teachers

Adapting to a virtual high school classroom: how I handled the sudden shift from physical to distance learning

As a high school teacher, I knew I was lucky in that I could keep my job and work from home during the coronavirus pandemic. At the same time, trying to manage my newly virtual classroom and figure out what my new work day should look like has not been easy.

In addition to my job as a teacher, I’m also a mom with an active preschooler at home. I’ve found that it’s almost impossible to balance my work and his needs (physical, emotional and educational). This is likely a difficulty faced by many working parents, and furthermore, one that existed before the coronavirus wreaked havoc on our communities.

But in my case, there was no time to plan or prepare, or to figure out how this new normal should look.

The difference between online courses and suddenly virtual classrooms

Adapting to this virtual classroom is not the same as designing an online course. The latter requires a full curriculum intended for an online audience. That includes planning for and incorporating multimedia lessons and assignments.

The challenge that we educators faced now was different. We were asked to deliver meaningful, rigorous instruction–with little to no planning time–during a pandemic. Face to face instruction in a traditional classroom does not just transfer to a virtual space–even under the best conditions. It’s not seamless. It takes planning and planning takes time. Time is what we did not have as we prepared to provide educational continuity.

I was lucky enough to work for a school district that had already embraced technology in and out of the classroom and had had a plan in place before schools closed in March, working to distribute tablets and electronic devices to students and teachers.

But even with the push to get all that equipment into students’ hands, it was and remains difficult.

In many ways, I see teaching as a sort of performance art. Yes, there are exams and data, facts and figures, but teaching involves a human element: reading a room, gauging body language and making eye contact. Teachers manipulate the classroom, often subconsciously, using facial expressions, gestures and their proximity to students. How could I do this virtually?

The blurred boundaries between work and home

In addition, the physical act of going to a separate place to work is no less important than the psychological compartmentalizing that we do when we leave our homes and enter our workspace. When work and home were in the same location, it was difficult to transition between roles, to resist the urge to work at all times and to eliminate distractions.

During what was supposed to be spring break, I pored over educational sites and learned about learning management tools, in an attempt to prepare as best as I could I searched for online copies of the texts I would teach and created new assignments. In short, I overdid it.

Lessons learned

I did learn a lot in the process. I learned that creating a schedule is vital, and that emails, texts and phone calls will come in at all times. I turned off email notifications and set aside specific times for sending and answering emails. I also set aside a special time for grading–during my son’s nap time and after dinner, when I could focus.

I learned to create a “clocking-out” time. Teachers are not good at maintaining work/life balance as it is, and for me working from home blurred those lines even further. 

I had to avoid opportunity overload and tell myself to tackle one thing at a time. Every textbook and educational software company was suddenly interested in communicating with teachers. Everyone suddenly had some level of insight and expertise on how teachers should approach this latest challenge. And although it was great to have options and to learn about new programs, the sudden onslaught of emails and information I received was just too much. There just wasn’t time to vet all these programs and then redesign a curriculum to fit them.

What I quickly realized was that these tools were meant to facilitate lessons and enhance learning. Overdoing it is gimmicky, leads to superficial results or wasted time trying to learn platforms that may not work well.

I also learned to let go of perfectionism, perhaps one of the biggest obstacles facing teachers as we continue to transition to the virtual classroom.

I was working non-stop. From the moment that I woke up to the moment I went to sleep, I was working: preparing assignments, answering emails, grading and hosting Zoom class meetings. At the same time, I was also teaching, caring for and entertaining my preschooler who was now also home, away from his friends and nursery school lessons. It was not possible to keep this up, and so I forced myself a step back and reevaluate what I was doing and how I was doing it.

In addition to these challenges, teaching can be, paradoxically, lonely. We are surrounded by students and totally alone. From bell to bell, our classroom doors are closed and it can be difficult to find time and energy to interact with our colleagues. But now, when everyone was trying to figure out how to make their virtual classroom work, I realized how important it was to connect with other teachers and to pool our resources.

