Teachers discuss challenges of virtual instruction

By Barry H. Hendrix
The Alabama State Department of Education is honoring educators across Alabama with a special “Thank Alabama Teachers Week” through Friday, Nov. 22.
Alabama teachers have faced unprecedented challenges in 2020, from ensuring classrooms are safe for in-person learning to adjusting to the new realities of online teaching.
Teachers from the Thomasville City Schools District spoke Oct. 27 at the Thomasville City Board of Education meeting of the challenges of virtual instruction utilizing the state-mandated “Schoology” software. The meeting was held in the Thomasville High School library.
As of Nov. 17, approximately 22 percent of the student population in the Thomasville City Schools District was receiving virtual instruction.
“Teachers are constantly adapting to the new technology,” said Katherine Sparks, a government and economics teacher at THS. “…Our concern is the time.” She had recently been in mandatory Coronavirus quarantine, “while I was working from home it still took me hours to create, upload, grade assignments, and that was with all of my students doing exactly the same thing.
“…When I’m in the classroom, it is near impossible to set aside time to create, upload, and grade assignments.” Teachers are expected to set aside time to cater to virtual students. “I’m not that type of teacher to sit behind the desk,” Sparks said. “These students benefit from being physically taught – not looking at a computer for eight hours-a-day. 
“I’m thankful that Mr. (Kyle Ferguson, THS principal) and Mr. (Matthew Parkin, THS assistant principal) have made it possible for each of us to have a half-a-day in the department once-a-week to purely work on Schoology. …They have been the ones to cover my classes so I have extra time to plan.”
With the demands of teaching and planning for classroom and remote students, “I’m still working all day and even more at night,” Sparks said. “…It has been extra difficult to shut off when we get home.” 
• With the first two weeks of Schoology, “I have never worked so hard in my life, (and) never been so exhausted and frustrated,” said Stepheni Wright, a science teacher at THS. “Flash forward a few weeks – I’m bringing you a little hope. I’ve survived.
“…We are working on average 10 hours-a-day. We are working diligently two jobs because we want to be effective teachers. It takes hours to prepare assignments, and there is no getting ahead.” Teachers must deal with emails from virtual students and parents all time of the day and night, Wright said. “We are now technology experts, and we are secretaries. The work never ends.
“…This has been all consuming, but slowly, we are learning to set boundaries.” In the science department, “we are lab driven. We are hands-on. …Finding alternatives for lab activities, that are equitable not only for our face-to-face but our virtual (students), has been overwhelming.
“…Schoology is our new normal,” Wright said. “We are educators, and we are very resilient.” The THS administration has been very supportive and encouraging, she said. “Thank you for making us feel like we matter.”
During the Coronavirus pandemic, “…we have been brought closer as a faculty,” Wright said. “We have been able to lean on each other and learn from each other and share ideas.
“…We are warriors in the educational arena.”
• Ellen Pope, who teaches three different advanced math classes at THS, said she wouldn’t have survived through the first weeks of the school year if not for the help of a college intern.
She works to find planning time during her school day. Along with taking care of her classroom students, “I have to make sure I’m sending quality assignments for (virtual students). …I’m trying to keep a step ahead of the kids at home.”
• In career tech, “we’re hands-on and project based,” said Kay Larrimore, a teacher at THS. “We’re having to teach double course loads.” Career tech teachers must prepare separate classes for classroom and virtual students. “We can’t offer the same experiences online as we can in the face-to-face class setting.”
• Ashley Meadows, English teacher at THS, said she spends four to five hours every weekend and at least two hours every weeknight on instruction. Teachers have always taken work home, “but this is a whole different thing.
“…You can’t walk away from it (virtual instruction). There are emails throughout the day and night.” Some virtual students become stressed over problems with the Internet. Meadows tries to stay one day ahead of her students in instruction.
Not only has the extra work had a negative effect on her three children, but Meadows said her children, as students, are tired of being on the computer.
Students in the classroom beg Meadows to not use the computer. “(Schoology) can never take the place of a teacher,” she said. 
• Schoology is important for students to learn because it is similar to a “Canvas” software used at Coastal Alabama Community College, said Emily Harvell, seventh grade math teacher at Thomasville Middle School.
