Third-grade teacher hosts virtual hangouts

Dayton, Ohio – Dayton public schools have been closed for weeks, but Aja Haywood hasn’t lost touch with some of her students.

The third-grade teacher at Westwood Elementary School in West Dayton said change can be difficult for kids, and she wants to be there for her pupils following a year marred by disruption and turmoil.

With the school district on a coronavirus-related break, Haywood has been hosting regular virtual hangouts with her students to check in and make sure they are doing OK.

“This is not instructional based ― this is just me checking on my babies,” she said.

During this challenging year, Daytonians have persevered and helped one another out. Throughout the month of December, the Dayton Daily News is telling the stories of individuals who have inspired others, a series called Inspire Dayton.

Haywood was nominated for recognition by her mother, Darlene Ingram, who says her oldest daughter goes “above and beyond” for her students.

“She is very dedicated to her children ― she loves them,” Ingram said. “She has kept in touch with her children … because she feels they need that connection.”

Right now, Haywood is quarantined at home because her daughter tested positive for the coronavirus and she’s been feeling ill.

But that hasn’t stopped her from being there for her students ― even if it’s not face to face.

Due to rapid growth in COVID-19 cases, Dayton Public Schools is on an extended holiday break through early January.

The schools shut down a few weeks ago, and there is no virtual instruction taking place.

But Haywood is hosting weekly online check-in sessions with her students using a Google platform. She calls them “Haywood hangouts.”

Haywood shares materials for students to review and practice to keep them engaged. She’s worried about learning loss during this break, similar to the dreaded “summer slide.”

But Haywood largely uses the hangouts to try to see how her students are doing and gauge their social and emotional well-being.

Recently, Haywood spent about 45 minutes listening to one of her students talk about a video game. The boy was thrilled to tell Haywood everything he knows about Fortnite.

Haywood said her big takeaway was he’s doing well at home and seems happy, healthy and safe.

Haywood said the most rewarding part of teaching is the connections and relationships she develops with kids and their families.

However, relationship-building is more tricky through the computer screen, since learning has migrated online, she said.

Haywood and other educators had to learn a whole new way of teaching because of the pandemic, said Ingram, her mother.

Fortunately, she said, Haywood is very creative and devoted, and she put the time and work into navigating this new learning environment.

Haywood is a very outgoing, caring and giving, and that is reflected in how she approaches her work, her mother said.

“One time, she sat in a hospital with a little girl for hours because they couldn’t get a hold of the mother,” Ingram said. “The kids are like her children.”

Ingram said she wishes she had a teacher like Haywood when she was growing up.

Haywood said she, as well as some of her colleagues, spent the summer teaching themselves to use and get more comfortable with online tools and platforms.

She said teachers in the district deserve a ton of credit for how much they’ve had to adapt and what they’ve been able to accomplish.

“Dayton doesn’t get enough recognition for its teachers and the work that they do,” Haywood said. “I work with some amazing people … they can literally out-teach any other district.”

Right now, Haywood is quarantining at her Vandalia home with her family.

Her 18-year-old daughter, Jaden, tested positive for the virus. Haywood developed a fever and has struggled with exhaustion.

So far, her husband, Jackson Haywood, and her 15-year-old daughter, Ashland, have not shown any symptoms.

Haywood is still meeting with her kids online, but she wishes she wasn’t stuck at home. She says she’d rather be out in the community, lending a helping hand.

“For me, it’s the timing, being around the holidays, and knowing there are people in need and hurting and I can’t go out to help them,” she said.

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