Between creating new lessons, recording lectures, responding to student messages and trying to find the balance between work and home life, high school teachers are essentially students again, learning how to teach in a virtual world.
All Catholic schools in Arkansas switched to Alternative Methods of Instruction by March 16 and while many hoped for the best by mid-April, the threat of spreading COVID-19 led Gov. Asa Hutchinson to close Arkansas public schools to on-site instruction for the rest of the school year. Superintendent Theresa Hall with approval from Bishop Anthony B. Taylor followed suit with the Catholic schools.
“We all feel like we’re first-year, first-week teachers again,” said Catholic High School principal Steve Straessle. “We’re not sure about pace, whether it’s not enough material or too much. It’s challenging. Every teacher feels that way.”
Straessle, who also teaches an American Government and Politics class, said while it’s an adjustment, every teacher’s goal should still be the same — providing the best education for their students.
Carrie Burkhead, technology and media specialist for Mount St. Mary Academy in Little Rock who also teaches multimedia, said when MSM closed March 13, per the governor’s orders for Pulaski County at the time, there was hope that following spring break, they might be back in the classroom.
“After spring break panic hit. It was a very panicky, very sad week after spring break,” she said. “ … I did training at school, it was not required,” for teachers to learn more on how to record lessons and other tips for virtual learning.
Since then, she has remotely been responsible for any technology troubleshooting for both teachers and students. Problems can range from connectivity to a student breaking a device or adjusting volume and recording capabilities on Zoom and Google Meet.
For MSM students in the Junior Service Learning Program, about 120 videos were created of the students reading children’s books and shared to MSM service sites and letters were sent electronically to patients and residents at other service sites who cannot receive visitors.
“They took it and ran with it,” Burkhead said of virtual volunteering. “... It’s just being a part of the community and to keep uplifting spirits.”
Creative lessons are key in keeping it positive and engaging for students.
CHS physical education and health teacher Chip Reeves, also an assistant football coach, has his students check in on Zoom while he monitors their exercise regimens. Each day, a name of a CHS teacher is drawn, and letters are associated with the workouts. For example, M can stand for 15 decline push-ups and L, 15 lunges for each leg. Students may wear a backpack to add resistance.
“I can watch their technique and make sure they’re getting low enough … I like being able to see them, making sure they’re dressed properly,” he said, adding if a student doesn’t show up, he can simply call their parents who have been entirely supportive.
While not every student has weights at home, he’s improvised, having them lift gallons of milk or water.
Angie Mancia, who teaches religion and humane letters at Ozark Catholic Academy in Tontitown, said teachers have had continued faculty development through video conferences, hearing from speakers and incorporating new apps and programs into their classes in addition to their traditional methods of teaching. Mancia has used Kahoot!, where students can play fun learning games and quizzes as a group or against each other, while also using it for study purposes or assignments. Quizizz is similar, but more formal and both have kept students engaged, she said.
“I just think having a lot of screen time is difficult in itself and it’s an adjustment that we’re making,” Mancia said. “We want to make sure we’re keeping students motivated and interested in school even when their environment has changed.”
Though nothing could beat hands-on science experiments, MSM biology, environmental science and chemistry teacher Robin Johnson said projects have continued. For example, for her chemistry class energy unit, the students found food labels in their home, calculating the energy from certain compounds like carbohydrates and making a Google presentation. She also polled her students, who agreed they wanted to continue with the virus unit.
“We’re going to go at it with the current situation with COVID-19, but instead of reinventing the wheel, there’s so many resources people have put together that are tried and true.”
Robinson added that while it’s a challenge for teachers, having the students acclimate to learning in a virtual world will help them in the long run, whether it’s online college classes or understanding how to use video conferencing in their careers.
Because many of the Catholic high schools have used Google Classroom for years, the learning curve wasn’t drastic, but for teachers, more a new way of thinking.
“‘How do I do a math class virtually, how do I do an art class. It was just that shift,” Burkhead said. “A lot of them were a little afraid to go this route and didn’t want anything to go wrong.”
Dr. Karen Ferrer, who teaches algebra at St. Joseph School in Conway, said missing that in-person interaction has been tough.
“I think the greatest challenge was to figure out how much work they could handle at home,” she said, while in the classroom “you have a captive audience in the room you can see their body language, mannerisms” and pick up on if students are lost easier.
Rather than teaching complicated concepts, she’s spent time reinforcing past lessons and snippets of new materials and used programs that can monitor a student’s work in real time so she knows what concepts might need more instruction.
“Be flexible,” she said to fellow teachers. “You may think you’re going to cover three chapters and you may find out you are able to cover less than one.”
Mary Eggart, who teaches English, religion and speech at Sacred Heart School in Morrilton, said they included Chromebooks for seventh-12th grade students for the first time this school year as part of their tuition and implemented Google Classroom.
“And thank God because I don’t know what we’d be doing,” Eggart said.
While the virtual room is second nature to most students, Eggart said, “I’ve essentially felt like for the most part I’ve had to relearn to teach in this environment,” and while there are many resources, teachers should be selective. “You can be up until four o’clock in the morning every night” looking through them all.
Beyond the teaching stresses, teachers have been adjusting to boundaries. Robinson admits that if a student texts for help on an assignment at 10:30 p.m., she’s apt to respond.
“I’m actually kind of doing a disservice to the kids. A college professor is not going to do that,” Robinson said. “I find myself working 24/7. Learn to draw boundaries around yourself and give yourself a little bit of a break; use those resources that are out there.”
But, like most teachers, it’s a hard line to draw because she misses her students.
“I got into education to hang out with teenagers because I really like them,” she said, missing the morning coffee hangouts in her classroom before classes started. “Those relationships you build with the kids you just want to hang onto it. For some kids, it was their outlet.”
Eggart, like Robinson, said boundaries are tough because there’s “no clear lines anymore. It’s always on my dining room table.”
“We’re all stuck at home finding balance between our families, between our classes and our students and our spouses and being away from church as well. It wears on you after a while,” Eggart said, adding it’s important to get outside and exercise.
Beyond academics, spiritual growth is still important for both teachers and students. On Holy Thursday, Ozark Catholic Academy participated in a virtual spiritual retreat led by Father Jason Sharbaugh, pastor of St. Thomas Aquinas University Parish in Fayetteville.
“It was important for me in that it also developed solidarity among us; kind of recentered us in a way. It’s really easy to not feel connected,” Mancia said, adding it’s important for teachers to remember their calling. “Just knowing that everything we offer up to God can be sanctified and can be for his glory. Whenever I kind of encounter frustrations due to my limitations or everything going on I sort of go back and think about that and that really helps me.”
Straessle said it’s important for everyone to remember why they became a teacher in the first place.
“You knew, even if you couldn’t articulate it at the time, you knew you were uniquely suited to interact with people, overcoming challenges, knowing there are going to be bad days but believing there’s always going to be more good days,” he said, believing the positive impact they can make on the students and in the world. “That is why you got into teaching. That is the base of who you are as a teacher; so that part of you is unchanged. Once you tap into that again, now the work begins and it’s how do I deliver on the reasons I became a teacher and how do I bring those to fruition in a virtual setting?”
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