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Top Teacher 2020: Erin Rooney

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Photo by Tessa Marie Images

In 2020, these Top Teachers went above and beyond in a time of crisis. 

Erin Rooney teaches kindergarten at Saint Margaret School.

On March 12, 20 minutes before the end of the school day, Erin Rooney got word that Pennsylvania schools would be closing for two weeks. “It was surreal,” she says.

Along with a teaching aid, Rooney sprung into action, quickly formulating distance-learning lessons and putting packets in every backpack before students left. “Our goal was to get them as much material [as possible],” says Rooney.

A week later, she packed each student’s belongings, bringing them home with her so parents could pick them up. The process was admittedly heartbreaking for Rooney, who’s been teaching for 20 years.

Determined to make the transition to a virtual classroom as seamless as possible, Rooney began filming lessons. “I’d made a promise to [parents] on back-to-school night that I was going to be teaching their children for the year,” she says. “No matter what was happening, I wasn’t changing that.”

Stationed in her living room, porch and dining room, Rooney created more than 260 lessons with content ranging from phonics and sight words to numbers and storytime. A parent herself, she recognized that adults might be also working from home, so she wanted the lessons to easily fit into their busy days. “I knew if I did it in a way that reflected our classroom, students would be able to step up and be more independent,” she says.

Related Article: Top Teacher 2020: Brian Hassel

The videos were delivered daily by email, along with her question of the day, a classroom tradition. These were augmented with live lessons three days a week, broken into two sessions. Birthdays and holidays were celebrated virtually. Rooney even coordinated a sing-along and an at-home crafting session for a Mother’s Day gift.

When the school year came to a close, Rooney celebrated the only way she knew how—with her students. With her teaching aid and husband, she drove to students’ homes to deliver diplomas and the scrapbooks she’d assembled. “It was hard not getting to hug,” she says. “But it was very good to see them.”

As a final gift, Rooney transformed individual shots of each student into a class photo. “This whole pandemic has robbed everybody of something, and this is a perfect test of resilience,” she says. “You have to decide: Are you going to sit back and let it take everything, or are you going to fight back and take back some of the things in a different way?”

For Rooney, there was only ever one answer.

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