Working from home: A Q&A with the current remote teachers of McNicholas

With Covid-19 cases surging throughout the United States, some health concerns about going to school in person have arisen. Despite measurements being taken to keep everyone safe, physically interacting with students and staff members can be dangerous to people who are especially vulnerable to the virus.  Because of this, teachers at McNicholas have been given the option to teach online.  Five teachers are currently using this virtual option; photography teacher Bea Gardner, science teacher Cathryn Lest, theology teacher Sam Roflow, Spanish teacher Tracy Dietz Canisalez, and theology teacher John Norman.

In a recent series of Milestone interviews, Gardner, Canisalez, and Norman spoke about their transition to online teaching.

Q: Do you prefer teaching online or in-person, and why?

Gardner: “For personal reasons, I am happy to have the opportunity to teach from home.  I miss teaching in person…. I miss seeing, collaborating, laughing and sharing life with my students.”

Canisalez: “I love and enjoy both, but I prefer teaching in person. There’s nothing like being in my classroom at McNicholas. I miss my students terribly, but this is the next best thing, and it works quite well.”

Norman: “My preference would be to teach in person.  First of all, McNicholas High School has a wonderful community of students and staff.  In-person, I get to have that interaction with all these wonderful people.  When remote, the interaction is still there, but it’s more removed because of the distance.  Secondly, when in-person, I can attend to more needs of my students in a very immediate manner.  The third reason I prefer in-person teaching is that there’s a dynamic that occurs between the students and the teacher during face-to-face time, and when remote, we still have some dynamic and energy occurring, but it’s simply not the same.”

Q: Why did you begin teaching online?

Gardner: “I’m a ‘caregiver-helper’ for my parents.  They are 85 and 89 years old.  They both have comorbidities.  Unfortunately, my husband has health concerns as well. I’m terrified of contracting Covid-19 and passing it onto them. Working from home helps lessen the probability of transferring the virus onto them.”

Canisalez: “My family is high risk. If they were to get Covid, it could be very dangerous. My son has sickle cell and Type 1 diabetes. My husband has sickle cell and Type 2 diabetes. My doctor also recommended that I work from home. I have asthma and an auto immune disorder.” 

Norman: “My wife and are at the age where we’re both high-risk, and she has other health issues as well which would put her at an even greater risk if Covid-19 was brought into our house.”

Q: What are the advantages and disadvantages of online teaching?

Gardner: “Working from home lessens my stress and anxiety when it comes to keeping my loved ones safe. I am no longer ‘totally fearful’… But I feel like I’m back tracking and double backing when it comes to school work, catching up with students, grading, regrading, regrading… It might be that everyone feels that way this year.”

Canisalez: “The advantage of teaching online is that I get to take care of my family and still do what I love most — teaching Spanish! The disadvantage would be that I miss seeing my students every day!”

Norman: “The advantage is that McNicholas can respond to not only teachers that need to teach from home, but we can also continue to teach kids who need to stay home either because they’re sick or one of their family members is sick with Covid-19.  We can have a continuation of quality education even though we’re remote… the disadvantage would be that, again, there’s so much we miss in the interaction.  Online teaching encourages students to be more responsible in their academics and behavior, which can be both an advantage and a disadvantage.  Since I’m not in the room,…it requires students to step up to a new level of maturity, which is a good skill to have… for me personally, it forces me to be more creative in planning.

Q: How exactly has your teaching routine changed?

Gardner: “Mornings are different as I’m not driving back and forth to school anymore.  I use that ‘time found’ to send memes and messages to my CREW, make tea, take the dog out when my husband is not feeling well, and touch base with my dad and my mom…I hate sitting all day.  I hate that I no longer get my steps in during the school day.”

Canisalez: “Not much has changed, honestly. I am still able to do most of things that I used to do when I was in the classroom. I have always used a lot of technology in class anyways, so it wasn’t a difficult transition for me.”

Norman: “First of all, I no longer have to commute, so I hardly ever drive my car anymore… I now spend more time preparing for my classes and grading things… I have to anticipate and plan for all the little pieces of the lesson, as I’m no longer in the classroom to facilitate the class.  I get a lot more emails from students clarifying work, which would usually be handled during class instead of on the computer.”

Q: Has teaching online had an impact on student participation in class, and if so, how?

Gardner: “Due to screen sharing and remote access, there are some instances in which I’m able to give more detailed, specific and individualized student instruction that heightens engagement for those students.  That allows those students to pass on those more, in-depth ‘how-to’s’ to fellow art students… I feel like we have become much more comfortable working virtually.  Whether they’re working independently, working with peers, or leaning about a new technique, we are all present.  Somehow, I feel like I’ve gotten to know their faces better.  I’ve gotten to know their eyes – both happy and grumpy.  I can see them ALL, at the same time!  How cool is that?”

Canisalez: “No, it’s about the same. I encourage my students to participate and make sure to try and call on each student equally. They can go into break out rooms and have chances to work in small groups or we can work all together in the main channel meeting. It works well. The students are all so cooperative.”

Norman: “You always have a group of students in class who are eager to participate… there’s also a group who prefers to sit back and observe.  From a distance, it’s hard to know what they’re thinking.  I try to pull them into the conversation with questions.  This dynamic is what always occurs in the classroom.”

Q: Do you think there’s any chance that you will come back to McNicholas at any point in the second semester, or do you plan to finish out the year online?

Gardner: “I’m afraid to come back at this time… the numbers are scary.  I couldn’t live with myself if we lost a family member because I brought the virus back home to them.”

Canisalez: “I hope so! As soon as we are able to get the vaccine I will be back as soon as I can. Believe me, I can’t wait to be back!”

Norman: “My expectation is that I will be remote throughout the year.  I don’t think the risk will be reduced sufficiently, as young people will be one of the last groups to receive the vaccine because they are at the lowest risk.  However, they can still be carriers of the virus.  I’m going to take some time over Christmas break to think about the first semester and figure what I need to change and what I need to keep.”

Q: Do you think that online teaching would be easier if everyone was at home, or is it easier now, when almost everyone is in the classroom?

Gardner: “I can’t say for sure. Having all students working from one location would make lesson planning less labor intensive.  Right now, I plan for on campus students, off campus students, and students that float between on and off campus attendance.”

Canisalez: “I don’t mind either way.  I think it’s great that no matter where we are, we can all be together in Teams.”

Norman: “I wouldn’t say this definitively, but if students were at home, there is a certain element there that might make learning easier because the kids are not distracted by one another.  However, kids want to be on campus because they want to be with each other, and we recognize that and are willing to work with the needs of the students.”

During virtual learning, teachers and students join meetings in Microsoft Teams.  Teachers have the ability to enter links in the chat room, mute and unmute participants, and place students into different groups, or ‘channels’.  Senior Aimee Gauger spoke of her experience with online learning so far: “It takes a little more effort to pay attention and stay productive.”

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