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‘Exhausting’ But Worth The Challenge: How Teachers Are Navigating Online Learning09:40
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Amber McCoy of West Virginia (left) and James Parry of Minnesota (right). (Courtesy)
Amber McCoy of West Virginia (left) and James Parry of Minnesota (right). (Courtesy)

Everyone is learning to adapt to this new remote world, including millions of teachers who now have to make distance learning work.

There's a lot for teachers to consider: wrangling and keeping the attention of students, being attuned to their emotional and physical well-being, staying in touch with parents and managing what can easily become an around the clock job.

It can be exhausting, says Jim Parry, a teacher at Stewartville Middle and High School in Minnesota. Parry says he misses the face-to-face interaction he would get in the classroom.

He also didn’t want his students to go without “character lessons.” So he created Reach Reflections, a video series of his daily ruminations on life — whether it be about gratitude, compassion or acceptance — that kids and their parents can watch together.

“Within the first couple of days, I had a parent that e-mailed me to say his family sits down in the evening to watch the videos together, to kind of process the meaning behind the videos and the message being given, and that they are doing their best to put that message into action the next day,” Parry says. “To me, that's really what it's all about.”

In West Virginia, Amber McCoy, a fourth-grade teacher and president of the Wayne County Education Association, says she’s trying to maintain as much normalcy as possible for her students.

“Kids thrive under routine and structure,” she says.

Every evening, students log onto Facebook and do a “read aloud” together, she says. She facilitates Zoom meetings where kids get to connect with each other. Her students mostly want to show off their pets, she says.

But it’s not always fun and games. Being a teacher carries a lot of responsibilities to begin with and now, the pressure is on more than ever to balance day-to-day tasks with online connection.

“Whenever people ask me about this, I always say I went from managing 21 9-year-olds from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. I've gone from that to managing 21 9-year-olds, 42 parents [and] two online classroom platforms,” she says. “I mean, it's a lot.”

Interview Highlights

On long workdays

Parry: “My days have been very long. I work with students who need support and that starts before 7 o'clock in the morning. And depending on the situation of the day, I can still be in contact with students as late as 11 or 11:30 at night. Some of that does get in the way of family. I've got three children of my own. They are 17, 16 and 15, and there are certain days that they come out actually join me while I'm filming the videos. I do them outside at an area park. We go for a walk and we talk about the benefits of outside time and exercise while recording these messages about gratitude, compassion, acceptance, forgiveness and ideas like that. So I'm trying to include my children in these messages as much as I can as well.”

On the challenges he sees students facing

Parry: “Well, you know, my focus all along with the Reach program has been on adverse childhood experiences and trauma in the home or difficulties in the home. Some of them have families that where unemployment has become an issue or food insecurity has become an issue. They are trying to figure out how to navigate a brand new world. And as teachers, I feel like it's part of our job not only to teach content but to also help them learn how to navigate the brand new world and find their own place in it. A lot of the lessons that I talk through are about and are directly influenced by my upbringing and the difficulties that I had as a youth growing up here in town, knowing that, again, adversity is everywhere. It's not something new. It's not something that we need to shy away from. We just need to do our best to help others through it by providing unconditional love and non-judgmental support.”

On moving through the rest of the school year and the potential for online learning again next school year

Parry: “That's a scary thought. Honestly, I am thinking day to day and anything that I can do to offer my students and their families and kids everywhere. I'm not just concerned about my own students, but I'm concerned about the emotional well-being of students everywhere in the country. As teachers, what is it that we can do on a daily basis to offer compassion and understanding and set that example and set that bar really high, knowing that these are all qualities that we want them to be able to share with others themselves?”

On parents who are struggling to separate home time and school time

McCoy: “For me, whenever I assign things to my kids, I want to make sure that there is as little parent involvement as possible because many parents are still going to work every day. I completely understand what it is to be that person. We use our online curriculum a lot and it has an instructional module within it. So it shouldn't require a whole lot of parent input. Now the extra things that I've assigned for my kids like following a recipe and cooking something for your family. Those are the things that I'm trying to incorporate into school.

“For me, I would much rather my parents reach out to me at any time that there's an issue because that eliminates the stress from the home. And I would rather answer a question immediately than have my 9-year-olds worried about their parents adding to their stress and anxiety at this time.”

On navigating connection with students

McCoy: “It is a lot. And I'll tell you, one of our biggest concerns is we have a goal of making contact with every student or their parent twice a week. So we were able to establish those connections early on in this process. We had teachers that would get on the school bus that was running to the child's house that they hadn't been able to reach to deliver instructional materials, to say hello. We passed out computers. You know, those things have been a blessing.”

“We're all worried and we're all concerned. But I feel like that the normalcy really helps kids as much routine as possible. Every morning we get up, we have breakfast. At nine o'clock we start and we do our math and our language, or if parents are still working, then set aside a time in the evening to work on that.”


Marcelle Hutchins produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Peter O'DowdSerena McMahon adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on April 22, 2020.

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