As I have the opportunity to work with schools all over the country, I am privileged to interact with all kinds of incredible educators, especially this year, as our profession has really had to level up in the face of adversity during COVID! We, in education, have definitely had to pivot. We’ve had to adapt to new, and ever-changing, situations, and now, we’re having to deal with the aftermath. We all have stories of how this past year has changed or grown us, and in this blog series, I want to highlight a few of those stories. I hope you can identify with and be encouraged by the teachers in our series as they share challenges, victories, and the tips and tricks they’ve learned along the way.
Sara Katt is one of those teachers you want your kids to have. As an all-virtual teacher of 5th grade math, she’s worked tirelessly over the past year to shift and perfect her craft in response to the demands of the pandemic. Through all the change and uncertainty, however, Sara has embraced the virtual teaching platform and continues to fulfill her calling as an educator, even if it looks a little different these days.
What has been the biggest challenge of teaching virtually?
I have yet to decide if this is a challenge or a blessing, but I do not do any live lessons. I can only offer live one-on-one meetings for support. In some ways, this has been very nice, because my lessons can be fairly well-scripted, prepared ahead of time, and available at any time to students. All of my assignments are released for the week on Monday morning and kids have the whole week to complete them. That has been really nice for our district, since many families only have internet through hot spots on parent cell phones. Many of my students work at odd times due to limited internet, shared computers, and other home-based needs. Having recorded lessons allows them the flexibility they need and keeps them moving at a pace that works for their home.
While recorded lessons have been a great solution to student problems, it has made teaching more challenging; especially in math. I can no longer rely on visual cues, raised hands, and questions from the class to guide my instruction. Thankfully, I have 10 years of experience to help guide me in my videos. I generally know what questions, confusions, etc, will come up. However, despite my best efforts, I’m certain there are things I miss. I also have no control over when the kids complete their lessons. While I encourage them to follow an agenda I’ve posted, not all students do. Some of them like to do math on days they have help (normally a parent’s day off), and they complete a week’s worth of math in one or two days. That puts very large amounts of time between lessons. I have yet to decide if that has been helpful (forced retention) or hurtful (loss of long term memory opportunities).
The math series we use has also been a struggle for me as a virtual teacher. The book comes with a virtual platform, but work can’t be shared between the teacher and students. To accommodate this, I have had to create assignments for them from scratch through Google Forms and other Google platforms. I have had to get very creative in analyzing the answers they submit to see if they truly understand a concept. When it is clear they don’t, I have to try to decide what errors they are making, often without seeing their work to support the answer. I have become an expert at error analysis this year!
What have you learned from teaching virtually that you might not have learned as a classroom teacher?
As mentioned earlier, I have become very good at deciphering where errors are coming from in a student’s work and being able to create personalized lessons/support for them. When I am “in person” teaching, there are so many other things going on that it can be difficult to find time to really analyze work and find the small errors students make. However, that is now my only outlet to find out how they are really doing in math. It is forcing me to stay on top of their work far more than I needed to when I could just glance at their work and do a spot scan for understanding.
I also feel like I’ve improved in the way I present material. In a classroom, students are forced to at least hear me, no matter how much I talked. In a video, if they get bored, they just turn me off. That forced me to really consider how much I was saying and if everything I was saying was meaningful. I’ve learned to really condense my thoughts.
What has been your most humorous moment during your virtual teaching experience?
If I kept a blooper reel of film, this would be a very long blog. I don’t even want to count all the times I’ve gotten part way into a video and sneezed, flubbed words, gotten totally lost in what I was doing, had commercials start playing – you name it, I’ve lived it.
It has become a running joke amongst the kids and I to listen for my pets in the background of videos. I often end up recording lessons at home because there are far fewer interruptions there. However, there is also a cat there. This particular cat is apparently fascinated with 5th grade curriculum because she joins most of our videos. At least once or twice a week you can hear a small meow in the background of a film; always at the most inopportune time. I used to try to edit around them, but now I leave the quiet ones in for their enjoyment. Plus, as a teacher bonus, it entices the students to listen closely!
What is your best “hack” for virtual teaching at home or school?
