A rumor is making its way around the fourth grade that Cottonwood Elementary School teacher, Kayla Williams, once worked as a Disneyland princess. Although untrue, it’s not completely unfounded. The self-proclaimed Disney fanatic’s effervescence and sparkling smile could easily inspire such talk, not to mention she takes vocational advice from the “practically perfect” Mary Poppins.

“In every job that must be done there is an element of fun,” she says, repeating the lyric from Disney’s favorite nanny. “I like the challenge of helping kids find the fun. I try to think like they do when approaching a new concept. I love it when I see that spark and I know I’ve reached them.”

Seeing that spark is much more challenging when teaching students online, however. Williams is one of 40,000 Utah teachers who taught students in-person as well as online during an uncertain 2020–2021 school year. 

“It’s been tough trying to adapt things for online learning and make sure remote kids have felt included,” she says, conceding that it’s also a great deal more work. “I really felt for the teachers who spent most of the year teaching online exclusively. It’s not easy to motivate students or recognize their level of understanding over a computer.”

Williams says so much of teaching involves reading and responding to unspoken cues. Often a student’s body language lets her know something isn’t clicking so that she can try a different approach.

Principal of Cottonwood Elementary School, Kayla Mackay, says teachers were asked with little notice to incorporate online students into their existing daily teaching routine. 

Tracking online students in addition to traditional classroom students has been incredibly challenging for her teachers, Mackay says, “but they have done a remarkable job.”

Parents in Williams’s classroom, like Jayne Pahnke, think so, too. “Ms. Williams always seems to be going the extra mile, especially this year, giving her free time and resources for kids during an erratic and scary time for them.” Fourth-grade student Hannah Tate agrees. “I count the seconds until school starts,” she says. 


This story is part of our series on coronavirus heroes. Read all of them here.