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“We’d like to offer you a job as a special education co-teacher” were the magical words I heard from Georgia Cyber Academy (GCA) middle school assistant administrator of special programs Alicia Kelley on June 10, 2016. This was the statement that changed the course of my career.

With 14 years of experience, it seems that I would have this “teaching thing” down by now, right? I knew that the GCA middle school administrators were taking a big leap by offering me this position since my experience was solely from a general education early childhood perspective. While I have co-taught with several teachers during my career, this was my first time of being THE special education co-teacher, my first position as a middle school teacher, and my first time teaching in a virtual setting.

My first GCA experience started with New Teacher Training (NTT). I love socializing, so meeting new colleagues was awesome! I kept up each day’s requirements, but I’m not gonna lie, I was often lost and confused! I had a tough time understanding the “whys” of everything. This was the first time I questioned whether I would be able to handle teaching in a virtual environment. Feeling overwhelmed was an understatement.

Then, my anxiety grew to another level during August Professional Development (PD). I had no idea how many teachers taught at GCA! I couldn’t even remember which team I was on. Looking around the ballroom, I convinced myself that if that many people could do this, surely I could catch on as well … Maybe???

The next big event was the Middle School Open House. Of course, that was the first day I dealt with technical difficulties and questionable WiFi. It took me three attempts to log in, which added a great deal of anxiety. Somehow, life went on – maybe our families never noticed how nervous I was as a new teacher in the virtual environment.

As soon as our Class Connect sessions began, I realized when approximately 200 students were in a session, that meant that 200 different things were taking place in each of those households. An enormous challenge is keeping as many students as possible engaged in learning.

Co-teaching English/language arts (ELA) has been a positive experience since my co-teacher is an outstanding veteran teacher with GCA; however, I have felt out of my comfort zone in this content area. Co-teaching math comes with challenges since most students (reinforced during my Individual Learning Plan, or ILP, calls) dislike this subject the most. Since this is my favorite subject to teach, I felt up to the challenge. Although our students have gone through several transitions with two new virtual teachers leaving GCA during first semester, it placed me in the position of getting to know our students on a more direct level. I was the only constant during our first semester together, so I could tell that students were gaining trust in my willingness to help them through their eighth grade math journey. The more emails I received requesting help, the more I encouraged them during Class Connect sessions to contact me for help. Some of my most fulfilling messages came from students who attended live sessions but haven’t participated and have finally reached out for help. Some first-time requests came in mid-March after struggling through first semester. I love working with students who genuinely want to move forward. Some who ask for help will make solid A’s and B’s, and some may continue to struggle and still not be able to pass the course. But, if they’re making gains with our difficult standards, they’re moving in the right direction!

Students who attend virtual school often have legitimate reasons for not finding success in a brick-and-mortar setting. It is our job as teachers to find the connection that will boost self-confidence and understanding of grade-level expectations. Reading an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) is crucial, but having conversations with the family has shed more light on the special needs of our population. When a mom told me that her child will not ask her questions when in need of help, she knew that he wouldn’t ask me directly. She embraced my idea of holding a Learner Conference where I could explain a lesson, and she could be his “voice” by reading his body language.

Putting myself on video during our sessions gives students and their learning coaches a more personal contact, which increases class participation. Having conversations during WIN (What I Need) Sessions and

Learner Conferences helps build relationships. Working one-on-one to complete the Georgia Career Information Center assignments has given great insight to student interests and plans. Making a phone call to tell a family how proud I am of their student’s accomplishments has brought much joy. We need to celebrate the big and the small steps! I’m so pleased to have a positive relationship with many GCA families.

I have come across some amazing teachers during this first year at GCA. We all have a common purpose and take the art of teaching our youth seriously. The incredible support and encouragement I have felt from my colleagues and administrators is the ultimate reason I enjoy working as a GCA teacher. I’m so excited to see what is yet to come.

-Renee LeMieux

8th Grade Co-Teacher, Math and ELA

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