By Elizabeth Hill
Ask any teacher or school administrator nationwide how many classes were offered in college on teaching, modifying curriculum or handling extensive technology needs during a pandemic and they would emphatically reply, “None.”
And yet last spring, Great Falls Public Schools pivoted quickly in order to provide remote learning through the end of the school year while many larger districts across the country simply graduated seniors early and forfeited the last quarter of the school year.
Now, one month into the first quarter of the school year, GFPS reports 807 students currently enrolled in remote learning out of 5376 total K-6 elementary students. There are four teachers (plus five instructional coaches) teaching 15% of all elementary students.
For secondary (7-12th grade) students, there currently are 657 full-time remote 7-12th graders and nineteen teachers (seventeen full-time positions-some are part-time) teaching these students.
Why teachers chose to teach remotely
Just as there are a myriad of reasons why families chose to enroll their children in remote learning, teachers had their own reasons as well.
Some had concerns for their own underlying health conditions or those of close family members. For instructional coaches, it was part of their current assignment to take on a remote teaching role. Others wanted to help fill a need in the district with the number of remote students enrolled.
“I think this is a great opportunity to change the way we teach our students,” April Wendt, a secondary teacher commented, “Students in today’s world desire to be taught this virtual way!”
Karen Wilcox, another secondary teacher, felt called to teach this year due to her previous experience teaching online, “I have experience teaching Virtual Academy online in the summer as well as online sections of college classes for Park University.”
What do remote teachers do all day?
Susan Quinn, 7-12 Curriculum Coordinator for GFPS says teachers are focusing on having a strong teacher presence in each remote classroom. “Teachers are posting video of themselves introducing new concepts, holding one or more live video meetings per week that the students must attend, and spending at least two hours per day holding virtual office hours where a student can stop by in their virtual meeting room to ask questions or discuss course content with the teacher.”
There is a misconception that remote teachers are not as busy as traditional classroom teachers. Not so, says Charlene Ammons, Instructional Technology Coach, “We are managing a much larger group of students than usual, and yet, we genuinely care about each student’s success. We are working hard to make this work for everyone, while time limits the amount of work any one person can accomplish in a day.”
Karen Wilcox agrees, “This is not a “break” from teaching. It is 100% pedal to the metal, but it is good work.”
While parents and students are navigating new learning platforms and technology, teachers are learning and facing challenges as well.
Finding time to communicate, connect and check in with over a hundred students has been challenging.
One secondary teacher remarked that, “Effective communication has been the greatest challenge as we work through the website, email, phone calls, texts and even home visits.”
Teachers find it hard to reply to the numerous emails that come day and night and wish that more students would attend office hours or weekly class meetings to ask questions and receive help.
April Wendt says, “The remote setting requires students to be accountable for their own learning…. I have Zoom Office Hours every day so students can come to my virtual office for help.”
What teachers wish people understood:
Leesa Halcro, 8th grade social studies teacher reminds us that, “Kids need to be self-motivated and engage in their learning. We want every student to engage and most importantly, we want every student to be accountable for their own growth and to learn.”
“Please be involved in the learning of your child and read the communication that we send. There are real people on this side of the keyboard. Be kind.”
It’s also important to remember that this platform and mode of teaching is new to teachers as well. One teacher says, “Remote teaching is not natural to teachers who have been in the classroom for years teaching kids in. It is hard for us to not be able to get to know the kids on a personal face to face level.”
Teachers know that is a big responsibility for parents to take on. “We know how hard they are working. We, too, are working hard to meet the needs of the 100 plus kids on each of our caseloads, one teacher shared, Whether teaching face to face or remotely, the teachers in our district are amazing dedicated professionals who always work to try and meet the needs of students.”
An elementary teacher says it best, “We are working tirelessly to keep track of all students. We are on your team. If you are concerned or frustrated, come to us and we will work to find a solution!”
What’s the deal with the waiting list?
There has been some community discussion regarding the remote learning waiting list. Some misunderstandings surrounding the process and logistics have caused some confusion and concern.
“The district has been nothing but transparent throughout the whole process. The district was clear that that choice was a commitment for either a trimester or semester. Staffing was based on parent sign ups that were completed within that window,” Leesa Halcro, secondary remote teacher states. She continues,
“For students to flow between remote and in person school would be like changing your teacher every two weeks. It just doesn’t work…
We see what people post on social media as we are working very hard…and it hurts.”
Susan Quinn 7-12 Curriculum Coordinator for GFPS explains, “One thing that the public doesn’t seem to understand is that the waiting list is there because we cannot pair one teacher with more than 150 students. Each of the [secondary] 657 students has anywhere from 4-6 classes, so we have to accommodate 2,669 enrollments with 17 teachers and that is an average of 157 per teacher – over the limit codified in Montana state law.”
She continues, “We are working feverishly to hire a few more teachers to take individual sections to get us down to acceptable numbers for each teacher (some are far above, others are below, but due to certification issues, we cannot just have those who are below 150 pick up the slack for those who are above – they have to be properly certified for what they are teaching).”
Remote teacher, Amy Sterling wishes “That parents understood that we are doing our best.
The district was very open about this process in July, and even extended the cutoff date for middle and high school kids to try to accommodate all of the students who needed this option. As well, just because your student is doing school at home does not mean that teachers are not the ones creating the lessons, materials, grading, and working with the students. We are busier now than ever before.”
It is best in pandemics and in life to assume that people are doing their best. When there are glitches, mistakes or basic human errors, remember that they aren’t doing them at you. Teachers and administrators are struggling, succeeding and learning alongside their students as they navigate new systems, software and expectations together.
A message for all involved: Be kind. Be respectful. Be accountable. Do your best to dole out grace as generously as you’d like to receive it.
We are all clamoring for normalcy and control-don’t confuse those innate needs to equal perfection in the humans around you.
We are grateful for the phenomenal administrators, teachers, staff in all departments at Great Falls Public Schools for doing their jobs under extreme stress, through a pandemic while wading through a ransomware attack. They are doing hard, glorious work and we are blessed to have them partner with our community in raising the next generation.