I also experimented with how I was going to use my resources. I was careful not to drone on, especially on video calls. Could some information be emailed or posted online? Could lectures be recorded? I tried both. 

Everyone remembers that one professor that talked and talked and talked. That was certainly not an effective method. Imagine listening to that on a web call. Studies indicate that video conferencesare draining and people have a more difficult time retaining information disseminated in them. Effective communication is also important in face-to-face teaching, but in a virtual space, it was especially important to make that communication meaningful and succinct.

We’re human, and so are our students

I also reminded myself to consider the human component. These were not normal times. I knew my students were missing their school routines, their friends and their lives before quarantine. 

High school students are teenagers, just learning to understand their own tumultuous emotions. They’re already at a higher risk of experiencing and developing anxiety, depression and mental health issues

Just as I struggled to juggle my home life and work life, while also dealing with the anxiety of the current moment–so too were my students. Their lives were out of whack. They would miss out on milestones like prom and graduation, and they, too, had to figure out how to balance their home lives and school work. And they were just kids.

I practiced flexibility and empathy. One student might not have reliable internet service or may need to share their devices with their family. Another might not have a quiet space to work and study. Yet another might also have to juggle responsibilities at home–caring for family members or helping younger siblings with their school work. 

This didn’t mean I did not hold my students accountable. I graded their work and provided feedback on their progress. But I found that providing extensions or flexible deadlines not only helped students that were facing personal and technical hardships, it also encouraged them to complete the assignments. 

I also had to accept the fact that I couldn’t totally separate my home life from my teacher persona in class, either. My toddler might crash a Zoom lecture to show my students his action figure. My faculty meeting might be scheduled during my son’s lunch time.

Teachers aren’t just teachers. We’re also part-time parents, financial advisors, friends, disciplinarians and life coaches. Given all of these responsibilities, it wasn’t easy to adapt to a virtual classroom environment. But by acknowledging my own human limitations, while remaining flexible and empathetic to the needs of my students, I am learning to face these challenges as an opportunity.

This post was written for and published on Toggl, link to the story here: https://toggl.com/blog/virtual-high-school-classroom posted on August 26, 2020

Do Good in This Life. After 45 Years, Joe Walpole Retires

Anyone privileged enough to learn from Joseph Walpole, could never forget him. Walking into his classroom was

Joe Walpole began his teaching career 45 years ago. After a long and inspiring career, he is retiring.

always special — and whether he was discussing rhythm and meter, or the “art of styling sentences,” or love, loss and conflict in literature – the lessons came alive, the students sat engaged and enthralled.

“Like good writing, teaching is an art, and Joseph Walpole is the best I’ve ever known,” said Helena Castro, activities director at Miami Lakes Educational Center (MLEC). He taught more than grammar and mechanics, he taught his students about life. “His lessons came not only from books, but from his own hardships and triumphs, his time in the U.S. Navy and teaching abroad,” Castro said.

And yet, Joe’s storied teaching career began after a serendipitous encounter. He saw a billboard advertisement looking for college graduates to teach English in the Virgin Islands. He called the phone number and the rest is history.

Walpole has taught everywhere, from private schools to penitentiaries, around the world. And everywhere, his students remember him, send him holiday cards and emails, dropping by to visit.

“I am literally here because of Mr. Joe Walpole,” said Dr. Steve Gallon, who was once a student in Walpole’s ninth grade English class at Miami Northwestern Senior High School. “When he met me, I could have gone left, I could have gone right; Mr. Walpole helped guide me forward,” said Gallon, now Miami-Dade County Public Schools District I school board representative, at Walpole’s retirement party.

Dr. Gallon went on to major in English and became the youngest principal in MDCPS history and then a schools superintendent in New Jersey, before returning to his native Miami.

Throughout his career, Joe has inspired many students. His literary alumni now span the globe. There are millionaires and writers, business people, journalists and scientists. They remember his lessons, not just how to write a killer thesis statement, but they remember that he believed in them.

