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“Online Education is not for me” - US high school teacher's experience of teaching in lockdown

When COVID spread, schools went online everywhere. One US high school teacher shares the lessons she's learnt from online teaching and homeschooling a teenager

 

Leading up to lockdown, schools in limbo

March 13th is when schools in Michigan -- where I'm from - closed, March 13th is when the schools here in Washington State closed, although this is where some of the first outbreaks happened. There were three weeks when the governor was trying to decide how bad this was. It felt a little delayed. In hindsight, these were the weeks when we could have been doing things we didn't.

The first outbreaks were in retirement communities. One was about 25 minutes from us. For a while, it felt pretty confined. There was this sense of "Let's try to maintain normalcy". When we closed, to our knowledge, there was not a case in our school.

The two weeks leading up to the school closure, that was a weird, upsetting time in its own right.

The two weeks leading up to the school closure, that was a weird, upsetting time in its own right. We would come to our classrooms, and it was clear that the custodians had disinfected them. Every desk was covered with this spray. There was liquid under the keyboard. I had papers pinned on the wall behind my desk.

One day, I came in, and they were dry, but they'd been wet. I asked the custodian how on earth that had happened. He said that they gave them the same type of spray canisters that you use for weed-killer. You strap it on your back, and you're spraying, it's not precisely fine-tuned. He was in a mask. We were more concerned about touching the chemicals. It was kind of gross. I didn't want the kids to touch the desk.

Then we started noticing. We have a 60% White student population, 40% minority, most of whom are Asian-American. Two weeks to a week before we closed, Asian parents started pulling their kids out of high school. They were the ones whose parents work in China and were flying back and forth. They could see what was happening there, and they could tell things were going to get worse.

Then the school closed. We were told: "Don't do anything for two weeks. Give us time to put together a plan".

COVID and Teaching high-school online
Kate Kelly teaches Advanced Placement history at a high school in the Seattle urban area. When lockdown started In Washington State in March, her job changed radically. /Credit Kate Kelly

I teach Advanced Placement US history. These are the classes students can take in high school that give them college credit. The message we were getting from College Board, which is the organisation that sponsors these for-credit tests, was "We're still testing in May either in person or online". From my perspective in March, I was thinking "I can't wait two weeks!" I'd only got up to the Roaring Twenties. I still had to get through the Cold War, and ideally, I was supposed to get through the Clinton-Bush era.

 

In uncertain times, give students structure 

I started to put together a calendar of activities with reading assignments and activities that were modified so they could do them on their own. I told my students: "I understand what the district is saying, but we don't get out of school on June 23rd, we get out on May 8th!" Most of my students were participatory, but nothing that we did then was counted for a grade.

Then we got guidelines regarding how we were supposed to conduct an online class. The policy was called "Do no harm". Each teacher could do what they felt they needed to do. We were expected to give 2-3 assignments per week and to report students who were not engaging or participating, but we didn't take a roll call. Our activities could not last longer than 25 minutes a day, which was very challenging for me. 

I would put together a calendar or the week with activities each day. I would send it out on Sunday night for Monday morning. On Fridays, I would have two or three Zoom sessions. After the first month, I turned it into an option. They could either write a reflection on the given topic or come to class. I have students who would rather write any day of the week than talk to you, for others, it's the other way round.

I decided I was going to be over-communicative and over-organized

I always tried to make sure I had a structure. I got a lot of positive feedback for that from my students. They said a lot of teachers didn't do that and they appreciated that I said: "This is what we're going to do, this is when, and this is how".

I decided I was going to be over-communicative and over-organised. I sent a lot of emails to my students, communicating about the changes to the test. There were a lot of changes not just to my classroom environment but also to what we were preparing for.

 

The hidden cost of isolation 

The majority of the students adjusted quite well to the online experience, based on my experience as a teacher and also as a Mom. It doesn't mean they're adjusting well socially and emotionally.

A number of my students have diagnosed depression, emotional impairment disorders. Those were the ones who struggled and dropped off. They could not motivate themselves. The physical act of getting up and going to school was what was making them work. And of course, with the stress, a number of students shut down.

The students are saying: "We wish we could be back! "

I know from my daughter and others that the students are saying: "We wish we could be back." They miss the social interaction and the fun part of school. Seeing your friends, being involved in clubs, sporting events, dances. All the fun part of school, they don't have.

COVID and teaching high-school online
Because of COVID, schools all over the US and the world have moved online, in an unprecedented educational experiment. / Credit Churchill High school

There were many days when the work-life boundary was non-existent. The workload was high, ten to twelve-hour days. Previously, we'd report to the building around 7.30, and I'd leave around 4 pm. Now, I'd get up and work until 3 or 4 pm, but then instead of stopping, I'd feel there was still more to do. There wasn't that feeling that things could wait, because people needed information through email and you had to allow time for them to reply.

