Rural teacher forced to shift gears

Wendy Weichel learns how to work from home as well as teach her own children after COVID-19 closed schools in Sask.

KENDAL, Sask. — It used to all start at 6 a.m. with a flurry of activity.

Wendy Weichel would get her four kids out of bed and launch into busy days filled with a full-time teaching job, farm duties and a smorgasbord of after-school activities from hockey to volleyball to dance.

The Grade 2-3 Montmartre School teacher says the best way to describe her and her husband Craig’s pre-COVID-19 lifestyle was “high tempo.”

“I’d be at school from 8 until about 5:30 or 6 and when I got home, Craig would have supper ready then we’d divide and conquer by going in different directions to whatever activity the kids had.”

But the arrival of COVID-19 restrictions in March abruptly put an end to the busy life the Weichels had known. While on-farm commitments to their mixed operation remained steady, the extra-curricular activities ended.

The initial provincial announcement on March 13 that gatherings of 250 would be banned was the first indication of the school closures and social lockdown that were to come.

“Never in my wildest dreams did I think that we (the school) would be closed down for this long,” said Weichel. “At the time it was overwhelming and I was just going through the motions of packing up my students’ stuff. Everything in my class looked like it was June, but my calendar said March 17.”

Schools in Saskatchewan were officially closed on March 20 with a provincial directive for teachers to provide supplemental learning to students via technology. Weichel said the first few weeks of teaching her class of 23 students from her farm was the most difficult.

“It was hard to wrap my head around how to get a classroom up and running from home, and how to do it so that it would benefit the kids,” said the 13-year teaching veteran. “I over-thought everything, but at some point I realized that I just needed to take a breath and do the best I could.”

At the same time, the mother of four had to adapt to being an at-home teacher to her four kids, aged six to 16. Her oldest son, Austin, is in Grade 10 and is working on math concepts like bisecting angles, while her daughter Kaitlyn is in kindergarten and is working on the basics of counting to 20.

Kaitlyn Weichel completes her kindergarten school work at home with the assistance of her mom. | Christalee Froese photo

The experienced teacher quickly figured out that it would not work to try to teach all four of her children at once while also trying to keep up with her Grade 2-3 students. She developed a strategy that placed the focus on getting assignments out to her class, while fitting her own children’s learning in when she could.

The Weichel kids — Austin in Grade 10, Rhett in Grade 6, Carson in Grade 3 and Kaitlyn in kindergarten — get about 30 minutes of one-on-one teaching time with their mom daily.

“I’ve found that it’s not effective to sit them all down at the table because they all need me at once. So if I have 20 minutes, I’ll say, ‘Kaitlyn, get your iPad,’ and we work on that or I’ll say, ‘Carson, it’s your turn. Type in coral reef and let’s get this done.’”

The Weichel children spend the rest of their time doing chores around the farm, or playing. Weichel has found that some of the best moments have come when her kids have been allowed to be creative.

“They took some boxes from our online orders and built a cat hotel for our new kittens, which is something they’ve never done before,” said Weichel, adding that the biggest challenge in her home has been around social time.

“Off the start, the hardest part was that the kids were missing their friends.”

Fortunately, the Weichels have built-in playmates in the same yard as Craig’s brother, Clark, and his family live just 100 metres away. After 14 days of complete isolation, the families were able to reunite.

“The kids were so pumped the first time they got to see their cousins. All you could hear from the play structure was giggles and laughter and how much they appreciated being together.”

As for the future, Weichel is hopeful that in-class school will resume in the fall, but she doesn’t expect the busy life her family led will get back to the high speed it once was.

Weichel takes a school break in the family barn with her four children: Rhett, Grade 6; Carson, Grade 3; Austin, Grade 10 and Kaitlyn, kindergarten. | Christalee Froese photo

“I think we’re going to be more mindful of how much we try to keep our kids busy,” said Weichel. “Sometimes I think we keep them so busy that they don’t even know what it’s like to be bored, or to come up with their own entertainment.”

In terms of how the challenge of teaching remotely to a class compares to teaching her own children at home, Weichel said that is a difficult one to answer.

“It’s always harder teaching your own kids, but it’s also hard not seeing my students,” said Weichel adding that she is eagerly anticipating getting back to a classroom setting. “You can see the kids light up or you can see if they are struggling—that’s something you just don’t get through a computer.”

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