“Mr. Walpole believed in us, so much and was so proud of us when we accomplished our goals, he was so excited to hear where and when we were accepted to college,” said Jason Ledon, a recent graduate of MLEC heading to Carnegie Mellon in the fall. “When Mr. Walpole is proud of you, you become proud of yourself.”

Now, after 45 years of teaching, Mr. Walpole is saying goodbye to the classroom. He is retiring from Miami Lakes Educational Center, where he spent the last 16 years of his teaching career, the longest he’d stayed at any one school.

It’s not just the students that will miss him.

“Joe makes us better teachers and better people,” said Erica Evans-DeSimmone, the Cambridge Academy leader at MLEC.“He has been the heart of this academy, and we are going to miss him.”

Walpole has said that, throughout his career, he has sought “to do good in this life.” To help “engrain values: the old verities that will anchor students through life, truth-seeking, responsibility, courage, compassion, and respect for oneself and for others.”

If the outpouring of support, love and appreciation that he has received is any indication, it is safe to conclude that Joseph Walpole has, indeed, done good.

——

A version of this story was published in The Miami Laker on July 8, 2019: http://miamilaker.com/Education/ArtMID/570/ArticleID/6598/MLEC-says-goodbye-to-favorite-Joseph-Walpole-

 

As Teachers Know, School Is A Home Away From Home

My kids are off to college.  It is a bittersweet moment.  I am – of course – incredibly proud of them.  I’m excited for all of the experiences and opportunities that lay before them; but I am also sad, and a little worried, because they will be on their own and so far away from home.

I won’t suffer from empty nest syndrome, however.  I still have more kids to help get into college, about 150 of them this year.  I’m not referring to biological children, but to my school kids.  And, for about 180 days that begin on Monday, school will be their second home, where they’ll learn, work, laugh, cry, write, calculate, interpret and grow up.

And teachers are an integral part of all that.

the girlsTeachers returned to school last week, to unpack, rearrange, set up and plan for the first day of school.  I walked in to school this morning, fueled with a double dose of caffeine, to send and answer emails and begin all the heavy lifting.  They call these days work days for a reason.  There is a whole lot of work to do. There are desks to move, boxes to carry, activities to be planned.

And, as we sit down to plan lessons – juggling texts, secondary sources, standards and activities—it could all become a little daunting.  Will I reach them?  Will they get this?  Is this rigorous enough? Is it too rigorous? Does this lesson infuse the common core standards? In the midst of all the work there is to do, it is easy to get a little overwhelmed, maybe even wallow a little in self-doubt.

Just as I was in the midst of all that, four of my girls sauntered in.  Each of them is heading to college this week.  Each has spent some time at their respective schools, from one year to three, depending on the visitor – Harvard, Columbia, University of Florida, Florida State University and University of Central Florida—to get acclimated.  And each came back home, to their school home, to surprise me and to talk hurriedly and excitedly about their summer.

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The MLEC High School class of 2013 is all grown up. Now globe-trotting juniors and seniors preparing for their careers.

They wanted to tell me how well-prepared they felt.  They wanted to thank me.  These are the moments that teachers live for.  They are the reason that we trudge to and from trainings and professional developments, why we learn and adapt for changing standards, tests and curricula.  It is not for higher teacher merit pay or for school grades – although both are nice – but for moments like these, when Aileen tells me, “I was one of the few freshmen in the class and I got an A,” or when Crystal says that she used her notes on Othello to tutor her friends and classmates, for the moment when Gaby said, “at first I was intimidated by their GPAs and SAT scores,” but then she realized – they all realized—how much they learned in high school.  They realized that they were prepared for college, and – best of all—they came home to tell me all about it.

I am preparing for my eleventh first day of school.  As kids can attest, it is both exciting and nerve-racking.  What will Monday bring?  The only thing that I know for sure, are that at each desk will sit a student who – whether she knows it or not—is building her Mugfuture.  My job is to help her shape it, to make sure that she, and all of her classmates have all of the tools that they need.