 

When homeschooling lifts the veil on education

We don't have a small home, but we don't have an office space, so my daughter taking online classes was a challenge. We were in different rooms, but I could hear her in the background. My daughter is going to be in 12th grade, her last year.

The biggest difference is realizing I know way too much about what goes on, and I need to step back, which is not natural or easy for me. She and I get along well, typically, but in the beginning, we had a lot of arguments. I'd say "Why aren't you working? You need to be working!"

Honestly, the thing that finally made it better was when I actually believed her when she told me "Mom, I don't get up in the morning like you do, but I will get it done later on in the day." I'm very much a morning person. So I was "OK, we'll try". There would be nights when she'd be doing algebra at 9 pm.

I don't know what it's like to have a teenager who isn't motivated. I'm fortunate to have a high school student. I can't imagine what it's like to the parent of an elementary school child and have to try and work and basically proctor homeschool.

A big challenge for me as a Mom was having her education right up in my face

A big challenge for me as a Mom was having her education right up in my face. I'm hearing in the background some of the videos she's watching; it's very immediate. Fortunately, I was, for the most part, pretty pleased with her teachers. I used to work as a waitress and did fine dining, and now when I go to restaurants, I have high standards. It's hard when you're a teacher to hear other teachers do video lessons, but I can't really judge.

A lot of parents around the country are struggling with that. People tend to take for granted what schools do. You send your kid to school, and they come back, and they know stuff, and it's magical. You think "Oh yeah, they're a good student", and then you hear their classes and you realize, "My kid's not a good student" or "My kid doesn't participate".

 

It's tougher being a good teacher online

My feedback was very positive this year. A lot of parents emailed me and thanked me for being organized and clear and communicative.

I got a Teacher of the Year Award this year, from the Parent-Teacher Association. Every year they ask parents and teachers to nominate teachers. I was one of the three teachers who got that award. It shows the extra effort paid off, and I really do like what I do so it's nice to get some appreciation for it.

One of the advantages of this happening in the spring was that I knew my students and could predict how each was going to react

One of the advantages of this happening in the spring was that I knew my students and could predict how each was going to react. The trouble now is I don't know my new students. It's hard to establish relationships in this type of format when you've got 30 kids in a class. It doesn't help that I'm going to be teaching Civics this year, which I've never taught before.

This fall, we're going to be one hundred percent remote, with no sense of a return date, like many of the school district's, depending on the state or region. I like to know what's happening but what this has taught us is that we don't know what will happen next so it would be naïve to make plans. I wouldn't be surprised if we were out for the entire first semester, which is way longer than most people say we should be.

Teaching high-school online
Many high schoolers have coped well with independent learning, but they miss their friends and the fun side of high school.

The teachers will be allowed to go into the building, so my plan is to go in every day and treat it as a normal work situation. We were assigned workplaces, which, in my case is my classroom. We have a set schedule.

Do I feel like I'm going to do an amazing job as an online teacher this fall? No, I do not! But I'm going to do the best I can do. That's going to have to be good enough. That's sad because I don't like doing that.

 

The battle between tech and teaching

Technology? I feel that every day there's a glitch. There was a lot of confusion in the beginning about what technology we were allowed to use. The district said Zoom was unsecure, so we'd be using it at our own risk, which I did.

Each teacher was required to have their own website, but this year we're going to move to a Learning Management System (LMS), so it's going to be a one-stop-shop for all classes. LMS, once you know it, it's amazing, apparently, but it's not intuitive. So I spend a lot of time trying to teach myself tech. Instead of training myself to teach Civics, I'm learning tech.

Instead of training myself to teach Civics, I'm learning tech

I'm not opposed to using tech in the classroom, but it always takes a back seat to content. That's why I'm going to go into the building every day too, because I have a desktop computer with a larger screen and I have access to my materials there.

 

What the online school experiment teaches us

I need to and want to go to work. I need my spatial structure; I miss the camaraderie with my coworkers; we have a nice building, and I miss that.

I'm an adviser for the Feminism club, and the kids in it are really nice, so I miss that too. The kids in that are really excited, and their enthusiasm is a really fun thing to witness.

Most people can be independent learners if you give them the chance

I miss space from my child, and she does from me.

One of the things I've learnt is that most people can be independent learners if you give them the chance. With many students, if you can get them interested in the subject, they can be much better at learning independently than we'd like to think. If you give people a choice and can foster curiosity, they can take it and go with it.

Also, as much as students complain about school, actually, they really like school. They miss their friends; they miss class; they miss having a structure. Education and being in school is something really important to them.

People tend to take for granted what schools do

The last thing I've learnt is that online learning is not for me. I can do it, but as soon as I don't have to, I'll go back to teaching the way I prefer. Now I absolutely know I don't like it.

Because of COVID, I've been thinking about the role that education plays in society. People say schools are important, but they don't think about the granular aspect of what schools and education do for kids and why it's important.