Teachers reflect on distance learning

One year later schools look what has worked, not

Friday, March 13, 2020, and Clayton Valley Charter High School students glorified the idea that we were going to get two weeks off from school. Many, myself included, gullibly rejoiced and celebrated at the chance of an “early spring break,” unaware that unfortunately a deadly, worldwide virus doesn’t disappear in two weeks. As two weeks turned into a month, and a month turned into two months, schools nationwide were forced to suddenly switch to distance learning and try to navigate a completely new realm. 

Since that March 13th day, CVCHS has come a long way from where we began. From organizing zoom meetings to providing online resources, our school has successfully put together distance learning programs that help students. Disparities in the way each student individually experiences online learning are obvious, but the bright side to these differing situations is that we have efficient systems for parents and students to vocalize their content or discontent.

It is common to hear students’ perspectives, but it calls something into question. What is it like on the other side of the screen? What is it like for our teachers who have been displaced and are as new to online learning as we are? An entire legion of teachers works, struggles, and experiences the triumphs and challenges of digital learning alongside us daily, and yet we still sometimes perceive our teachers as part of a separate world. 

Using a Google Form, I interviewed several Clayton Valley teachers to learn more about their viewpoints. They provided refreshing opinions on the pandemic, online learning, and what they expect for their students’ futures — and their own. We are more similar to our teachers than we think.

I first asked teachers about the one-year anniversary of when schools closed. Many mixed responses followed: Some were in awe, some were melancholic, but all were heartfelt.

“I feel amazed … not necessarily in a good or bad way, but it just feels like the year flew by,” said Marty Fong, a math teacher. “It feels surreal that it’s already been a whole year.” 

Karin Westbrook, an English and leadership teacher, said, “I know that the anniversary is a big thing for a lot of people; I, for one, am not really celebrating it. I want to look ahead to when I can have kids in their seats. That is my goal, getting kids back on campus being kids.”

Contemplating how times have changed, we cannot help but remember what once was in comparison what we have now. But, it seems Clayton Valley Charter teachers have found the positive among all of these changes.

Ben Friedman, a CVCHS science teacher, said, “I have been mostly teaching from on campus because it’s a better work environment for me, and I can bike to work and back to get exercise. I have been fortunate.” 

He added, “However, I know that student learning outcomes are not as good this year, so I feel bad about that.”

Teachers also said they missed being in person.

“Teaching from home is less personal in my experience,” said Jenna Ebert, who teaches yoga. “I feel energized in a room of students, the music, and the conversations that we have.”

Fong similarly talks of the struggles of an impersonal environment: “When teaching through a computer screen, I sadly can never be 100 percent sure if students are REALLY understanding what I’m teaching…. But more than anything, I miss really knowing my students.”

(According to an article in Education Weekly, “Two-thirds of teachers said that the majority of their students were less prepared for grade-level work than they were at this time last year.” Some teachers privately felt that the discrepancy in students’ learning abilities came from having to adjust to a less intimate environment. The biggest comparison from in-person to online learning seems to be the dynamic of the classroom that allows for connection with pupils which further affects their ability to give in-depth help to students.)

In my survey, I asked the teachers two questions that they rated on a scale from 1 to 5, with 1 being extremely poor and 5 being extremely well. First, how well did they feel they had been accommodated by the school with the proper resources for online school?

All 5 of the teachers responded with a resounding 5. Westbrook’s comment summarized the sentiment, saying that CVCHS had “done everything in their power to assist us at home and in the classroom. They have provided training, materials, resources, and support to get our jobs done.” 

My second question drew a more mixed response. How well were they able to maintain a work-home balance during online learning?

Westbrook rated this 1: “Work-life balance does not exist in teaching, either remote or in person.” 

Fong was on the other end at 5: “CVCHS has given me the privilege to work from my classroom on the school campus while teaching my students at home online. Being able to work from my classroom allows me to have a completely separate physical space for work and for family so that I can give 100 percent to work when I’m at work, and then leave work at work to go home and give 100 percent to my family.”

Finally, I asked the teachers to give students one piece of advice for the future as we venture into more uncharted territory.

Ebert said, “We are all in this together. No one has gone unaffected in some way, and the best thing we can do is be kind to each other, and support as we navigate these strange times.”

The lives of those around us hold intricacies that we cannot understand from behind a computer screen. Our teachers’ replies led me to think that our issues with online school and home life, with stress and happiness, were alike.

Let’s lessen the distance of distance learning by seeing things through the eyes of our teachers.

This article first appeared in The Talon, the student news site for Clayton Valley Charter High School in Concord.