I must admit to growing weary of hearing people say that our students are falling behind. I’m not exactly sure where that comparison is coming from: last year’s students? testing scores? attendance rates? I suspect this idea, at least at the secondary level, is because school looks vastly different this year and many who are not in the classroom daily – whatever that classroom may look like – have no standard from which to judge this different learning environment.
My argument is about this specific group of students in this specific class because I know that a kindergarten student has needs that a high school student doesn’t. Likewise, I know that not all students have access to the technology they need to effectively navigate the online learning environment. But I argue that high school seniors who do have this access will likely be ahead of any other incoming freshman class that we have sent to college simply because this year has given them the opportunity to do what no other graduating class before has been required to do: take full ownership of their learning.
Think about what they are doing. Many schools do not hold virtual students to the same district attendance standards as hybrid or face-to-face classes, and as such, these students can opt to skip the lecture and simply submit the work and they are counted present. Sound familiar? Attending the college classroom every day is a choice many freshmen have difficulty making…until grades roll around and academic probation is on the horizon.
Further, these students are learning to build a relationship with teachers to whom they seemingly have limited access. If they have a question, they must ask it rather than relying on a classmate to ask it first. They can’t “read” the room or the teacher prior to deciding how they will behave that day. They have to decide to learn…or not, and often without an audience. They are learning new technological skills, and they are learning even more about each other. For example, it’s hard to be the class clown in a Zoom session, so they are learning to earn their classmate’s attention in other, more productive ways…like answering questions correctly and making real contributions to small group discussions in breakout rooms.
Admittedly, online students may be behind in situations where teachers were thrown into an online environment without preparation or adequate support. Students from districts that have no real knowledge of the differences in online teaching and learning and failed to seek guidance from their staff who did, may still be grappling with why students are failing. However, students who have been fortunate enough to have teachers who were either trained, or quickly figured out that teaching online is so much more than facilitating a prepackaged program, and that it is definitely more than throwing up PowerPoints that were used in face-to-face classes, well, those students may actually find themselves exactly where they should be next year, if not ahead.
I’ve been fortunate enough to teach both face-to-face and online for the last five years of my fifteen-year career, and what I’m happy to report is that relationships and rewards do not have to suffer just because we are “virtual.” Students are not destined to be behind next year, nor are they lacking in social skills, but rather are learning a new skillset that I argue will place them at the top of the global marketplace where online conferences and at-home workspaces were becoming commonplace long before the pandemic hit.
I make this argument not only with pride, but also with hope. Five years ago my biggest fear in teaching the online classes I was offered was that I’d lose what made me an effective teacher: my ability to build a community of learners. But this week provided evidence to the contrary.
I have a student who had pretty much given up – on Day 4. (No joke.) She even sent me a private email weeks into the class telling me that she was not as smart as I kept telling her she was. It is important to note that this student didn’t suddenly start failing this year. In fact, waiting until after the last minute to do her work and then letting her father swoop in to save her has been her mode of operation for years. It was easy for both father and daughter to blame online learning as the culprit, but I knew better and, well, this year this student met her match.
This kid is sweet, and it’s so easy to let things slide when kids are well-mannered, quiet, and well-behaved–and the kids not only know this–they work it. In fact, that behavior causes even me to be more lenient in my policies than I like to admit sometimes. For instance, my policy is to accept no preliminary assignments late and to only accept major assignments late up to three days–and with an 11-point penalty. This policy did not bode well for my sweet student. Things went south so quickly that I didn’t even have to call home as is my normal course of action. Dad called me.
This dad, like many well-meaning, incredibly loving parents wanted the best for his daughter: grace from the teacher. I agreed, and I explained that perhaps the best form of grace at this point was to let this dear one struggle for a bit. I explained to dad that daughter has become quite comfortable in her current behavior, but that next year no one will be able to come to her aid. I promised dad that I wouldn’t let this go too far but was able to convince him that we needed to let our student suffer some consequences.
