So You Want To Be An Online Teacher

11 Jul

I have finally finished my first year teaching for the largest charter school in Georgia, which also happens to be part of a larger company that is the largest online K-12 school in the U.S. And it has been quite an adventure on so many levels!

This past year, I was a special education teacher, co-teaching algebra 1 to mostly 9th grade students. This alone would have been a challenge for me in any setting, since math is not exactly my best subject. Unfortunately, this is true of most special educators as most teachers who have a talent for math end up teaching it regularly. And those with a talent for both math and teaching are even more rare than those with the temperament for teaching special education. So I would have been breathing rarified air in any case, but the fact that I was doing it in an online environment made it even moreso.

The first question I always get is “How do you teach special education in an online environment?” Sometimes it is more generic, as in “How does online teaching work?”

It involves some of the same skills and routines as regular teaching, but the environment is totally different and it involves some new skills in communication and technology.

Most of the same things that hold true for online learning apply to online teaching. There is a steep learning curve, more work spread over more hours. While there is some flexibility and environmental benefits, it is not easier or less rigorous than teaching in a regular brick and mortar (B&M) setting. If someone is considering teaching in an online environment there are some things they need to know. Now I can share a few things that I learned over the past year.

The first and biggest adjustment I had to make was realizing that my school never sleeps. Ever. I think the closest thing my school came to taking a break was on Christmas and New Years and maybe the 4th of July. That does not mean that we as teachers don’t have breaks, but it does mean that the company is a constant task gin and taking vacations, taking time off and otherwise being unplugged results in a backlog of things that will be waiting for you when you plug back in. If you are the sort that likes a tidy desk with all things completed at the end of the day you will be in a constant state of stress and frustration. And I was one of those people who enjoyed some sense of completion and closure. This was doable and possible when teaching in a B&M setting with individuals with severe and profound disabilities, because I worked diligently during the day and could have most things done when I went home, even if I had to stay for a few extra hours. During IEP season, I might be there as late as 7 or 8 at night but when I went home it was done and there were few things carrying forward to the next day.

This is not even remotely possible in this environment. People take advantage of the flexibility, and so a teacher or administrator with young kids might wait until their kids were asleep to delve into the their major work tasks. So if I decide to check my email at 10 at night, I might find a dozen new things to do, many of which might be due by noon the next day.

My peers in the B&M setting are currently on their summer break, and have been for a couple of months. I get one month off, but there is some assumption that I will plug in and check my email and complete some tasks during that time. This assumption is a bit grating, as I am used to work being work and time off being time off. I still have some things to learn about managing the time and finding balance.

So just what ARE these tasks? Public education has become an endeavor that is data driven, and so much of what I do involves inputting, tracking and doing things with that data much more so that my friends in the B&M environment. Being a special education teacher adds an additional layer of compliancy that is not present anywhere else. In this setting, whatever the maximum caseload size is, you can count on having it.

In the B&M setting, spring is typically “IEP season.” However, within my setting, with a caseload of the maximum 26, it is year round with assorted amendments that have to take place constantly. Last year, the state did a sort of sumo belly flop on our department, trying to use special ed. issues to close the school and revoke our charter. This resulted in us having to work diligently until the wee hours of the morning over the course of several months in order to meet the various state-mandated deadlines, changing our IEPs into state-mandated language. It was an oppressive, stressful environment that made me wonder why I was here and what I had gotten myself into.

My day starts off with a commute of just a few feet to fire up my laptop, during which time I might go get something to eat and perhaps even take a showers. Note to perspective online teachers: taking a shower more than once a week will make you feel better! If I wait until 8 to wake up and log in, I do have the flexibility to sneak a shower in later in the day.

We do have live class sessions, which most teachers enjoy as this is where the most direct interaction occurs with the students. My first one was not until 9, so the first hour of my workday was checking my email and kmail and responding while making out my task list for the day. This list was in a notebook, and usually things carried over from one day to the next and the closest I got to a clean desk was scratching off each thing I completed as I went through the day. Math had more sessions than any other subject, which was 4 times a week 9-10, and then 3 times a week 1-2. There were also weekly school meetings, weekly trainings and weekly special ed department meetings as well as other weekly staff meetings with math and high school and high school special education. Each of these meetings were opportunities to get some more tasks and work to add to our list.

If I paint a picture of a lot of administrative work, that is because it is the lion’s share of what we do. The academic classes on the high school level are huge. I co-taught in a section of 160-180 students. Most of the work that students do is independent and fairly self-directed, which is a huge adjustment for most of them. This is why the learning coach is such a critical component of the online learning equation.

Up to this point, it might look like a bleak picture. Perhaps I can make it a little darker by pointing out that we do get paid substantially less than our B&M peers. The benefits are fairly competitive, but you will pay as they do take a huge chunk out of ones paycheck.

So to summarize: longer hours, less time off and less pay. You still want to do this?

We attract a lot of women with young children who want to spend more time at home with their kids and see this flexibility as a way of doing that. However once in, many realize that this is not necessarily working out like they had hoped. A lot of time is spent in meetings and on the telephone and kids and pets (and perhaps spouses) have an uncanny knack of knowing just when to make lots of noise to get mommy’s attention. So the demands can seem fairly constant, now with children and job both crowding in often at the same time. I’m fortunate to have a wife who can take care of the kids while I work, and kids old enough to know to stay out of the office when I am busy. But that is not to say that y parents, students and fellow teachers will never hear the sound of baritone practice, video games or other loud sounds in the background.

