Join Us on the Teacher’s Distance Learning Journey

by Milan Tenn and Shivani Nanda for Silver Quest

Distance learning has been a mixed package for students.  Though it is discouraging to sit in one place all day, as an added benefit, students can take advantage of the later waking times. While we can get wrapped up in our own struggles, it’s important to keep in mind that the teachers have been similarly challenged. Join us as we explore the teacher’s perspective.

Struggling to Connect

Mr. Rose teaching Precalculus C

In every Zoom meeting, countless dark boxes with students’ names shroud their faces from their teachers’ view. With no way to gauge the reaction of students without cameras on, many teachers have found that it is much more difficult to interact with their students in online learning. For example, William Rose, a Precalculus C and Magnet Math elective teacher, noted “It’s really difficult not being able to see the expressions and reactions of all the students and knowing if everyone got it or not.” 

While some students communicate via text chat instead of microphones during Zoom meetings, Rose often teaches on a whiteboard far from his computer. Rose prefers for students to shout out answers as they would in a normal classroom. The silence is a major change.

Ryan Foster, a Magnet Computer Science teacher, faces a similar issue in trying to connect with students. He finds it challenging to help every student during class time, although he has tried to maximize on virtual check-ins and scheduled meetings with students. This allows Foster to interact with every student that needs his help even if he runs out of time in class.

Lola Piper, the 9th Grade Fundamentals of Computer Science teacher, also expressed concerns about connecting with students, saying that “If we were in school and I heard a voice, I would be 85% sure who that kid was, but now it’s not the same thing. If I had 5 students in front of me, I wouldn’t know who was whom, especially since cameras are optional.”

Even meeting with other teachers is difficult. While Erik Lodal, Magnet Earth and Space Science (ESS) and Chemistry teacher, could spontaneously talk to other teachers before online learning, he is now forced to schedule all communication with his colleagues.

Adapting the Curriculum

With less class time available, teachers cannot cover as much material live as they did before the pandemic, compressing lesson plans into the time available. 

Adopting different methods, Lodal teaches with the same depth as before, but shortens less important units in his classes, while Foster has chosen to teach every one of the units as he normally would and simply goes into less detail.

During lectures, Foster also found that additional interactive activities allowed him to gauge the understanding of his students. Additionally, he prefers assigning group projects, so that students working together are able to help one another to better understand key concepts.

Edward Kirk and Grace Contreras, Magnet Precalculus A/B teachers, now teach in a “flip class” format. Before the class, students watch a video lesson and complete homework in class. This way, students can ask questions freely in class.

On the other hand, Rose opted to keep lecturing during class time. Despite different methods, Rose and Kirk have both been able to maintain the curriculum that they taught in previous years.

While magnet students have definitely been impacted in magnet classes, their non-magnet classes have also changed due to online learning. According to Honors English 10 and 12 teacher Anne Rubinovitz, the English department has changed some of their practices. It was difficult to provide the same novel to every student in quarantine, so English teachers had to distribute hard copies of longer texts at the start of a semester and supplemented their teaching with PDFs. Some  teachers chose to implement independent reading, so students could choose their own books. 

On the other hand, Foster finds that computer science is well-suited to online learning as programming can be done independently, with only a computer and an Integrated Development Environment (IDE). Foster has found that repl.it (an online IDE for various programming languages) is vital for projects, particularly for students with Chromebooks.

Adjusting Grading

The pandemic also caused shifts in teachers’ grading policies. Compared to previous years, Foster and Rose generally grade slightly more leniently and care more about students making an honest effort than completing their work perfectly. Kirk and Lodal also keep in mind that many of their students may be stressed due to the strains of living in quarantine during a global pandemic.

Issues with Technology

Rubinovitz and Lodal have faced challenges navigating technology in distance learning. While Lodal was already quite experienced with Canvas, Rubinovitz did not use Canvas often, mostly relying on Google Classroom. MCPS mandated that teachers both use Canvas and transition to using a new platform, Synergy, to display students’ grades. Both teachers have found problems with syncing grades between Canvas and Synergy. Lodal is also part of a group of teachers working to better use MCPS technology.

Piper also discussed difficulties with grading in Canvas and keeping track of feedback. Piper says “I’m finding it very difficult to deal with [putting] feedback on Canvas. The kids are notified right away and even before I try to move to grade the next student’s work, the previous student will ask what’s wrong and ask for explanations about why they got something wrong.”

Finding the Positives

Though teachers have had many problems with online teaching, some aspects of their lives have improved. Lodal and Foster are both glad to be rid of the commute. It gives both more time each day to prepare for their classes. Online learning also allows Lodal to record his classes, which is much easier than re-teaching students who miss a day of class. 

Furthermore, Lodal and Rose are more connected to their family and are more involved in their children’s lives. Rose no longer needs to make sure that his daughter wakes up early in the morning or help her get ready for class. He sees his children for more time each day even though he is working longer hours.

Foster, Rose and Kirk all believe that the fall semester has been much better than last spring. Teachers had strict guidance from MCPS in the spring and could not teach students new material. Only given two weeks of planning, they felt that the spring semester was very chaotic and disorganized. 

Online learning has drastically changed the teaching format of many teachers’ classes and has posed many challenges for teachers. Even so, teachers are working very hard to make sure that students are still learning.