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A teacher's perspective on virtual and distance learning during COVID-19

Virtual Learning From a Teacher’s Perspective: What They Want Parents To Know

how local elementary teachers are adapting to online schooling

You’re getting a crash course in homeschooling, whether you wanted it or not, but our kids’ teachers are in a similar boat on the other side of the screen.

Like you, teachers are trying to figure out new tools and platforms, hosting virtual meetings, and communicating like crazy—perhaps even more than actually teaching. (As my best friend, a local high school teacher, lamented a few weeks ago: “I feel like all I’ve done for a whole week is send emails, texted parents and made phone calls.”)

We talked to a couple of local elementary teachers—Catherine Sentell, who teaches Primer (a program between kindergarten and first grade) at Parish Episcopal School in Dallas, and Hector Sanchez, a fourth grade math and science teacher in the Arlington Independent School District—to find out what distance learning is like for teachers, and what they want parents to know.

What does your schoolday look like now? Are you recording lessons, video-conferencing with students, emailing parents … ? Catherine Sentell: Yes, I’m doing all of those things. The students begin each school day at 8:30am or earlier when they check in, read the announcement and look through the day’s playlist of activities. Following that is our whole-class virtual meeting that begins with time for each student to share.

We do this every morning in the classroom, so this provides consistency and keeps our connections strong. We review the day’s activities together, and I often have a lesson.

I also hold virtual office hours each Monday, Wednesday and Friday for two hours so the students can virtually conference with me. I’m also available to meet online with the students any time they need a visual check-in or have questions.

Each Tuesday and Thursday I have a scheduled one-on-one video conference with each student to review something they are needing help with, compliment them on their good work and provide encouragement.

I spend a lot of time creating activities and recording announcements, books and lessons for YouTube. I also have regular virtual meetings with my team of co-teachers, teachers in other grade levels and administration. We also have training and tech support sessions.

Hector Sanchez: We’re dividing our days by planning, content, communicating with parents, providing feedback to students, coming up with new lessons, working on Canvas—which is the online repository of lessons that we can provide to the kids—and professional development.

Professional development consists of modules that we’re doing online to learn how to work with the different platforms that we’re using, as well as meetings with teachers and my principal where we talk about different strategies or better ways to teach.

We just moved to Phase 3 of our distance learning plan, which is basically going to be more teacher-led lessons and assignments. All this time, my kids have been working on assignments from the district’s At-Home Learning Hub, and I’ve been sending them YouTube videos that I created myself talking about, for example, financial literacy and angles and types of lines.

Now we’re going to be doing live lessons, we’re going to have assignments that we have come up with ourselves, and we’re going to have more freedom.

How much time are you spending on school activities? CS: About eleven to twelve hours a day. We’re creating a new distance learning curriculum, while simultaneously teaching and moving the children forward in their learning. Balancing screen and non-screen activities while creating authentic learning activities takes time.

How is your school or district supporting you? CS: The way the administrators, faculty and staff have all jumped in to support the teachers is really extraordinary. Our Head of School, Dave Monaco, and his wife, Mollie, are dropping off meals and doing virtual lessons with teachers’ own children, so that the teachers can be free to meet with their students.

Our division heads do personal check-ins with each of us to see how we’re doing. We receive our own playlist each day with brain break activities, helpful resources, reminders and funny memes to keep us smiling.

HS: They’re doing a great job in providing tools for us, providing professional development. Not all these teachers are technology-inclined, so all these webinars and modules are really, really helping.

I feel like I’m speaking for everybody that the district is doing a great job in coming up with different methods to teach and to communicate with students and parents. I also find that a lot of teachers are communicating a lot more and helping each other out—not like they were not doing it before, but I see it more now.

What do you do when you’re feeling overwhelmed? HS: I try to keep positive and optimistic. It is overwhelming. I have a 1 ½-year-old child here at home, and he does not care about my schedule, he does not care about my Zoom meetings and my training.

I find it difficult to juggle between my family and work. It has been challenging, but I keep a growth mindset. What we’re going through is a horrible thing; hopefully it will go away soon, but in the meantime we’ve just got to keep on working and keep on striving to be the best for our kids.

What’s been the biggest challenge of distance learning so far? CS: Missing the in-person interaction with one another. We have about 45–60 actual minutes together each day. I especially love the one-on-one check-ins as well as the children reading to me in our individual conferences. We really miss school and being together.

That has been something we’ve had to work through. FaceTime and our meetings and conferences have helped with that—being grateful for the time that we do have and making the most of it.

HS: Honestly just getting out of the comfort zone. This is something new, so the biggest challenge has been learning how to use these different platforms. But it’s also a good thing—it’s a good thing to be challenged. I feel like this has been a great way to make teachers open their eyes to something new.

Another challenge is providing feedback. You’re making all those videos, but how do you know that they’re learning? It’s just a matter of keeping constant communication with them, having those Zoom meetings and talking to them.

Another way is to use FlipGrid. FlipGrid is a platform where you record a lesson or a quick video and then they respond back to you via video. From there you can see if they’re getting the content.

What subject looks the most different now? CS: Reading probably looks the most different to me. Reading is such a highly individualized, interactive subject. They have been posting themselves reading a page or so for me, but it’s the daily, real-time reading instruction that is most different. Reading with them during their one-on-one time has certainly helped with this.

Is there anything you don’t miss about your regular classroom? HS: It’s funny—I kind of miss it all. Mainly I miss my kids, even those who like to talk and like to be mischievous. I miss seeing their faces, or that look when they get the content, and they understand it—I miss that. I miss my teammates.

What’s been the biggest surprise during this time? CS: How much the students are continuing to grow and learn under these challenging circumstances. I’ve always known how smart and gifted my students are and how supportive their parents are, but this experience has been truly amazing to me. Parents, other adults and siblings have jumped right in to help them at home and are doing such a phenomenal job.

HS: That camaraderie between the teachers and the kindness that everybody in the field has for our kids. We try to do everything we can to help our kids, be it providing technology for them, or being there for my kids all day long—I don’t mind if they text me or call me at any point of the day. I feel like this pandemic has brought us together more. That’s not to say that I didn’t have a connection with them before, but this is different.

What do you want parents to know? HS: We’re here to help them, and we’re doing the best that we can. I know a lot of parents are having difficulty helping their kids with all these online platforms, and I would like to ask them to bear with us—this is also difficult for us, and we’re trying to do the best for their kids.

Photo courtesy of Parish Episcopal School.