Perseverance in the Pandemic: Krystle Ragusa driven by a love for her students
(BCSD video by Dan Michener - firstname.lastname@example.org)
Published on Thursday, Jan. 6, 2022
BCSD photos / Monica Kreber
When it comes to talking about teaching in the pandemic, “chaos” is not an uncommon word to hear from any teacher.
In Berkeley County School District, the journey began with teachers having to teach solely online when everything shut down in March 2020. The challenge continued the following school year when teachers provided instruction both in-person and online.
While everyone is back in the school buildings this year, those struggles have not necessarily gone away; ongoing problems include finding someone to cover a classroom when a teacher has to go into quarantine, or continuing to find ways to reach students whenever they have to learn from home as well.
Krystle Ragusa works in special services at H.E. Bonner Elementary, and recently shared what the pandemic has been like for, her from a teacher’s perspective.
Fighting a stigma
Ragusa is originally from New York. She went to SUNY at New Paltz and has a Bachelor’s Degree in childhood education and a Master’s Degree in elementary special education.
When she was in high school, one of her graduation requirements was to volunteer with an organization, and Ragusa found one that supported teenagers and adults with special needs. Ragusa dove into it and learned special needs was her niche – “and never looked back.”
She has always had a heart for children, particularly the younger ones.
“It’s cliché, but I’ve always wanted to help kids,” she said, adding, “Their spirits are so high and so lively and I feel like I can make a difference in their life…I just felt that was where my heart was.”
When she graduated college the job market was pretty tough; she taught in various substitute roles but took a hiatus from teaching to work for her family’s dental office. Eventually she and her husband were looking to relocate, and were already familiar with the Charleston area after visiting family down south many times.
She is now in her sixth year at H.E. Bonner Elementary. Her class is cross categorical, and within that is a range of disabilities. Ragusa works with students who have autism, health impairments, mild intellectual abilities and medical disabilities, among other situations.
There is often a stigma behind the terms “special needs” or “special services” but Ragusa can promise: once someone finds a personal connection to it, they can see that a disability does not define a child.
And Ragusa loves her students as if they are her own.
“Yes, my students have their challenges that they face, but it’s more…they just need a different way to learn, and it’s finding that way and how to teach them,” she said. “Just because a student has to learn a different style, a different way, it doesn’t take away from who they are.”
‘A lot of chaos’
Talking about the pandemic's effects on her class last year stirs up a lot of hard memories for Ragusa, who is mom herself to two small children who were 1 and 5 years old at the time everything shut down.
Ragusa described teaching virtually as “a lot of chaos.”
“It was a lot of re-learning,” she said. “It was a lot of late nights. It was a lot of…struggling to find a balance.”
That mention of finding balance is enough to get Ragusa emotional.
“It was hard,” she said. “You have your school family – the kids that become your kids – but you also have your family…It was hard finding that balance because you have to make sure you love your family as well as the school families."
“It truly takes a village,” Ragusa said. “It takes amazing people around you and I’m grateful for the team that I (have).”
For students with special needs, teaching virtually is not necessarily the best method, Ragusa said. It worked for some students when everything shut down in March 2020, but for others it was not ideal.
“Especially when it came to teaching social skills – how do you teach social skills virtually?” Ragusa said.
Fast forward to the start of the 2020-2021 school year when teachers had to teach both virtually and in-person simultaneously.
“You had some online and then you had some in-person, and it’s a brand new ballgame, and that was another challenge,” Ragusa said.
While many school employees would agree this current school year is definitely easier than last year, teachers still have to teach online when need be, whether it is because a student is in quarantine, the teacher is in quarantine, or the teacher has his/her own child that is in quarantine.
Ragusa herself started off the year in quarantine and had to start teaching a brand new class (with some returning students) virtually.
“Trying to establish a routine virtually for a brand new class…that was definitely not something that was easy,” she said.
Ragusa also found herself “re-teaching” a lot of her students’ social and behavioral skills, which was another challenge. Those skills are sort of the fundamentals of learning for Ragusa’s students because it sets them up to learn everything else in class.
“If I didn’t…re-teach them how to love themselves, how to make friends, how to talk to people appropriately, I couldn’t teach their numbers and letters and grammar if they couldn’t build on those skills,” she said.
Ragusa’s class has evolved a lot since the start of the year, but getting there required her to take a step back and remember the “why” behind her becoming a teacher. Ragusa’s students started doing a lot of arts-integrated lessons and crafts, and once her students re-discovered their love of learning, things started rolling again.
A beyond-the-clock job
Ragusa attributes a lot of the success in her classroom to the family atmosphere found at H.E. Bonner Elementary.
“Bonner really is like a little family,” she said, adding, “It’s an amazing community and that just speaks on the eagerness of the kids to come back. …The love in this building is just contagious.”
Ragusa sports a big smile when she talks about how much she loves her students; she loves their hearts, their playfulness, and seeing that “lightbulb” moment that just about any other teacher can also attest to.
“Teachers are in this profession for the children,” she said. “We are here to try and make them become kinder, smarter, more independent, and that is not an easy task to endeavor.”
Ragusa said teaching is a “beyond-the-clock” job. Even when teachers are not working, they are constantly thinking about their students.
“Your heart truly has to be into it,” she said. “We are doing this for our children, for the families – not for ourselves. This is a profession that is, to me, very selfless."
“Teachers are passionate about what they do,” she added. “They spend hours in the classroom – they spend hours beyond the classroom – researching, taking professional development…just trying to find ways to best teach our children.”