Over the years, I’ve lectured and graded, proofread hundreds of college application essays, helped students complete their FAFSAs, written letters of recommendation and worn the dozens of hats that teachers do each day.  I’ve been there to console them after rejections and losses, and to encourage them to push through.  I’ve been there to celebrate acceptances, triumphs and awards and to shake their hand on graduation day.

And another group of young women are off: leaving my classroom, and beginning the next chapter of their lives.

And another group of young women are off: leaving my classroom, and beginning the next chapter of their lives.

But, most rewarding of all is hearing from them.  Opening my inbox to find an email from a student who graduated in 2008 with exciting career news; running into a former student and finding them happy, healthy and successful; and, of course, welcoming a former student home for a visit as they talk excitedly about their lives.  

  Yes, most rewarding of all knows that we reached them.  They learned.  They navigated through the seas of adolescence, the drama of high school relationships, the trials and tribulations of pretests, post-tests, lectures, essays and assignments and that – through the cacophony of all that—they heard us, they listened, they learned, and they appreciate it.

Teachers collect moments: thank you cards, notes, the small things that remind us why we work so hard.

Teachers collect moments: thank you cards, notes, the small things that remind us why we work so hard.

 

Teaching, a Never-Ending Rollercoaster

Teaching is like riding a roller-coaster.  The highs are exhilarating, the lows sudden and stomach churning.   

A teacher’s day can be turbulent. The highs are amazing, the lows often sudden, unpredictable and laced with anxiety.



A classroom is a second home, for the students and for us. And here, we face all kinds of obstacles: from mathematical equations and philosophical quandaries to convoluted metaphors, heartbreak and errors in judgement. 

There are days that, when locking that classroom door at the end of a long day, I walk out feeling like a gladiator — exhausted but victorious –having defeated the day’s monster: senioritis, high-stake tests whose computer programs malfunction, or whatever the day’s foes were.

There are other days when I feel wrought with anxiety. Did I cover this subject well enough? Did they get it? Did they learn? Was it meaningful? Are they prepared for the next course? The next subject? The next test? Am I setting a good example? Have I helped prepare them for college? For the world? Is there something else that I could have done? Could I have explained this better? Given more feedback? Did I give too much feedback?

So often, I find myself giving so much and wishing that there was just a little more that I could give, wondering if my best was simply not good enough. And every great teacher that I know has shared this same self-doubt. Regardless of test scores or student achievement, we are only as good as our last lesson.

I don’t know if that angst is engrained in us by a system that uses test scores to determine our efficiency, or that vilifies and blames us for every educational short-coming or if teachers just never feel satisfied with their performance. And neither answer brings much comfort.

But that’s no matter. Tomorrow’s victory: a college acceptance letter, an A on a test, an insightful comment in class discussion will erase all that doubt… At least until the next class period.

Related story: “Why So Many Teachers Feel So Bad So Much of the Time,” via Washington Post: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2015/01/18/why-so-many-teachers-feel-so-bad-so-much-of-the-time/

Teachers Collect Moments

“Teachers get paid with love.”

I read that somewhere — maybe on a bumper sticker or poster — when I first started teaching. That turned out to be the truest statement I read that year. My first days of teaching were tumultuous. I juggled grading, lecturing, parent conferences and student crises that ranged from broken hearts to broken homes. I worked nonstop: at school, during lunch and at home.

And I loved it.

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Every teacher that I know collects notes, letters and trinkets that remind us why we get up and go to work each morning. These are the treasures that remind us that — despite changing standards and countless challenges — we can make a difference.

As the year came to an end, and the thank you letters and gifts — sketches, paintings, student-made figurines to place on my desk — my mentor, Mrs. Lawrence, gave me a box. “Put these in here. You’ll need this, especially on the bad days.”

And on days like today — when the weight of new standards, grades, tests, counseling, coaching, and all the responsibilities that we balance seem too heavy — I open that box. These are the moments that teachers collect.