Virtual Education in Review: Part 2

Melanie Barry, Staff Writer

This is the second part of a three-part series looking at online school from the teachers’ perspectives. For context, see “Virtual Education in Review: Part 1”. Note: All interviews were conducted in first semester of the 2020-2021 school year, though minimal recent updates have been made.

Kelsey Early teaches Spanish 2 and Spanish Conversations and Culture at Issaquah High. This is her second year teaching, both in general and at IHS. Her time in Costa Rica during college exposed her to different ways of life and shaped her perspective of the world and her love for Latin culture and history. She wanted to share that interest with students and make an impact. She has found that at Issaquah, students like to talk about more real-world topics and care about what is going on in the world, and this is something she has come to really enjoy.
One of her favorite things about teaching is making personal connections with the students, and she said that given the circumstances, she believes she can still do so in online school. She has tried to replicate the in-person school environment by doing community activities in class, checking in on students, and trying to keep things fun to keep spirits up. It is trying, nonetheless. “It’s hard not seeing 95% of my students’ faces every day and not having those authentic, everyday interactions. Now, when I try to be authentic and energetic, I end up just feeling more tired after, because I’m just doing it to a bunch of black screens, so there’s nothing to feed off of.”

Early explained that, as a people-person, online teaching and not being around people as much has been very hard for her, mental health-wise. “There’s just been a lot of increased stress and anxiety,” she said. Still, she has been trying little things, like going outside in between classes, getting into a routine, and taking a break during lunch to do something fun.

Early also mentioned that it takes a lot of creativity to teach effectively online, which can be exhausting. There are not as many ways to teach online, so she has had to limit her methods of teaching. She has had to rethink lessons now that she does not have her old schedule and routine to lean on anymore.

“It’s the same story for every teacher,” Early said. “And I would just tell the other teachers . . . don’t feel like you have to be the best online teacher – even though we’re all trying to be – because it’s just not realistic. Just do the best you can. And the same thing goes for students. I think they are doing an incredible job given the circumstances, and I’ve really been blown away. They’re working to make the best out of a crappy situation.”

“Obviously, we never expected this,” Early said. “But part of being a teacher is rolling with the punches and always being prepared for something unexpected to happen – and that’s something I really enjoy. I know this isn’t going to last forever. So, I’m going to try to enjoy the fact that I only have to prep, like, three classes a week, that I can sleep in later, and I have lots of time to talk to my family when I want to.”

Keri Dean, a teacher of 21 years at Issaquah High, also mentioned her family as positive. Her elementary-age kids occasionally make appearances while she teaches on Zoom, and about this she says, “I think it’s nice that students get to have a little of the personhood of their teachers. I hope that my children are enjoyable to all my students, because they are definitely a huge factor in my life.” Dean teaches AP Language/American Literature, Guided Studies, and Public Speaking. Along with sharing her passion for American literature with her students, she enjoys helping students improve their skills, realize their full potential, and feel pride in their work.

However, like the majority of teachers, she is finding online school to be a challenge. “The reward of teaching is the connections you make with students, and that is, in many ways, absent right now.” She went on to add that she is struggling to adjust to the condensed curriculum and the shorter hours, and that she cannot plan ahead as much as she would want to.

When teaching, Dean is concerned that students are not paying attention due to all the added distractions of the online learning environment. She explained that if students were noticeably disengaged or confused in a normal classroom, she would be able to recognize this and adjust accordingly so as to get them back on track and make sure they understood the content. But in online school, it is hardly that simple. “Already, it’s easier to be distracted when you’re not in the school environment, and I think that if your camera is not on, it is 100% easier to be distracted in all ways,” she said. “But I can’t tell that you’re distracted because your camera isn’t on, I can’t tell that you’re confused because I can’t see your face. There are no cues for us to tell.” The same was said by several of the other teachers interviewed: They want to help, but they cannot help if they do not know that help is needed.

