Katharine Greene is a teacher at Arkansas Virtual Academy. Follow along as she “dukes it out” with herself in a 12-part series to demonstrate the differences of teaching at a brick and mortar school versus a virtual school using her own personal experiences in each setting to determine which is the “teacher champion” and which gets KO’d. You can read Round One: Daily Schedule.
As we slide into December we, as teachers, find ourselves working vigorously to finish grades, encouraging student participation for those students suffering from “Winter Break-itis,” and inevitably thinking about the relationships we have built with our students and families. This is a time of the year often filled with festivities, parties, and other social interactions. Whether you are in the brick and mortar or the virtual setting, this time of the year is hectic, even if it is jolly. In this round of punches, I am going to look at social interactions and relationships between the two school settings, and you might be surprised by my findings.
During my time at brick and mortar I always loved the holidays! Decoration competitions, holiday concerts, parties, and the food – these things made my last week or so before winter break very pleasant. I always played instrumental holiday music of all sorts and students would flock to spend lunch period with me because they knew I was a baker. So every other day or so the last two weeks before winter break I would have cookies, pies, fudge, ginger bread, and various other goodies I was trying out that year for Christmas. The best behaved students got the official taste tester invite. These were fun and are much-missed times for me, but when I think about the interactions, they were fun but rather shallow.
Trying to get to know my students and their families was increasingly difficult. Yes, there were parent-teacher conferences, but that participation was minimal. Then there were letters and trying to call for conferences and of course home visits, which always felt awkward. This left my view into my students’ world limited to about that of a keyhole in a door. This was the case throughout the year at brick and mortar school. I very seldom got to REALLY know my students. Okay, maybe I got to know one or two a year, but the depth of those rare instances were still not what I have now. The times were fun, but I often wonder what or if they will remember me. Will I be that fun teacher that fed them, or that teacher that led them?
This brings me to the virtual setting. Despite the “virtual” moniker, the interactions I have with students now are so much more meaningful. I interact socially, in person, with my students about once a month. My school tries to plan monthly outings to encourage students to be social. Beyond the physical outings though, I have a LOT more interactions with students now and they are on a very personal, “I know you and I can see you” level. I have all of my students in my phone, saved by name. This way when they call I know EXACTLY who I am talking to every time. They call a lot, which is great. I get to talk them through lessons or concepts.
I often talk to parents about home situations and what works for them. With ARVA it is not about just teaching the child; I really feel like I am reaching the child and the family. I know about 75 percent of my families on a level I could NEVER dream of as a brick and mortar teacher. I talk to families and have conferences weekly. I am able to work around their schedule and mine. If the learning coach has a question, the answer is just a phone call away. No waiting on letters, or “maybe we can meet at 4:30 p.m. on Thursday.” No, now we just call, and if we need more than a call I set up a virtual room at their convenience because all of my records are ALWAYS with me. This makes the gap between what I see of the student and what the student is actually going through decrease exponentially.
Students and parents alike often have less worry about sharing the truth with me. My relationships with them become ones built on honesty and necessity. To me this deepens the learner’s trust in my abilities and in my sincerity. Students need to know you really care, and when the only time their parents hear from you is when they are in trouble, it makes them doubt your personal concern for them. I love the ability to talk casually with parents and students. Oftentimes I send out Brag Tags to my parents in text form just to pass on the happy. I was not able to do that before; the idea of talking to my 120+ families weekly seemed impossible in brick and mortar school, but once I became a virtual teacher and it was all but required – not by policy, but just to handle the long-distance nature of the virtual setting – the idea seemed less impossible.
It seemed crazy at first, but now my students and their parents feel like extended family to me. I talk to these families as I do my own. To me, that creates a different atmosphere for learning, making every interaction count. Suddenly, I can see the whole picture and teach the whole child, and once you take out that guessing game of “what’s wrong?” and “how do I help?” it leaves more time for other things – you know, like teaching.
No winners yet in round two, but there are still 10 more rounds to go. Stay with me as I duke it out next time over something every teacher dreads thinking about – curriculum. Next round I will talk about my control over, input in, and quality of the curriculum I use in both brick and mortar school and now in the virtual setting.