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My Convoluted Transition From Classroom Teaching to Virtual Instruction

opinion

We go into teaching with idealistic notions of what life will be like. But sometimes, the challenges of the classroom becomes too much. In such cases, we teachers can turn to virtual teaching to do what we came into the profession to do: make a difference.

The Reality of Public Education

When I graduated from college and started my teaching career, I would have told you I had no desire to be an online teacher. The idea of teaching students strictly from my computer and phone didn't appeal to me, and it didn't seem like a legitimate education model. In fact, I was among many of my colleagues who called it 'fake teaching.' I was young and idealistic going into the classroom for the first time. However, I soon found that the reality of teaching in public schools was far from what I expected.

Like many of my classmates, we went into teaching because we were determined to make a difference and change the fate of America's youth. We thought that our work ethic and passion would be appreciated by parents and students, especially my friends who taught at low-income schools. The reality was far different.

school

As a middle school teacher, I quickly discovered that many of my students were already jaded in their views of education. By the time I got these students in middle school, they were working a few grade levels below the material I was expected to teach them. Some were reading and doing math at the 3rd or 4th grade level, and we were expected to get them to master 8th grade standards. There was some remedial support for students, but not with the frequency they needed.

One Foot in Each Lane

In the beginning, I looked at virtual teaching as a supplement to my paycheck. It was a job I could do outside of my normal school day and make some extra money to pay my student loans every month. Online teaching on the side was an option for my school district, and I pounced on it. The reality was that I didn't care about the other benefits of online teaching. I had a master's degree, so I also taught online for one of the for-profit colleges. In the beginning of this process, I was purely in it for the money. There were no aspirations that virtual teaching would be better for my students or me--it was just a way to stay financially afloat in hard times.

To be eligible to teach online for most virtual programs, you are required to complete some type of inservice program. From the school's point of view, this is mainly to orient you on how to navigate the software used to administer the virtual program. There are a variety of platforms, and especially if you're not a tech-savvy person, this training is a really important component of getting into online teaching. You have to know how to grade assignments, run online class discussions, give students weekly feedback, and even how to reach out for help when you need it.

laptop

The inservice also got me thinking about why students turn to online education. What I learned was that a lot of the students who turned to online education were the kids who were struggling in my regular classroom. They were working below grade level and couldn't keep up in class. In some cases, they had been bullied. Others were struggling to learn in traditional classes because of disruptive students.

Crossing Over to the Virtual World

I did both virtual and traditional teaching for several years in my teaching career. In the first year, I think I was essentially an online robot teacher. Our courses were pre-programmed, so I just followed what was there and completed the items on my weekly checklist. I tried to reach out to students who were struggling, but I didn't go the extra mile. In a virtual environment, your struggling students can often fade into the background. And when you are working two jobs, it's easy to just let them go, but I never could escape what I had learned in my virtual training: The struggling students in my traditional classroom could be the same struggling students in my online classes.

In my second year of virtual teaching, one of my in-class students told me that his cousin George was taking my online class. That hit home because, up until then, I had managed to keep my two worlds completely separate. Now, they had collided. My student talked about George a lot. Their family was a sad story of life in the inner city--single family home, mom working two jobs to provide for her kids. What I didn't know was that George had chosen to take virtual classes so he could be at home to watch his younger brother while his Mom worked so that they didn't have to pay daycare.

George was the first of my online students I took the chance to get to know. Up until then, I had avoided calling my online students. It was just easier to keep in touch via email and meet the minimum contact requirements. But I reached out to George because of his cousin. This experience motivated me to reach out to other students and not let them just disappear from my virtual world.

teacher on laptop

Eventually, I realized I was a real teacher online, and I was making a greater difference than when I was trying to fight the bureaucracy of public education. When I had a chance to make full-time online teaching my career, I took it. After all, with online teaching, I actually had more time to work one-on-one with students. The reality was that it was harder work in many ways than when I taught in a brick-and-mortar school. However, in the end, I got to do what I went into education for: to really make a difference.

By Rachel Tustin
January 2017
opinion virtual instruction

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