As a young teacher, Harvell has been very instrumental in teaching her fellow teachers how to use Schoology. Harvell said Schoology can be used for the classroom and virtual students to communicate with each other. She also likes to be able to give instant feedback to her students through the software.
She praised the use of “Kami” pdf file software. It is a way for students familiar with pencil and paper to better use text boxes for equations. Students can also upload photos of work done with pencil and paper, Harvell said.
• Cyndi Brooks, sixth grade science teacher at TMS, said the Schoology software has great potential as long as teachers have the time to plan lessons. “What could I do if I was given more time?
“…School can still be fun,” she said. She plans an agenda of activities each day. “There are lot things that can be found and put into Schoology (such as informative videos).” It is a very organized process in Schoology, Brooks said. “They (the students) know what to expect.”
Students in particular like videos of Brooks reading to them, and the software allows for social back-and-forth discussion between the teacher and classroom and virtual students.
• Beth Williams, fourth grade teacher at Thomasville Elementary School, uses “Loom” video software for math instruction to virtual students. “It will record while you write on the board,” she said.
“…I do not do the same thing in my class that I do for the kids at home.”
Along with the lesson work sheets, virtual students will also receive videos.
Students in the classroom communicate with students at home through creating videos, Williams said. Virtual students will also send Williams video showing her what they learned from a specific lesson or problems they are having. She will also respond to remote students with her own video.
“I do video for everything,” she said.
“The Thomasville Elementary School vibe is amazing this year,” Williams said. “Thank you for hiring (Vickie Morris, TES principal; and Terry Norton, TES, assistant principal). They are so supportive. …Even though we are all stressed about Schoology, they make it a lot less stressful.”
• Melisa Marshall-Washington, second grade teacher at TES, has taught only virtual students this school year. She had approximately 29 virtual students at the beginning of the year. 
She uses “Screencast-O-Matic” software to record herself teaching lessons and show her computer screen. She presented a video which showed her interaction with the virtual students.
“We’ve heard that the most valuable thing to you is time,” said Garth Moss, Thomasville school superintendent. “We appreciate you taking the time to be with us tonight. This lets the board see exactly what this (Schoology) has looked like.
“We’re definitely outside our box and outside our comfort zone, but I can’t think of a better place to be than Thomasville City Schools. Our people have stepped up to the plate and have done yeoman’s work. Has it been frustrating at times? Sure it has. But, we have some of the best teachers in this state. …They have shown you exactly what they have to do to make education work for our kids.
“Is it perfect? No,” Moss said. “Is it what we would like for it to be - at all times? No. …We do come to work every day and give us our kids the best.”
Sharon Buford, president of the Thomasville City Board of Education, praised the superintendent and the Central Office for “making things work. To the principals and assistant principals, thank you for being the biggest supporters.
“Ms. Wright said it so beautiful and eloquent – that you are warriors,” Buford said. “I would like to take it a step further. You are warriors that are conquerors – because you have the kids first in heart, in mind and in soul. We just want to say thank you.”
“I want to thank you for coming and sharing,” said Martha Gramelspacher, board vice president. “I have a student in the system. He tries to talk to me about things, but you just can’t wrap your mind around something that you have never seen before.
“…I love the way it (the software) is organized…but, I can see just the time intensive part of it. …You all are pioneers. I don’t know if we ever thought in 2020 that we would be pioneering something. Here in Thomasville City Schools, you are all really the pioneers of this program for our students.
“…I can’t remember a time when we’ve had better administrators – administrators who support their teachers…and students – and work together so beautifully,” Gramelspacher said.
Board member Marshall Pritchett praised the administrators for their support of the teachers and praised the teachers for putting in so much time for the students. “I appreciate all that you do.”
“You are heroes in my book,’ said board member Jim Davis. His wife, Kelly Davis, is a teacher at Coastal Alabama Community College. “I know what she is going through. It is definitely tough, a 24-hour job. It is constant.” Davis understood the problem of teachers being away from their own children and not being able to spend that time. “I commend you.”
The Thomasville City Schools District has “tremendous teachers,” said board member Dr. Jerry Schreiner. He learned from the experience of his son that the local schools offer a top-notch blend of technology and teacher instruction. “I am glad you are getting support from principals and assistant principals.
“…We do appreciate you and know that it takes a lot of time.”
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