Haha…Let me reward those of you who got this far with a few rewards!

Aside from the benefits of saving on wardrobe and commuting, there are other benefits. But these two things are not unsubstantial. Everyday is pajama day if you want, though I would caution that getting showered and dressed might help to differentiate work time from not-work time which is something every home-worker has to struggle with. It is otherwise easy to get in the pit of all the time being work time. But even wearing jeans, shorts, no shoes or whatever I might want to be “work clothes” is a big benefit. In my former B&M school, the principal would reward teachers with “Jeans Day” or perhaps would sell tickets to wear jeans to raise money for some cause or club. Our kids go to live events wearing shirts saying “I love going to school everyday in my pajamas!” and teachers have something similar about teaching in their pajamas.

Not having to drive everyday is also a big benefit, as the morning and evening commutes in larger cities are considered a major stressor for most people. I don’t have to be out there worrying about getting hit by another car or what the weather is going to be. Of course that precludes snow days for me, but it lends to a more consistent schedule for the school.

The next biggest benefit as a teacher is not having to spend all the time we usually would spend managing behavior. This is a huge attraction for parents, students and teachers as the dangers and risks associated with being in a crowded classroom disappear when you are in your own house. A school shooting for our school would have to involve driving to every county in the state, visiting 12,000+ separate homes. We do take measures to keep the kids safe from cyberbullying but even these risks are greatly diminished when kids are not herded up and crowded into close proximity every day. Most fights in schools nowadays seem to spawn from something someone posted on Facebook and Twitter in a high tech variant of typical he-said she-said drama.

Teachers can see and monitor every singe thing said in their classrooms and can simply turn off or disable chat on an individual or a class-wide basis. We encourage and model appropriate online behavior in these settings and it is a boon for many who are otherwise socially awkward.

Not having to deal with behaviors like this makes it infinitely easier to deal with students 1:1, even in our huge classroom settings. And it makes it much easier to talk to kids who are already comfortable communicating digitally. It makes it easier to like them.

And I do like ALL of my students and their parents and families. In fact, I adore them. In group face-to-face settings, kids often put on a false face, trying to look cool or not wanting others to see their weaknesses. So they hide behind a false front. They can easily do this digitally, too, but all kids have a need to connect on a personal level. The words are pixels on a screen but the feelings and emotions behind them are very real and kids have become more and more adept at projecting and expressing those using technology. In B&M they often project badness in groups but teachers have to go 1:1 in order to get under that tough layer. I get to do this every day, all the time. With both parents AND students.

And this is, by far, the most satisfying part of my job. Touching kids is something every teacher lives for, and our kids thrive on the individual attention. And I thrive better as a teacher when I can do more of that. When I am feeling overwhelmed by my task list, I go to the kids and parents that need my help and it lifts us both. And they all are grateful and I have gotten SO much great and positive feedback that I never got in the B&M setting from those I have had the pleasure of working with this past year. It’s not about the pay, the vacations, the benefits or the flexibility. It’s about the connections and relationships. Being a bit of a misfit teacher, my students and I readily connect on a unique level that would not be possible in any other setting.

There is a need for more online teachers all the time as the waiting list for our school seems to get longer ever year, especially in high school. You think you have what it takes?

- You need to have a good work ethic that you can self-manage

- You need to be flexible because the only constant here is change, and often with little or no notice

- You need to be comfortable with technology as it is ALL done with the computer. Major tools for use include Outlook, Word, Excel, Powerpoint as well as some other tools. You can get a feel for the live environment by attending one of Steve Hargadon’s Future of Education sessions live or recorded in Blackboard Collaborate.

- Communicate using all modalities. Chat, writing, live and over the telephone are all ways to get the message out.

Like I said in the post about students, there is a steep learning curve. Its even steeper for teacher because you will have to be able to help families navigate a foreign system while it is still somewhat foreign to you!

We do have live face-to-face conferences, workshops and professional development activities about every other month where you get to put faces to the voices and emails. New teachers meet for several days at the beginning of the year for orientation and training.

I’ll be looking over comments for anything I might have missed, but will be back at work on Monday 7/16!  So even if it never gets read, at least it is getting my head back around toward getting back to what is important.

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2 Responses to “So You Want To Be An Online Teacher”

  1. Iva July 11, 2013 at 5:49 pm #

    You are read. We actually did K12 a few years back (twice!). I live in GA and will be teaching in a self contained classroom – first year. I actually earned my degree online while working in a similar classroom as a paraprofessional. I fully see online learning environments being a large part of education – especially with such a strong push for technology integration.

    As a parent, rest assured, your hard work “behind the scenes” is greatly appreciated!

  2. Kate July 11, 2013 at 8:56 pm #

    Thanks for sharing this. I’ve often thought of moving to online teaching, for the reasons you stated. (Don’t have kids yet, but in the future). Not sure which way I’ll go, but you’ve given me a lot to think about. Thanks so much. Good luck going back in a week! Yikes! lol

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