, being a teacher isn’t just a job; it’s part of who she is, as she has wanted to be a teacher since she was a child. She was inspired by her fourth-grade teacher, Ms. Goodman.

“Since my experience with her, I always knew I wanted to teach. She made it look so fun. She was warm and caring, and she did a lot of things with us that year,” McNeal said. “Once I got the opportunity to work with children while in school, I knew I wanted to be a teacher.”

McNeal has been teaching since 2008 and she truly loves being in the classroom and helping her students learn and grow. However, when COVID-19 hit New York City in March of 2020 and public schools were shut down to help curb the spread of the virus, McNeal was unable to see her students.

While transitioning to remote learning using Google Classrooms, McNeal was trying to find other ways to connect with her students. She came up with the idea to upload YouTube videos so her students could at least see her and easily access lessons.

“In the beginning, we were not given the option to do livestreaming. It was all very new, and we thought it would only be a few weeks,” McNeal said. “Once we realized that this was going to be longer than a few weeks, we learned about livestreaming and eventually did Google Meets.” 

Additionally, McNeal created a Donors Choose Project to help get hands-on materials for her students. 

“It was a backpack filled with a personal dry erase board with markers, math counters, a number chart, alphabet chart, shapes and math manipulatives. The project was funded in two weeks, and I delivered the backpacks to each student in person after not seeing them for months,” McNeal said. 

As the pandemic is subsiding and there is some return to normalcy, McNeal said restrictions are still in place for early childhood classrooms where children are required to wear a mask. According to McNeal, her students have been resilient.

“The kids are great. They’re able to do things without complaining, and it’s been a positive year even though we still have some restrictions,” McNeal said.

After experiencing remote learning, McNeal has acquired new skills that she brings to the classroom, such as incorporating technology to connect with families.

“Not all of our families are familiar with Google Classroom or Flip Grid, and that’s always a way to connect families with the classroom and the tools they can use at home so they can support students’ learning,” McNeal said. “It keeps families involved and technology is a great way to do that. We also still use Dojo, which is an online application for communication.”

According to McNeal, it’s important that teachers create an environment in the classroom that is positive and welcoming to students.

“We don’t know what happens outside of the classroom and what circumstances children are dealing with at home. As teachers, we need to take the time to get to know our students and create an environment that promotes kindness and empathy so [that] when they enter the classroom, they know that they’re in a safe place. They will be excited to learn, get along with their friends and spend time with their teacher,” McNeal said.

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