Over the last year, I have slowly developed a system that works for me at home. I am fortunate to have dual monitors at home, which make my life SO much easier! They are, without a doubt, one of the best things I did for myself. I find it very helpful to have multiple documents open while recording. I can have my documents all lined up on one screen and record from another. It helps me keep my videos paced well, and it keeps me from having awkward screen/program jumping while I record.
At the beginning of my virtual teaching attempts, I was having a hard time teaching math without being able to record myself working on paper. I found a “hack” that was an excellent replacement for my document camera. I had seen another teacher who made use of their cell phone and a locker shelf (milk crates work too). For live lessons, I could log my computer in as the teacher and my cell phone in as a muted student. By placing the camera in a grate opening, I could then present a lesson like I was using a document camera. For recorded lessons, I would film it with my camera and upload the video to YouTube for the kids to view. I’ve since upgraded to an actual document camera at home, but, in a pinch, I still make use of my shelf.
If you could choose your teaching situation, would you want to be back in the classroom? Hybrid? Or stay virtual?
I choose teaching. When I was in the college, my professors always told us we’d never be bored with teaching if we were doing it correctly. Right now, I find that to be more true than ever before. Virtual teaching has forced me to be flexible (not my strong suit) and creative in the ways I present material. I have really enjoyed the challenge.
In-person teaching allows me to spend time with some of my favorite humans every day; something I love and cherish. While I’ve worked hard to form those same relationships with my virtual students, it will never be quite the same. I think we can all agree that teaching is a trying profession, but every time I consider doing anything else, my heart won’t let me. No matter what teaching looks like, I think it will always call to me. I think my new favorite t-shirt sums it up best, “I will teach you in a room, I will teach you now on Zoom. I will teach you in a house, I will teach you with my mouse. I will teach you here or there. I will teach because I care!”
What wisdom, tips, or tricks would share with teachers who are also in the trenches?
Here are the top five things I’ve learned this year:
Take Time For Yourself
Being strictly virtual, it has been really easy for me to let the lines blur between home life and school life. When we went home last March, it was nearly impossible for me to separate myself from school. My email is connected to my phone, so any notifications pop up instantly and pull me back in. Now, I’ve learned that it is important for myself, my family, and my team, for me to take time for myself. Whatever self-care looks like for you, make time for it!
Join Teacher Groups
I’ve found a lot of virtual groups through social media that have saved me more than a few times. There are countless teachers trying to support each other out there. I’ve gotten lesson plan ideas, technology support, and advice from teachers all over the world in the last year (all for free). It is amazing what we can do when we come together!
Don’t Skip the Fun Things
One thing I enjoy about virtual learning is that it frees up some time for my students. I can offer them art projects we would never get to do. Last spring, my co-teacher and I taught kids to cook. I’ve dressed up in funny costumes, recorded things in odd voices, had a bad joke competition, and countless other fun times with my kids. Yes, they took up time. Yes, the Zoom meetings weren’t overly structured. Yes, I wanted to pull my hair out more than once. But, looking back at the last year, those are the things I remember, and I’m certain it’s what my kids will recall in future years too.
You Can’t Control Everything
If the last year has taught me anything, it’s that some things are just out of my control. I have had to learn to let the little things go. All that does is create tension that I have no room for in my life. Every day, I work hard to see the good in things in any situation. I’m not always successful, but my stress level goes way down when I am!
Explore New Ideas
I like routine. I have favorite lessons that I teach every year. I have books I like to read to the class because I know the reactions they generate. For me, while those things are my favorites, I was getting to the point in my career where things were becoming too routine. Sometimes, it’s nice (even necessary) to shake things up. Try a new kind of assignment. Read a different book. Wear the silly costume. You won’t regret it!
About the Author
Sara Katt has a Bachelor’s degree from Saginaw Valley State University and a Master’s Degree from Concordia University in STEM Curriculum Design and Development. She is actively teaching 5th grade with Standish-Sterling Central Elementary. Throughout her 10 years in education, Sara has experience with nearly all grade levels both as a paraprofessional and teacher. Sara is passionate about teaching in general, but especially loves teaching math!