For Cathy Cluck, a high school history teacher in Austin, Texas, laughter is the best lesson. Cathy works with teenagers and finds it fun watching them develop their unique strengths and personalities. They’re at an age where she can connect with them using her own sense of humor. The past year has proven that even during a global pandemic, a little laughter and creativity can transform history class from a weekday chore to a daily adventure.
Making the most of a difficult situation
When in-person learning shut down, Cathy, like most other teachers, was at a loss. Not only did she now have to rely on mics, screens, and emails to prepare her students for their exams, but she also had to navigate the hurdles of distance and technology to forge those all-important personal connections.
But, instead of looking at the pandemic as an obstacle to education, Cathy managed to make it a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. In the summer of 2020, while brainstorming ideas for how to get to know her incoming class remotely, Cathy realized that she could set up her virtual “classroom” anywhere. She just needed a good Wi-Fi connection and a strong pot of coffee. And if she wanted to make U.S. history lessons engaging to her students, maybe a cross-country road trip was an idea worth exploring.
It was a natural fit. Cathy loves to travel. And now that her classes were all online, her students could follow her anywhere her laptop went. With permission from the school’s principal and support from her colleagues, she hit the road in her SUV.
Embarking on the road trip of a lifetime
Cathy organized a 15-day road trip from Austin to the East Coast, stopping at historical landmarks along the way and video chatting her students from the sites of national monuments, revolutionary battlegrounds, and the birthplaces of famous political movements. From Washington, D.C. to Gettysburg to Montgomery, Alabama, Cathy’s travels became the hot topic of conversation. Every day, the excitement of “Where’s Ms. Cluck today?” revved her students up for a day of interactive learning. And when, inevitably, the trip left Cathy between landmarks, in the middle of nowhere, she took the opportunity to spend time with her students the same way she would in school—telling stories, cracking jokes, and watching their personalities come to life.
When her journey brought her to New York City, Cathy, an avid Hamilton fan, showed her students what she considers to be the nerdier side of her personality with a lesson on the famous duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. Video chatting them from Weehawken, Cathy took the moment to showcase what excites her about history, music, and theater. Cathy took the trip as an opportunity not only to teach American history, but to show her students the importance of being your authentic self.
It was, of course, more than a full-time job. In addition to planning lessons, video teaching, and grading papers, Cathy was spending hours on the road every night en route to her next destination. As an unexpected upside, the trip gave Cathy some much-needed time for self-reflection. In a year of isolation and uncertainty, Cathy’s cross-country journey showed her how every person, from curious students to national park rangers to the cashier at the fast food drive-thru where she stopped for dinner, is just looking for a moment of connection.
Moving forward post-pandemic
Cathy is proud of how far teachers have come in facilitating their students’ growth during the pandemic. Every day, despite the challenges, teachers keep showing up and inspiring their students to work hard and think creatively. Her own idea was so crazy, Cathy admits, she wasn’t even sure it would work. But it was a risk worth taking. Without the guardrails of in-person learning, she was able to think outside the box and bring a little joy to a school year that promised anything but.
Cathy had entered the 2020-21 school year considering retirement. After 28 years as a teacher, she thought maybe her days in the classroom had come to an end. But after completing her great American road trip, Cathy now knows that there’s nowhere she’d rather be than with her students. It may have been through a screen last year, but soon enough, Cathy can’t wait to get back in front of the blackboard and inspire her students to take risks, think on their feet, and express their personalities with every curveball life throws at them.