Helen Beesley teaches Monday from the kitchen table at her home in Winthrop. Kennebec Journal photo by Andy Molloy

WINDSOR — When she began her career at Windsor Elementary School 30 years ago, Helen Beesley never thought she would be conducting classes from her Winthrop home.

Despite that, she has been praised by Regional School Unit 12 Superintendent Howard Tuttle, who said Beesley deserved recognition for her collaboration with “several teacher teams …  to create creative and motivating distance learning experiences” for students.

“She is representative of so many RSU 12 educators who are using all their creativity to keep students engaged from a distance,” he said.

Principal Heather Wilson said Beesley has been “rocking” remote learning and connecting students at different grade levels with a number of activities. She said she was “having a hard time keeping track of what” Beesley was doing with students because she planned so many activities for students.

Beesley, a sixth- and seventh-grade English language arts teacher, said remote teaching during the coronavirus outbreak was initially challenging. But, she said, with the support of her fellow teachers and creative thinking, she has been able to engage a large quantity of her students.

Students of Helen Beesley fashion face masks Monday while they learn together virtually in Winthrop. Staff photo by Andy Molloy

The Winthrop resident said her normal day involves meetings and classes on Zoom, a now-popular video conferencing platform, and reading aloud via Facebook Live. Beesley said her family described her as a “Facebook addict,” which has translated well to remote teaching. She set up a Facebook group for students and parents to connect during the outbreak.

Wilson pointed to a recent meeting Beesley planned with author and elephant activist, Carol Buckley, where students got to ask questions about the animals. That collaboration between Buckley and Beesley may continue in the future, according to Wilson.

“Helen and Carol decided that she would collaborate with our school and we see this as an opportunity for kids to learn so many things in an interdisciplinary fashion,” Wilson said. “(Buckley) went live via Zoom and read one of her books to the students, then kids had the opportunity to buzz in and ask questions.”

Beesley has also been sending hand-written letters to her students on stationery, which she said was difficult to find in the current time, where letters are increasingly less common.

“They’ve been writing back which is one of the positive things,” she said. “I go to my mailbox and there are kids telling me what they’ve been doing.”

Beesley said one of the largest challenges is equity for students. She said some of her students who live in rural areas may not have access to the internet, or may compete with parents working from home for essential devices. Despite that concern, Beesley said she has made contact with most of her students and about 50% join her for Zoom classes.

The secret to getting her students engaged with learning from home has been partnering with other teachers and organizations to produce engaging content, Beesley said. She said she has helped bring in demonstrators, like chefs, animators and animal sanctuary workers, to speak with students on Zoom. She said these meetings are often attended by parents and other teachers, who align their coursework with the presentation.

“The big draw is (when) we do (something) that’s different from the regular classroom,” Beesley said, “but the kids are still going to benefit and learn from.”

Through the transition to remote teaching, she said she learned teaching was mostly about maintaining relationships, something she said likely knew all along.

“Academics are important, but it’s about keeping the relationships between, the child, the gamily and the schools going,” Beesley said. “In our community, our families are so supportive and wonderful and that’s why I think it’s going well.”

Another challenge is not being there to comfort her students, like she had been on Sept. 11, 2001. Beesley said the students were expressing that they were lonely during the first couple of days of remote learning, adding that she cried after one of her first Zoom classes. Now, she said the students are feeling better about the current situation.

“We (aren’t) there and that was the most difficult thing,” Beesley said. “How do I get to all 65 of them and tell them it’s OK? Now, they’re doing better.”

She did note she didn’t want to be recognized as “doing more than other teachers” and highlighted that other educators, students and their families are working together “to do the best they can.”

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