Learning Curve: How Teachers Are Responding to Digital Instruction

Coronavirus

Photo: Sarah Milianta, teacher at Ilima Intermediate School

HONOLULU (KHON) — At first, the Department of Education planned to extend its spring break an extra week, expecting classes to resume on March 30th. A few days later, the DOE closed its offices and pivoted to a “staggered” return, hoping for students to return to school on April 7th. April 7th came and went but COVID-19 did not, and the DOE ultimately decided to continue online instruction through the end of the school year.

The disruption of public education has been one of the more prominent impacts of the pandemic, putting teachers under the gun to transition to online instruction while students and their parents adjust to completely new schedules and modes of learning.

The past months have seemed like an eternity, but it wasn’t that long ago when things were how they had always been.

Before COVID-19

Micah Pregitzer has been a science teacher at Kalaheo High School in Kailua for 16 years, charged with teaching everything from freshman biology to Advanced Placement. On top of that, he teaches a health elective and is the advisor of the lacrosse club, which was in its first year before Everything Happened.

“We had a rotating schedule with even and odd classes. One day was all even classes, the next all odds. So I’d see the kids 2-3 times a week depending on the schedule,” Pregitzer said. 

Sarah Milianta — Mili, for short — is a STEM lab teacher at Ilima Intermediate School in Ewa Beach, teaching tech skills with an emphasis on coding.

“We focus on social-emotional learning a lot,” Mili explained. “I have to be the class that gets the kids to come to school so they can take math and science.”

Shortly into the semester, however, what it meant for students to be in class became wildly different than it used to be, and the science of life would have to flex and strain to accommodate the real-life manifestations of its microscopic subject matter.

The Transition

Teachers across the DOE are familiar with the expression “building the plane as you fly” in regards to the turbulent changes of policy and technology that regularly rock their classrooms. But that sentiment has never been more immediate than it is now. While many teachers scrambled to make their classes compatible with distance learning, others were already well-positioned for the change.

Micah Pregitzer’s work-from-home setup.

“At Kalaheo, the transition was pretty easy,” Pregitzer said. “Most of the teachers used Google Classroom, Jupiter Ed for grades and some assignments. It was more of an extension of what we were already doing, and expanding how much we used it and relied on it.” Additionally, the school had already given most students Chromebooks — small personal computers — which ensured online access.

Mili was similarly ready: “Our class was basically entirely computer-based. My kids were already on Google Classrooms, they knew how to find their assignments. Switching to distance learning made the class more dense, but I don’t think I had the same issues going online that maybe a math class had.”

Moving to digital instruction also added more pressure for a vital yet perpetually vulnerable group of educators — new teachers. It’s hard enough to be a new teacher in normal circumstances, but in extraordinary ones such as this, veterans have stepped up to make sure new teachers feel supported.

“I’ve worked for 14 years,” Mili said. “If you’re a new teacher right now, the retention issue is real. If you’re questioning if teaching is for you, you need support. I have two mentee teachers — making sure they’re comfortable and supported has been one of my big priorities.”

“I’m sure there are teachers struggling in their first year,” Pregitzer added. “It’s tough when you’re brand new and coming up with curriculum, then all of a sudden everything you planned doesn’t work anymore. That can be stressful. Luckily, the teachers I work with on a day-to-day basis haven’t had that issue.”

Instead, the energy and enthusiasm of new teachers has been a boost for the entire team at Kalaheo.

“We have a new teacher on our bio team, and he hasn’t missed a step. He’s been contributing and adding resources that we previously didn’t have in our curriculum that are extremely helpful. In my experience, the new teachers have been a breath of fresh air. They’ve stepped up.” 

Changes and Challenges

Even when the transition itself has gone smoothly, the ongoing process of digital instruction has not been easy.

“The challenges for me have been getting the kids to engage online as opposed to when they’re in my class and I can interact with them,” Pregitzer said. “When I see them every other day I can touch base with them, one-on-one if need be, and get them on-track. Online, at most you get a notification to see if they logged in and turned in assignments. If they’re struggling, all you can do is send an email or message or make a phone call to them or their parents. Whether you get a reply or not is hit or miss.”

Mili echoed the sentiment: “No teacher gets 100% of their assignments turned in, even in the classroom. But before, I could talk to other teachers or pull students out of other classes if their homework wasn’t done. I’m really missing that community with other teachers.”

Being dependent on technology has naturally left some students behind.

