Kierra Walker, of Uptown School Complex. Photo courtesy of Kierra Walker.

This story was produced thanks to a reporting grant facilitated by the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University and funded by New Jersey Children’s Foundation.

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By Clyde Hughes | AC JosepH Media

ATLANTIC CITYKierra Walker learned a lot about teamwork as a standout student-athlete at Pleasantville High School, but the pre-kindergarten teacher at Atlantic City’s Uptown School Complex is winning praise from parents over the past year for her virtual classroom teamwork.

The coronavirus pandemic has made teaching for educators difficult to say the least, turning over in-person contact to home computers in monitors. When your students are 4 years old, like Walker’s, that challenge is even more difficult.

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The struggle worsens when one adds working with families unfamiliar with technology to the mix. Walker has a 3-year-old son in pre-kindergarten as well, making her pull double-duty while teaching her own virtual classroom full of students.

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Last March, schools were almost closed because of COVID-19 restrictions handed down by the State of New Jersey and across the country. This forced teachers like Walker to think on their feet.

“It was just like, ‘I have a whole different position now,’ so it was like a scramble trying to figure out how I’m going to teach these kids and if they’re even going to have access to a computer,” Walker said. “Now that I have experience, I figured out a lot of different ways to teach and interact with my students. I started getting used to it and I kind of like it now.”

Walker said making time for her students and her own child came down to scheduling — careful, detailed scheduling.

“I had to really sit there and think,” Walker said. “I knew I was at home teaching with my kids on the computer and I’ve got my kid at home. I have to figure out a schedule. I came up with a schedule so we could get into a routine.”

Walker said that she created an education board as a reference to help her son during the pandemic. The board would become the foundation of a business she would later create.

On of the education board created by Kierra Walker. Photo courtesy of Kierra Walker.

“I started doing it for my son,” Walker said. “I made a board for my son because he was home and was 3 years old. His school had closed down and I’m like, ‘Okay, he’s talking with me. What am I going to do with him once I start [classes online]?’ I made a board for him, a video, and then I posted it on Facebook. My friends and I alternate one so that’s how it started.”

Walker said that before long she started doing the educational board for her students at Uptown School.

“I know they needed something to do that their parents could help them with at home,” Walker said.

One parent, Brandi Baldwin, said the board helped her tremendously in working with her daughter.

“I was having a hard time sitting down with my daughter and doing it verbally,” Baldwin said. “[Walker] made me the board and I was able to do it with my daughter like she was learning from Ms. Walker. I have a 2-year-old at home trying to potty train. She even made a potty-training board for my baby girl.”

Walker said she wanted to add some social aspects to the classroom because the young students were missing out on time where they would be interacting one-on-one. Walker added binders with different activities, such as matching shapes and learning the alphabet.

“That was something that was more interactive with them, instead of just like a reference with the boards,” Walker said. “And more so, it was something the parents could do with them. My parents were like, ‘Oh my God, how can I help my kids too?'”

Dana Speller, whose daughter has studied under Walker for the past two years, said Walker has not let the technology get in the way of putting her students — and their parents — at ease.

“She has put a tremendous amount of time and effort into not just making sure that the kids are comfortable, but us as parents are comfortable as well with the transition,” Speller said. “She was able to provide so many materials, websites, and outlets for us as parents to go to in these crazy times we’re dealing.”

Walker said one parent tried to pay her for the board she made for their child.

“I told them, ‘Your child is my obligation,'” Walker said. “A lot of our parents on the island don’t have their own transportation, so when we got our work, we would drop them off at their house just to make sure they had it and they were very appreciative. I’m a parent and I know how it is for them.”

Walker said she found teacher workshops over the past year to be helpful. These workshops helped teachers identify different educational websites they could incorporate into their teaching. That also allowed them to pass that information along to parents too.

“I never met a teacher who did so much to make sure the kids were learning at home and at school,” Baldwin said. “She is wonderful. Even at the beginning when we were doing school virtually, she was helping us log in. She was very helpful. She was right on top of it. When things got stressful, you can get overwhelmed at the moment, but she gets you right back. She knows it’s teamwork and we’re all working together.”

Speller agreed.

“Ms. Walker is everything you want your child’s teacher to be,” she said. “She’s good at teaching and makes it fun for them, so they’re always engaged. She has had my daughter engaged all around.”

Another educational board created by Kierra Walker. Photo courtesy of Kierra Walker.

Walker has taken her educational boards concept to start Tumbles of Fun, which makes educational boards and educational resources for children along with social learning events.

A comment Walker made in a Stories of Atlantic City Facebook post seems to sum up why her parents feel the way they do about their teacher:

“Our commitment is to our students, and we must continue to use our creativity to help deliver the best instruction,” Walker said in the post. “It is our duty to help these children further develop their education despite this pandemic. Do not lose sight of why we chose this profession! We are all in this together.”

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