Learning in the time of Kitsap’s pandemic pods

If there’s one thing this pandemic has pushed us all to do these last months, it’s adapt, adapt, adapt. We’re a coworking space, not a school. And yet, we feel the strain of schools being closed deep in our bones. After all, those of us who come here to work aren’t just entrepreneurs, freelancers, consultants, business owners and remote workers—many of us are parents, as well, doing our the very best we can to keep head above water at home, at work and with our families.

That’s what drove us to team up with Crabtree Kitchen + Bar this last August, dreaming up a solution in record time that would help Vibe members and Crabtree Brands staff members find a ray of relief in being able to get out of the house, get some uninterrupted work done, and give their kids in grades K – 8 a clean, safe and supported space to learn in the company of peers.

Tutoring + Remote Learning at The Centennial would never be possible, however, without the dedication and incredible adaptability of the Lead Tutor running it, however. Which is exactly why we sat down with Melissa Wheeler to hear more about what the experience has been like thus far, as an educator and parent, and for the kiddos.


Get us going, Ms. Wheeler. What’s your backstory?

Melissa: My family moved to Poulsbo in the 1960s. I grew up hearing how this is one of the most beautiful places in the world, but I wasn’t convinced. Once I finished high school, I left to explore a few other places, starting with college in Idaho. 

I received my Bachelor’s degree in Communication Arts from BYU-Idaho.  I earned tuition by working on the college newspaper as the photography editor and managing editor. After graduating, I relocated to San Francisco, CA to work at a public relations agency and then to Savannah, GA to work in marketing at the Savannah College of Art and Design. That is where I reconnected with my love for education. 

But I was heartsick for the Pacific Northwest and my family in Poulsbo. We moved back to Idaho, added two boys to our family and, in 2017, packed up and moved to Poulsbo. My husband is from the Bay Area, so Washington is new to him. However, he loves mountain biking and kiteboarding so he’s quickly adjusted. My boys miss having snowy winters, but love all the trees and beaches here.

Tell us more about your path into education. What do you love most about teaching?

Melissa: I’ve always enjoyed working with children—they are so bright and joyful. After my boys were born, I volunteered as a Cub Scout den leader and conducted  the children’s choir at my church. 

When my youngest son began school, I completed training to become a certified guest teacher at Central Kitsap School District. The training convinced me that I was on the right track.

I’m also very passionate about art and music, so I began volunteering as an Art Docent and coordinating the art program at Poulsbo Elementary School, as well as teaching music at Central Kitsap Montessori Preschool.

At the end of the day, I love helping children connect the dots in learning. Seeing their faces light up when something that was once confusing suddenly makes sense is one of my favorite things.

Holding ‘school’ in a restaurant is unusual to say the least. What were some of your first thoughts when you were offered the opportunity to be the Lead Tutor for the tutoring program at The Centennial?  

Melissa: When I first heard about ‘school’ held in a restaurant, I thought it was the perfect solution for so many problems. Not only is the otherwise vacant space being used, but children have the opportunity to socialize and connect in a safe environment. They aren’t as isolated, and that seems to help them feel less overwhelmed. I’m so grateful to be a part of it and that my kids can join in, too.

So what’s it like? Describe to us a “day in the life” of tutoring at The Centennial.

Melissa: Because my own kids are also participating in the tutoring program, my day starts with getting my boys to help me haul all our gear out of the car—their laptops and school books, as well as brain break activities to have available for all of the kids to do. Thankfully, my sons are really good at remembering their masks, which is a requirement for the tutoring program.

Before entering Crabtree Kitchen + Bar, where our tutoring sessions are held, everyone makes a mandatory stop at the restrooms to wash their hands with soap and water.

After everyone has washed their hands, we head into the Garden Room, our tutoring home, where we’re greeted with additional hand sanitizer, sanitizer spray and disposable masks that we use liberally as needed. Each student picks where to sit for the day. There are six long tables, with room for two children to sit six feet apart from each other at each table. On a typical day, we have 6 – 8 students total.

The Garden Room is beautiful. It’s a peaceful, closed door space with large, light filled windows all around it, including high ceilings punctuated by half a dozen sky lights. Designed as a private event space for dining, the acoustics are incredible, perfectly softening the sound of eager student voices.

Before parents head over to Vibe Coworks or Crabtree Brands to work, they write their child’s schedule on a large whiteboard that’s placed at the end of their child’s table, and we have a quick verbal chat to discuss any goals for the day. The whiteboards help me keep everyone on task, and allow me to track notes for the parents about things like missing supplies, or problems locating an online assignment, etc. If anything more urgent comes up, we use the Vibe Slack workspace or text messages to communicate quickly.

When the kids get settled in, they know right what to do. They slip on headphones and quickly log on for live lessons with their teachers. If you were to walk into the room, you might be surprised by how quiet it starts out, with everyone actively tuned into their respective Zoom classes. While they interact with their teachers, I review schedules, take note of break times to coordinate an outdoor recess, and organize activities at the Brain Break station. 

So long as they are seated at their table, the students may remove their masks. Then, when they need to move around the room, they are required to slip them back on. We have a few students who love to remind others when they forget. They’ve all made a game out of trying to catch each other needing a reminder. 

A little after 9am, the first student finishes their live lesson. I help them transition to their first assignment. As more students finish, the room comes alive with page flipping, scissor cutting, humming and typing. 

