The hardest part for me through this whole thing is the inability to connect and have those relationships that I previously established. Texting and calling somebody is different. Being in a small community, I try to walk in the village six days a week so the kids out playing in the yard see me walking by, especially the younger kids. "Hey, it's Mr. Breckheimer.

Photos courtesy of Mike Breckheimer

Mike Breckheimer | Hilbert, WI

I grew up in Hilbert, Wisconsin, on a small dairy farm. I am number eight of nine kids. The majority of my siblings went on to work in the paper mills. I was the first to attend college.

Growing up, I always had a ball in my hand. I loved sports and was always very involved in athletics. I always knew I wanted to coach, even before I wanted to teach, but I was aware that teaching and coaching went hand-in-hand. The teachers and coaches I had growing up really inspired my vocation. Now, I coach both football and track and field in Hilbert and I am entering my 19th year of teaching Phy Ed.

We’re in a small school district where kindergartners through high school seniors are all on one campus. I am one of only two Phy Ed teachers in the whole district, so I teach a little over 240 different kids on any given day. One of my assets is knowing kids and understanding that everyone is different.

I see my students as they walk in the door, and I greet them every morning and I call them by name. I can see right away by the look on their face if they are having a good day, they’re not feeling well, whatever the case. Those relationships are a big thing for me: helping kids out, making a connection.

With quarantine, you lose a lot of that important, in-person interaction. For some of my older students, especially the athletes I coach, not only has school been taken away, but the physical outlet they used to have has also been taken away. When I was their age, sports and athletics were a huge passion of mine. When you take away somebody’s passion, it makes everything in their life more challenging. Exercise helps your mental state of being, not just your physical state.

The hardest part for me through this whole thing is the inability to connect and have those relationships that I previously established. Texting and calling somebody is different. Being in a small community, I try to walk in the village six days a week so the kids out playing in the yard see me walking by, especially the younger kids. “Hey, it’s Mr. Breckheimer.” We wave, we chit-chat from a distance. I think this helps add normalcy back in their life, like, “Well, he is doing what he normally does and he looks the same. He’s acting as goofy as he always does.

I'm a very active person. Between teaching Phy Ed and coaching, I'm rarely in a chair at a desk. I teach a little over 240 different students, kindergarten through high school, on any given day. When we went virtual, obviously everything changed.

One of the first challenges for me was I started sitting behind a computer, on Zoom for seven hours a day. For the young kids, formerly they’d come into my classroom, the radio was on, I’d greet them by name and they’d review the board that showed them what to do for the day. Going virtual, I tried to emulate that. I’d give very simple things to do using things around the house—going up and down stairs, hauling things. Or I used online resources where they follow along to a video. The feedback I got from parents was positive, because it got kids moving right away.

High school Phy Ed curriculum was a little more challenging. A lot of the kids wanted that physical outlet, especially the athletes that I work with. They needed things both to keep them positive and things to occupy their time. 

The first three weeks, it was a lot of one-on-one time, communicating with one person about what they had at home to use for resources to do home workouts. I had them take pictures of things laying around their yard; tree stumps, wheelbarrows, rocks, whatever. I could say, “Okay, use this to do this exercise,” in some creative, Neanderthal way.

I’m teaching summer school now, and I’m always in a mask. We’re constantly using disinfectant and hand sanitizer. Only 10 kids or less at a time. They are always working with the same people. We’re maintaining social distance. So we’re doing things differently, but trying to create some level of normalcy for ourselves and the kids, which is very important.

Our district has not made a decision as to what we’re going to do come fall. The students are either all in, completely virtual, or what we’re calling “blended.” Currently, we’re focusing on what the blended part looks like because we haven’t done that before. How would it work balancing kids coming in and coming out and what does bussing and transportation look like, because we’re very rural. So it’s a wait and see. No decision has been made, but we’re preparing. My hope is that we can all get back into the building and have the face-to-face interaction again. I think kids need that. I need that. The mental health of the students in our community is my biggest concern.

-Mike Breckheimer | Hilbert, WI

Mike’s story is part of Love Wisconsin’s Covid-19 series. Through this series we are featuring shorter stories to offer a time capsule into life in Wisconsin during this extraordinary time.

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