She advised students to communicate with teachers and ask questions, as she believes that will make the learning experience better for everyone. “Also,” said Dean, “I think the more you set yourself up in an environment that is school-like, the more successful you’re going to be. There are definitely valid reasons why a student’s camera may not be on, and I don’t want to diminish the importance of those reasons. But, if you are working as if your camera is on, then, you’re already in a better position.

As concerned as she is for students, she is equally concerned for her fellow teachers. “I don’t think that any of my friends think they’re doing a good job,” she remarked. “There’s a certain arrogance that goes into teaching. It may be egotistical of me, but that’s just the way it is. And this year, any tiny bit of arrogance you had about yourself as a teacher is just thrown out the window.” She added, “And then there’s the camera situation. We’ve been joking for quite a while that if we ever go back to school, we’re gonna have to take at least two weeks to learn names because we can’t see any faces now.”

Despite all the, at times, overwhelming downsides, Dean said she had found that there were some benefits to the online learning experience. First, she sees value in reimagining and analyzing the school’s methods of teaching students. Second, “I am so impressed by students’ resiliency and the work they have done to make the best of this crazy year.”

Mary Ann Knecht, also a Language Arts teachers, shared similar feelings. She started her 33 years of teaching as a Spanish teacher, then made the switch to Language Arts six years ago when she came to Issaquah High. Currently, she teaches freshman Language Arts, both on-level and honors, and American Literature. While teaching a humanities-like Spanish course, she realized she especially loved talking and teaching about literature, and this was partially the reason she made the switch to English. She said that even after thirty-three years, she continues to be amazed by high school kids. “They inspire me, and they make me laugh,” said Knecht. She added that, coming from Skyline, she finds Issaquah is more diverse, fun, relaxed and spirited, and has more tradition.

In online school, she said she has been blown away by how kind, patient, and helpful her kids have been, especially when it comes to the technological side of things. “Technology does not come naturally to me,” she said – and I can confirm from personal experience. “So, when I can’t figure something out or something goes wrong and I start to panic, the kids will actually say, like, ‘We’ve got you, why don’t you screenshare and we’ll help you.’ And that was especially at the beginning, when they didn’t even know me.” Knecht added that, since she “only” has to prep three different classes, she cannot imagine trying to figure out seven different classes as a student. “I can’t imagine the level of frustration students have. And the fact that they’re doing all that and still find the time to say ‘I hope you’re having a good day’ in email? I mean, this whole experience has shown me that our community is a community of kind, patient, and just amazing kids.”

Still, like all teachers, Knecht is finding it difficult to connect with students. She said, “The frustrating thing is that I’ll get some assignments in and I’ll realize, ‘Wow, I’ve got some really cool kids.’ But I’m just reading about them or just reading their assignments. I’m not having those human interactions with them, and so I can’t fully appreciate who they are.”

Knecht also thinks that students are struggling to connect with each other right now, and she has found that it makes a huge difference if students turn on their cameras. She especially sees this when she goes into breakout rooms. She said she has noticed that when the cameras are on, students are discussing and connecting. When the breakout room is full of black screens, it is silent. “There’s just something about seeing the person’s face that makes you more willing to connect with that person,” she said. Additionally, like Dean, she is concerned because she thinks that students are far more likely to check out when their cameras are off.

About the school and the school district’s handling of online school as a whole, Knecht said, “I think Mrs. McCormick and every principal in the district has done an amazing job of trying to get us – teachers and students – to be empathetic towards each other.” Knecht thinks that students need to realize how much turning on their camera means to teachers and that they need to give their teachers something to work with. On the flipside, teachers need to remember that they can only ask so much of kids, and that their number one concern must be that they are maintaining their mental health. “I think we all, as a school community,” said Knecht, “need to really take a look at how we are engaging with each other, and how we can improve.”

The third and final installment of this three-part series will include interviews from Mandy Sandlin (Psychology) and Jordan Frost (ASB Leadership).