The pandemic has caused historic disruption to education, and many students are struggling. KUNR Youth Media alum Janelle Olisea is a senior at the Academy of Arts, Careers and Technology in Reno. She sits down with her English teacher Mr. Greg Burge. They open up to each other about how they’ve been working to push through some of the challenges and reflect on a few rewarding moments along the way.
Janelle Olisea: What was going through your head when you were trying to figure out how to teach? I can’t imagine what was happening. Just tell me about trying to figure out how this was going to work.
Greg Burge: My main concern at that point in time was just, are kids okay, because there were some kids that weren’t. We wanted to make sure that kids were okay because we were starting to get lots of kids in crisis and realizing how much some students rely on school as a place to not just learn but to eat, to get some kind of social help, to get some sort of outside-of-their family guidance that they weren’t getting. I was more just concerned about my fellow human beings, and I was kind of glad to have a job where I could at least feel like I was trying to reach out and help some people in crisis.
Olisea: Yeah. I mean, when you’re put into this unprecedented situation, sometimes grades and everything else that comes with school isn’t really your main concern. Sometimes it’s just surviving, trying to figure out what your next step is. It’s a year into this pandemic. I lost part of my junior year, and my senior year is basically non-existent, and my experience as a hybrid student has just been such a drastic shift in my education. I’m so used to coming to school every day, forming relationships with my peers and my teachers. It’s weird. It’s definitely something that you don’t really prepare for in any way. You just kind of have to go with it.
Burge: I got to say working with you, kiddo, this year has been one of the most rewarding things that I’ve done. We would meet and talk about your, not essays for my class, but your essays that you’re using to get into colleges and get scholarships and all those kinds of things. It gave me a lot of hope to see that people still cared about learning in the midst of all this craziness that we’re going through. It gave me a little sense of like, ‘Okay, I can still teach. I can work with a kid.’ That’s what I want to do, and so I’m really grateful to you for coming to me and letting me do a little bit of that, too, and make it feel like, ‘Oh, yeah, I’m still a teacher.’ That felt good.
Olisea: I never wanted to bother you so much when I was doing my college and scholarship essays because I know teachers are just going through it this year. It’s just so difficult, just adapting to everything, but you would always remind me like, ‘This is why I do what I do.’
Burge: One thing that I think you guys are going to have is the ability to deal with crisis, which I’ve got to say is probably the number one skill that you need to survive college or anything after high school, right? You guys might be missing out on a few things or a few books, but those books will be there. You can go read those books. You can go learn that skill. That’s what college is for. You go continue your education. But the things that you guys are learning, the survival skills and the ability to withstand disappointments and to make amazing progress in that disappointment. I think when we look historically, we look at our nation, or we look at the world in general, people who survive are strong. You guys are becoming strong, so I have a lot of faith that you guys are going to be awesome in college.
Olisea: Thank you. I appreciate that. I reached out to you the first week of school. As soon as we got to hybrid learning, I was like, ‘Mr. Burge. Hi, you don’t know me, but I really want to apply to college. I want scholarships.’ I just became super motivated. When I was stuck at home, I was like, ‘There’s nothing else I can do. I might as well make the most out of this situation.’ I started applying for college in July. At the same time, it was super overwhelming for me. I was just trying to figure out everything with my future, with everything going on. It’s weird to think about the future when you don’t even know what’s going to happen tomorrow. I got a full ride to Stanford.
Burge: Yes, you did. Most of the work that we did was over Zoom or over the computer, so you don’t have to apologize for taking up my time. Just being able to work with kids, with their writing and with their goals is what I love to do. It gave me hope that there’s something beyond this for you guys, but for me, too.
Olisea: It's been a journey for both of us.
This story was produced by KUNR’s Anh Gray.
KUNR's Jayden Perez adapted this story for the web.
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