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 4: Parental Responsibilities; Round 3: Curriculum; Round 2: Student Interactions & Relationships; and Round 1: Daily Schedule.
So far, virtual has had brick-and-mortar on the ropes. But wait, what’s this? Brick-and-mortar has given a heavy blow to virtual.
This blow could be seen coming when we start talking about working with colleagues, but don’t count virtual out of the game just yet. When we think about collaborating with colleagues, it is natural that we immediately go to physically interacting with them. On this front, brick-and-mortar has quite a right hook. In the brick-and-mortar setting, I collaborated with my colleagues on a daily basis. It may not have been every day, but my last year there we were broken into grade-level teams, and your team all shared the same prep. This made collaborating daily not only possible but advantageous.
Each day if our prep time was not consumed by meetings and other administrative tasks, my team would sit to finish the lunch that we never had time to finish on our actual lunch period and discuss student achievement. We would plan cross-curricular events, talk about strategies that worked well in our classes, discuss incentives that we might try as a team, and just encourage each other. I would be lying if I said I did not miss this short 50 minutes dearly. It was a grounding time for me and my colleagues, and oftentimes necessary in the chaotic environment that was the brick-and-mortar middle school. The unpredictability of each day made planning difficult, and that collaboration in the middle of my day so frequently was used to modify and adjust.
There were other forms of collaboration within my school, but to be honest, very little ever got done at professional development (PD). At the brick-and-mortar there were morning PDs twice a week by content and grade, and we had monthly schoolwide PDs typically to tell us ONE MORE THING that we are doing wrong or have to add to our plates. Needless to say, I did not look forward to actual PDs in the brick-and-mortar setting.
Collaborating with my grade level team was something I would not have traded for the world, but my personal team of four teachers, myself included, was motivated and student-success oriented. In my other PDs it felt like an utter waste of my time because half of the staff did not want to be there, and it showed. These staff members hemmed and hawed, making the potentially beneficial PD unbearable. This was my experience, but it may not be this way for everyone. Collaboration with colleagues in the brick-and-mortar setting was like classical theater, being that it was either a great comedy or a Greek tragedy.
Speaking of tragedies, the hardest part of being a virtual teacher for me is the lack of colleague relationships. That is not to say that my colleagues and I are not close. I genuinely feel I have made stronger bonds and friendships with my ARVA colleagues than I have EVER have in brick-and-mortar school. What it lacks is that physical collaboration between grade-level and content teams. We meet virtually to talk and plan, but it is not nearly as effective as when we meet in person. So in virtual school, the collaboration scheme is the opposite of brick-and-mortar.
I LOVE going to schoolwide PDs because it is the much-needed time to collaborate with my content and grade-level teachers. I can read them and better complement their ideas and teaching style because there is that direct interaction. So, once a month we meet in person and we cover issues and schoolwide changes, but we also get time to work together. My content teammate and I ALWAYS end up planning weeks’ worth of activities, exit tickets, and lessons every time we meet. It is amazing how well we work together, but like my old team she is there for the students.
Then we look at the whole of my schoolwide PD and you would be amazed if you were an outside teacher looking in. There are about 70 teachers and staff that meet at this meeting, but it runs as smoothly as my four-person grade-level team in brick-and-mortar school. I am sure there are some that are not as super-enthusiastic as I am, but they are so compelled to be a team member by the positivity of the meeting that I do not notice them.
This time is so precious to an online teacher, so I feel that even if they are not the most enthusiastic, teachers strive to not waste this time, which makes sense to me because when we met regularly in brick-and-mortar school, teachers tend to take that time for granted. In the virtual setting we know how important ANY time together is and we make the most of it. We move through the day and walk away with strategies, engagement ideas, and encouragement from administration. Our time is spent tackling technology, addressing schoolwide concerns, and most importantly collaboratively planning ways to help our students become more successful. In our PDs, our voice is not only important but encouraged. We share ideas and what works and it simply AMAZES me what we are able to do with this many people.
With that being said, though virtual school may not get a KO in colleague collaborations, it can surely hold its own.
Stay tuned: in the next round we reach our halfway point as we change our venue and take this fight to the classrom!