Most of the children’s teachers have scheduled breaks in for them. While they’re on break, kids in the younger grades love to pick books off the shelf and read with me, or read to themselves if I’m helping another student. They also love the art and lego station. The older kids are more drawn to the brain teasers, puzzles, drawing and lego bricks. 

Everyone loves when we can finally go out to Centennial Park for a break. They run, climb trees, explore the creek, find bugs, roll down the hill. They act like it’s more fun than any man-made play structure. Before returning to our restaurant classroom, we ride the elevator up to wash our hands with soap and water. 

The kids run, hop and skip back to their work stations. I check in with each student to make sure they are transitioning from break back to their online class or assignments. Often, avoidance of an assignment is a signal to me that a student has questions or doesn’t understand their assignment. I spend time helping them overcome whatever the challenge is. 

Another challenge, especially with younger grades, is that the child doesn’t want to do school any more for the day. So we usually start by looking at what the teacher is asking them to do. If I sit with them, they will usually get involved again. Sometimes, they need a 5 minute break. I try to bribe them to finish their tasks before taking the break, but sometimes they just need a break. 

As the day winds to a close, I encourage the kids who have finished their work to begin cleaning up their station. Along with packing up supplies, we  disinfect the tables and clean up our brain break station. 

When their parents come, I share with them the highs and lows (if there are any) from the day. I try to let them know what was accomplished and what still needs to be completed. We also discuss any technology difficulties or other concerns. 

You now have nearly two months of ‘virtual schooling life’ under your belt. How does it compare to what you’d expected?

Melissa: I  wasn’t sure what to expect at first. I mean—virtual learning during a pandemic at a restaurant! I trusted that we would roll with the punches, learning and growing together. So far, that’s how it’s worked out.  At first, every day was different. I had to learn 5+ different online school platforms. The students’ teachers were tweaking and adjusting their lessons and technology, making changes along the way.

But now that we’re several weeks into it, the students and I all know what to expect (for the most part!). Unlike a classroom, I am not teaching to a whole group. Instead, I am teaching each individual as they have questions and need some additional help beyond what their teacher can provide to them virtually.

Similar to a classroom setting, I rotate between children, assessing where they are with tasks and checking in to see if they need help. I enjoy getting to know each individual and being able to provide them with extra support for learning.

As part of the tutoring program here at The Centennial, you’ve supported kids from seven different schools and three districts, all of whom have very different learning platforms, approaches and schedules. Tell us about some of the things you’ve observed: what’s working? What’s not?  

Melissa: The kids are amazingly resilient and have adapted quickly to each different situation. I am, however, seeing advantages to a few different approaches. The students who attend Catalyst Public Schools, for example, are online with their class live for the entire four-hour tutoring session, while students from most all of the other schools that typically have 2-3 scheduled Zoom sessions throughout the day. The approach that Catalyst has taken seems to be really beneficial for the younger grades, who need more guidance.

I’m also a fan of the schools / teachers that are having students complete paper worksheets instead of only doing online activities. Doing it on paper gives kids a break from the screen and also practice with their writing skills. 

Having access to the teacher is really key. The schools making that possible seem to have less frustrated students (and parents… and tutors!)

What is something you’ve seen teachers doing during this pandemic teaching experience that you hope they will keep doing when students are physically back in the classroom?

Melissa: Just continuing to be aware of each child’s emotional and mental health.

What do you miss most about teaching in a traditional classroom? 

Melissa: I miss the smiles that aren’t covered by masks. I also miss how fun it is to not worry about the pandemic while interacting with each other.

What do you miss most about having your kids in school? 

Melissa: I’m sad they aren’t with their friends. And I miss being able to focus 100 percent on adulting tasks without being interrupted every two minutes.

The mental load of all of this is so tough. For all of us. What are some of the things that you are helping you to stay grounded and continue to persevere, both as a parent, and as a teacher/tutor?  

Melissa: One of the greatest challenges for me is going home after tutoring and still needing to “teach” my own kids 1-2 hours more of school work after school at Crabtree—all while balancing my other adulting tasks. 

Taking time for my health is key. I can’t help them if I’m burnt out. I need exercise before I can pick it up and run on for the rest of the day—even if it’s just a quick 20 minute walk. The load is still heavy, but it’s so much heavier when I’m not taking care of myself. 

I’m also learning to manage my expectations and prioritize the most important tasks. We do what we can for the day, call it good and move forward. I wish we could do it all, but it’s not possible right now. I’m learning to be okay with that and focus on celebrating with the kids what they can do and accomplish. 

What are you learning about yourself as an educator during this time? As a parent? 

Melissa: Children are so joyful—even when life is crazy around us. This experience continues to teach me how to find joy, despite challenging times. The kids still laugh, play, joke and have fun. They are going to school during an incredibly stressful time, yet they continue to smile and play.

What advice would you give to other parents who are juggling online schooling and the demands of work and life? 

Melissa: Talk with your student’s teachers and find where concessions can be made. I’ve found that most teachers believe that this shouldn’t be a stressful experience. They are willing to work with families to make learning possible without overwhelming families. Figure out what your child enjoys about school and what is causing extra stress. My younger son was struggling with typing so his teacher gave him permission to record his answer via the microphone on his computer.