Virtual Education in Review: Part 1

Melanie Barry, Staff Writer

A few weeks before the beginning of this school year, I had a conversation with a family friend who teaches in a neighboring school district. She shared her perspective of remote learning in the spring and explained why she was dreading this upcoming school year – which would, of course, be completely online due to the coronavirus pandemic.

As the school year began and slowly progressed, I found myself wishing I could talk to my own teachers about their perspective on online learning. So, I decided to virtually interview a few teachers at Issaquah High School to learn more about their experience as a teacher during these times.

Now, I had a lot of questions (thus I received a lot of answers), so I am going to be splitting the interviews into three separate articles, each containing two to three accounts from various teachers at IHS. Note: All interviews were conducted in first semester of the 2020-2021 school year, though minimal recent updates have been made.

Kristi Hardy has been teaching Algebra 2 and AP Calc AB for 11 years, 10 of which have been spent at Issaquah. She is also a new mom of nearly 9-month-old Owen. She explained that one of the reasons she was drawn to teaching high school math is because of her own high school experience with math and the great teachers who taught it. She said, “I like math, but I became a teacher to work with high school students in this time when they’re trying to figure out what they want to do with their life and what kind of person they are.”

The biggest con of online learning for Hardy is not being able to interact with her students in a significant way. She explained that she can get about a third of her class at most to turn their cameras on. “I feel like I’m able to interact with those eight or ten kids really well,” she said. “Like, I know those kids. Being able to see them makes a huge difference to me. But the other chunk . . . I don’t know if I could really tell you much about them because I’ve never even seen them. They can send me emails all day, but if I don’t ever see you or talk to you one-on-one, it’s really hard to have a connection.”

Like several of the other teachers, she also brought up how difficult it is to read a room (and consequently, to teach effectively) when the majority of the screens are off – even after pleading students to turn them on. However, she did add that she understands why many students are unhappy with their situation and are finding it hard to be engaged, and that she is trying out different community activities, as well as listening to student feedback to try to make their experience better.

Hardy’s situation is different from most teachers for a few reasons. First, she has a newborn baby in the house, and because of that, she made the decision to only teach four classes a day rather than five (which is standard). As a result, she said having a baby has not really impaired her ability to teach much, and instead, has been something she can share with students. Additionally, she chose to invest monetarily in technology that would make teaching online easier for her. All in all, she guessed that these factors have likely contributed to her lower stress levels and the fact that she seems to be “enjoying” online school more than most other teachers.

“At the beginning of the year, I was hanging out with some teachers and we were all trying to figure out what we were gonna do with the school,” said Hardy. “And I remember talking to teachers that were, like, actively, physically crying. And I felt so bad because I was just over here like, ‘It’s gonna be great, y’all!’”

Hardy explained that her mom works for a competing learning management system, and she has found that the really successful professors or teachers are successful because they embrace it. “It’s not the same,” Hardy said. “It’s not the same as in-person learning, and if you try to teach the same way that you usually teach class, you’re missing it. You can’t resist it – you have to invest in it. Monetarily if you can, but also just your attitude and your time so that you can build it into something works. So that would probably be number one advice to other teachers: embrace it and invest in it, whatever that looks like for you.”

Fellow IHS math teacher, Kelly Tarp, shared a similar sentiment. Tarp, who teaches Advanced Algebra and Trigonometry and Algebra 2, began teaching at Issaquah High four years ago after leaving her previous career. She explained that she tutored in college and enjoyed everything about it, but she got her degree in engineering and chose to follow that path. However, as an engineering consultant, she eventually began to teach and explain her work to others, and it eventually hit her that that was what she was meant to do.

About the online teaching experience, Tarp said that while there are many elements of the classroom that she misses greatly, she has been able to find some upsides. With some students, she has actually found better connections with them than what she likely would have had otherwise. Also, she said she has found it easier to communicate individually with students and feels more reachable.

Tarp added that since the beginning of online learning, she has been pleased to see growth in her own teaching skills, as well as progress in the conversation about effective education. She said, “I don’t think this is better than in class, I don’t think this is the way of the future. But I have found some unexpected positives, and I certainly think we will bring over some beneficial parts of online schooling, like Canvas and WebAssign, when we return to in-person school, which I think is great.”

In the summer, Tarp was torn about going back to school or not. Initially, she was pro-hybrid learning, but as the summer progressed, she realized it would not work for several reasons. As a parent with two kids in the house, Tarp was concerned about the exposure hybrid would bring. She also feared that if she had to expose herself regularly to the potential threat of the coronavirus, she would not be able to visit her parents for many months.

With that in mind, Tarp says she is content with doing school online for now. She believes students can still learn effectively during online school, and she has been extremely impressed by their collective performance so far. Her logic is that online school has existed for decades, so clearly it can be done. But, like Hardy, she mentioned that there is a huge disconnect, because we are trying to create a non-online experience in the online world. We are so tied to the non-online experience that we do not want to let it go, and that is only holding us back.

Tarp encourages students and teachers to try their best to adapt to this new way of being. She specifically said that she tries to embrace the disruptive things that go on at her house, because nothing can really be done. She went on to give examples, like when a tree six feet from her window had to be cut down. “Four chainsaws running and I’m trying to teach,” she laughed. “And I know it was a total disaster, but I just kind of rolled with it.” She also mentioned the time that she had to teach a class by candlelight, and of course, the occasional interruptions from her family and her dog.

She also advised teachers to remember that there are a lot of resources available, and that they should not be afraid to ask for help from co-workers. “Don’t try and do everything on your own,” she said. To students, she said she thinks it is important that they create a routine or a structure for themselves. “We have some really great students at this school,” said Tarp, “and I hope they’re taking care of themselves. Being out of the school system for fifteen years, I was apprehensive about returning. But now that I’ve been here a few years, I’m happy to say that I’m comfortable with our future. I leave every day feeling very hopeful for all of our futures because of the amazing student population we have here at IHS.”

The following article of this three-part series will include interviews from Kelsey Early (Spanish), Keri Dean (Language Arts), and Mary Ann Knecht (Language Arts).