“My initial concern was the digital divide,” Mili explained. “As teachers we’ve always known the digital divide is present, but now we’re shocked. I called everyone’s house to say how are you doing, do you have internet access. From doing that, I estimated about 22% of my 170 kids don’t have internet connection, or multiple kids are at home sharing one computer. 51% of my school has free or reduced lunch. My concern is I’m not seeing my most vulnerable kids coming to class.”

Mili, who also runs her school’s Gay-Straight Alliance, is concerned about the wellbeing of some of her students who may not be in supportive home environments: “When school is your safe space and you’ve lost your safe space now, those are the ones that keep me up at night. Your heart hurts for them.”

For Pregitzer, the digital divide isn’t as stark an issue, but losing the real-time flexibility to answer specific questions and clarify concepts has been a major obstacle.

“There’s a lot that we’re just not able to do. For science labs, we have to rely on virtual labs. They’re good but they’re never as good as the real thing. We have dissections and a physiology unit coming up. It’s just never an equal comparison when you’re doing a virtual dissection as opposed to a real one. What the kids take out of it will not be the same, either.

“It’s hard to quantify how much they’re losing out. Qualitatively, it’s a lot. There’s a lot of instruction that goes on in class as opposed to me just posting stuff online and doing lectures online and having part of the class show up for it — maybe they’re paying attention, maybe they’re not. It’ll be hard to say what they’ve learned until next year when they show up and we go over the information we’re learning right now.”

Meeting Student Needs

Finding solutions starts with understanding students’ current umwelt.

“Everyone is dealing with a stressful situation,” Pregitzer said. “We’re trying to limit how much we’re giving them to do. If they have 7 classes assigning work to do online without a lot of structure? It’s difficult. So we scaled down the amount of assignments we’ve been giving them.” 

Mili uses technology creatively to meet the students where they are most comfortable.

“I use ClassDojo, as well as an internal Facebook group that’s private to kids on our teaching team. We can send out announcements through there. I use the platform Remind.com, a text messaging service that can message parents updates. I put notes on my Instagram story that tell students to check Google Classrooms.”

She also uses Flipgrid, which allows students to upload video reflections on assignments instead of written responses. All of these technological solutions are underpinned by a strong commitment to flexibility. 

“As an elective I’ve tried to stay away from set schedules. They have core classes, so I want them to focus on science and math. Kids turn in their work anywhere between 9pm and 3am. As a teacher, if you’re giving me quality work at 10pm, that’s fine. I’d like you to get more rest, but I’m fine.”

Silver Linings

No teacher started 2020 thinking a global pandemic would upend the school year. No one expected COVID-19, and certainly no one wanted it. Still, several positives have emerged from the chaos.

“Communication with parents has increased,” Pregitzer said. “I’ve formed better relationships with parents and students because they’re having to reach out to me one-on-one, call me or email me, setup virtual conferences if they have questions. So I’ve heard from parents and students that, normally, I wouldn’t have interactions with.” 

Mili has seen tremendous positive changes in many of her students.

“A lot of kids who were shy in class are speaking up more now. It’s been really powerful to see this platform empower kids who aren’t traditionally loud. Digital friendships are getting stronger. Kids engage with each other more. Kids have their own video conferences separate from school to stay connected. They’re scheduling online meetups to stay connected.”

“Another thing is educator connectivity,” she added. “I’m active in the teacher Twitter community, where we’re problem-solving in real time. So that’s been really cool. We started offering virtual office hours to help teachers learn about Google Classroom or WebEx or different platforms. It’s been cool to watch people learn, and to see educators support each other all over the place.”

Facing Future

If nothing more, this pandemic has laid bare long-cracking foundations in institutions across society, and education is no different. There’s hope to be found in that. Not only is there now an impetus to change, there’s also a clearer understanding of what needs to happen, and how.

Nevertheless, uncertainty abounds. Even as the state begins to re-open, plans for moving forward remain in limbo, especially with the distinct possibility of another outbreak.

“There’s a lot of unknowns for what’s going to happen next year,” Pregitzer said. “What are schools going to look like? What measures are going to be in place if this is still in our society? Are we going to have smaller class sizes to accommodate social distancing? That would actually be a good thing in my opinion. 

“The next school year is only a couple months away. I’ll be very interested to see what it’ll look like, what the precautions will be, what classes will be like, what safety measures will have to be in place for students and teachers. Nobody knows what’s going to happen, but I don’t think it’ll return to normal when we go back to school.”

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