With widespread school closures across California due to COVID-19 concerns, many educators across the country are entering the world of online learning for the first time. Sensing the need for her unique knowledge and experience, California Virtual Academies educator and CTA member Nicole Piper reached out to offer to help and is now holding a series of webinars to support her fellow CTA educators as they navigate an unfamiliar world.
Her March 19 session on best practices for virtual teaching was packed to capacity (recording available here) with another session scheduled on March 26, and others in the weeks following. We asked the California Virtual Educators United (CVEU) member about online learning, best practices and why she’s stepping up to help others during this unprecedented time.
Q: How long have you been teaching? How long have you been working in distance learning (and is that the appropriate label)?
A: When I graduated with my credential, there were very few jobs for teachers. I did not originally plan to teach virtually, but I ended up applying at California Virtual Academies (CAVA) and loving it. This is my eighth year online teaching, and I have spent most of that time teaching middle school reading intervention. At my school, we generally refer to what we do as “virtual learning” or “online learning”; I actually haven’t heard the term “distance learning” very much until the last few weeks — but it makes sense for what our brick-and-mortar educators will now be doing.
Q. What would you say are the biggest benefits and challenges to online learning?
A. My favorite thing about online learning is that I get to make a personal learning connection with every individual student every day. For example, when a teacher in a brick-and-mortar classroom asks the class a question, maybe the students think-pair-share, maybe they raise their hands, but it would be difficult for the teacher to hear and respond to every student’s response every time. In my virtual class, when I ask a question, every single student answers in some way, and I get to see their thinking and respond to them. I love that, and I think they do, too.
The biggest challenge to online learning is the lack of physical oversight. When your students are in your real-life classroom, you manage the environment, how loud it is, where they sit and what materials they have. You can see their faces, tell when they’re confused and catch that “lightbulb moment.” When switching to the online environment, you have to accept that you can no longer manage their physical environment, but you can help set them and their families up for success. You have to find new ways to keep them engaged and excited about learning.
Q. A lot of people don’t know that there is a CTA chapter for virtual educators. I know you and others worked hard to become union members. Why was that so important to you? And how does that connect with your willingness to help your CTA family right now?
A. We did work very hard to become union members! I have been a member of CVEU from the beginning (2013), starting as a lead rep for the intervention department and also as a bargaining team member this year. Our contract was the first in the nation to be signed with a K-12 partnered school, and one of the first for a virtual charter school.
Because of the sometimes isolating nature of virtual teaching, it used to be very difficult for us to make connections and advocate for ourselves and our students. CVEU has given us a voice at our school, helping those of us who teach students every day to influence policies that affect them. As our contract is so new, we are still working to refine it, but union membership has offered immeasurable benefits.
I wanted to reach out to other teachers through CTA because I know CTA’s primary focus is students, which is my philosophy as well. Helping teachers succeed in this new environment is the best thing we can do to support students around the state (and the world!) right now.
Q. Last week’s webinar was wildly popular among your colleagues who want to learn more to help their students. Why was it important to you to share your knowledge?
A. As I started hearing about schools closing, possibly for an extended period of time, I remembered back to when I was first learning to teach online. I made so many mistakes. In my years at CAVA, I have helped train new virtual teachers and seen the learning curve from that perspective as well. The first few months as a new virtual teacher are challenging and having support makes all the difference. We’re all in this crazy situation together. I’m not a doctor, I can’t cure the virus or help people who are sick, but I am an online educator with some experience — so I figured that put me in a position to help teachers and, therefore, their students!
Q. What are your top tips for educators wading into remote learning for the first time?
A. Show grace: to yourself, to your students and to your families. This is challenging and new and strange for everybody, and it will be tough for a while. It will get better! The more you learn and practice, the more your students and families learn and practice, the more this will start to feel “normal.” Don’t be too hard on yourself when something doesn’t work the way you hoped. As one of my professors in credential school used to say, “as educators, what we do every day is as important as brain surgery, but nobody dies if we mess up.”
Q. What does it mean to you to be able to help your CTA family during a time of crisis like this?
A. I feel really lucky to get to share my knowledge and experience with my CTA peers. I know many of my fellow virtual teachers feel the same way and have been stepping up to help, too. Those of us who have been doing this for a while have probably felt that folks misunderstood what virtual educators do, so it is really gratifying to be able to share best practices acquired through years of hard work. I hope we can make this process just a bit easier for teachers and their students.
Q. There are a lot of resources online for online learning best practices — do you have any favorite or particularly helpful resources that you can share?
A. My colleagues and I have been compiling a list of favorite resources on our Virtual Teacher Guide that CTA has shared out, so [educators should check that]. Many “trainings” for online teaching you find on the web is actually training on how to use a company’s specific platform or program. While these can be helpful if you end up using that particular platform or program, remember that they may not be a good fit for your class, and that is okay. Second, don’t feel like you have to try 50 new resources a day. Focus on the basics: How to use your online teaching platform, how to get information to your students, how students get their work to you, and try maybe one or two new resources a week. Incorporate those that work for you, move on from those that don’t.
Q. Anything else you want to mention?
A. I said this in the webinar, but I would like to emphasize it again: Educators can do this. They know how to teach students. They are skilled professionals. This is a new environment, but the basics of good teaching remain exactly the same. Many of the lessons they already have will transfer just fine to an online platform. Educators are some of the most important people in their students’ lives, and their students will be so grateful to continue that relationship, even if it is in a new way.
Follow Nicole Piper on Twitter for her “Virtual Teacher Tip of the Day.”