SHELDON—Jodi Grant feels like she’s in the circus.
Grant is an English, speech and theatre teacher at Sheldon High School. Since August, she’s been engaged in a juggling act of balancing distance learning with in-person instruction for her students.
“You’re spinning plates and you have to keep all the plates going at the same time,” she said. “It’s really quite complicated because there’s technology involved and concentration going on with the kids in the class, kids who are online and things on the Smart Board you are presenting to them.”
Every day, she puts on a microphone, starts up a Google Meets call, and addresses students in the classroom and over a digital call. Three months into the school year, Grant said she’s learned to embrace daily doses of chaos and unexpected technology glitches as she forges ahead.
Sometimes Google Meets lag. Sometimes her microphone has an echo. Sometimes that Google Doc she was pretty sure she’d prepared to release to her class is nowhere to be found.
“It’s a circus and you just have to keep your plates spinning and sometimes they fall,” Grant said. “Sometimes you have a really bad technology day and nothing is working for you.”
‘Flying without a map’
The pandemic has required teachers to provide simultaneous in-person and distance learning instruction this fall. Sometimes this makes teachers feel they are teaching two classes at once.
“There’s all these little things you don’t think of like taking off a mic before you conference with a student or making sure students on a conference call aren’t muted so they can contribute to a class,” said high school vocational agriculture teacher Jacob Fox.
Student collaboration adds another dizzying layer to the complexity of simultaneous teaching. When Fox pairs distance learners with in-person students, he has them set up their own video calls and work on shared Google Docs.
“We’re all kind of flying without a map right now and students’ patience with us as we figure things out and their willingness to go out in the hall and have that meet with someone who’s not here, that’s probably our saving grace this year,” Fox said.
Group projects are just one example of “normal” classroom work that’s become more complicated with distance learning. Math teacher Levi Letsche realized early on in the school year that he needed a way to get immediate feedback from his students on what concepts they struggled with.
“I’m a teacher who’s normally walking around through the classroom looking at what they’re working on and identifying if there’s additional help they need,” Letsche said. “When they’re at home I can’t just walk into their living room to see how they’re doing.”
He appreciates the time the school district put into preparing teachers to work online this fall. Early online teaching workshops the district provided helped him find online tools that work as a substitute for being able to look over students’ shoulders as they solve a problem.
“I felt prepared with what I needed to get myself off on the right foot at the start,” Letsche said.
Another factor teachers are grappling with is that the number of distance-learning students fluctuates, and each student calling in brings a set of potential technology issues to add to the mix.
“At one time I had more students online than I had in my classroom,” Grant said of one speech class, where 16 of the 24 students were distance learning because of COVID-19 quarantines.
“You never know if you’re going to have somebody online or not. And with headsets and microphones, it’s always ‘Am I muted? Am I not muted? Did I mute them?’”
‘It’s not easy’
Being an online teacher brings with it a host of behind-the-scenes work that students and parents only see the results of as teachers remake their teaching materials for a digital learning environment.
Since spring, Grant has been busy turning paper worksheets and handouts into formats students can access and edit from their own homes, without needing a printer or other technology besides a computer. She’s slowly building a body of recorded lectures and other digitally accessible learning materials to help her distanced learners — and the in-person ones, too.
“I’m not going to say it’s easy because it’s not,” Grant said. “Trying to take everything that I’ve had for 25 years and make it digital, it’s a lot of work.”
That effort was worth it when Grant moved to distanced teaching for a week and a half while she was out with COVID-19.
“I had a substitute teacher in my room to manage things for me and I just taught,” Grant said. “I’d record the Google Meet in the morning and then have the substitute show that during the last class so I could take a nap. We found some shortcuts.”
The juggling act continues, but Grant said distanced learning this fall is proving to be a much better experience for everyone involved than the abrupt transition of the spring.
“This is more normal. We have a rhythm to things,” Grant said. “It’s still complicated but you get used to it because it’s a different world every day.”