Now, dad didn’t take too kindly to this plan, but after a bit more conversation and my spelling out my plan to him, he decided we’d give it a try – nothing else had worked, after all.
This kid was her own worst enemy and continued to drown in a sea of incomplete assignments even though she and I were conferencing nearly every day. She just wouldn’t do the work and finally blamed it on her inability to operate in the school’s online platform. All evidence pointed to the contrary, but I know that kids must be allowed to save face, so we started working together (again) on how to find, complete, and submit assignments. I also directed her to the tutorials that had been available all semester in case she needed a refresher later.
At the end of the week, out of 15 missed assignments, she had submitted a grand total of TWO. Dad was not happy and neither was I, so we had a conference online – dad, student, and teacher. Looking back, I wonder if my student thought this conference would be impossible this year — she had had them before in the face-to-face environment, but with her teacher working from her home office, I guess she felt safe that the conference was a “no-go” for this class.
I have to admit that I was impressed at my student’s performance during the conference, though she and I both knew that it was a performance. I also knew that if I didn’t call her on it, she’d owe me – and she knew that too.
So during the conference we devised a plan in which I’d accept preliminary assignments for a 14-point late penalty, and that same offer would be given to all students through the end of the week. (I felt I had to offer this to maintain grade integrity.) No one would know why I was suddenly being generous, but they likely wouldn’t question it either. As the conference came to a close though, Dad hit a homerun. He added one more thing: no cell phone until our student’s grades came up – in ALL of her classes.
I won’t go over the entire play-by-play, but dad stuck to his guns. Two weeks later, daughter still didn’t have access to her phone, but that was ok–unbeknownst to the adults in the situation, daughter had a backup plan that involved using her laptop–for her social communication needs. No one was the wiser because while schools know to block sites like Facebook and Snapchat, Tumbler, Caffeine, and many others have not yet hit their radar. Once they hit mine though, the situation got rectified, and as such, my student knew I was not only serious, but that I cared. My conference with her dad had not been lip service. I truly see something in this kid. Is she behind in writing skills? Sure. Does she need to mature – a lot? Absolutely, but is it all on her? I don’t think so.
This past week students had to submit their second major assignment. I admit to holding my breath as I ran through the files to see if she had submitted one…and she had! This time dad didn’t care about the grade; all he wanted to know was if his daughter had submitted the assignment. See, in a private conference with dad, I had told him that I was quite aware his daughter’s writing deficits; however, I felt that these deficiencies were caused not by bad or inadequate teaching or by our student being allowed to get away with things because she’s so sweet. I told him the biggest problem appeared to be her work ethic.
Dad still probably doesn’t like me much, but we have a long way to go before graduation, so he’s desperate and trusting me. My student needs to re-write the entire paper that she submitted, and I felt that she probably would have to when we had rough draft conferences. My student didn’t suddenly gain missing skills overnight; however, she did gain a belief in herself. She got everything submitted and even with the late penalties, she now has a decent enough grade with room to improve. She also has the opportunity to revise this paper one paragraph at a time – with me. I’m sure other teachers have done the exact same thing with her–this year is only different because in just a few months this student will be on. her. own., and she is scared.
FERPA laws will keep professors from talking to parents and the parents won’t have easy access to the professors anyway, so dad is concerned too. In addition, the professor’s value to the college won’t depend upon how many students pass, but the student will pay more for a failing grade, so it’s pretty important that our kids figure out that they have to show up and do the work the first time, or they’ll be paying to re-do it.
So what was my reward? I’ve always been a good classroom teacher. My rules are few, but typically followed, and my expectations are high and normally met, but I was afraid that this year would be different. I was afraid that technological inequities would keep my students away from me. I was afraid that the screen would divide us in ways that could not be rectified. This situation, however, reassured me that relationships aren’t built face-to-face; they are built heart-to-heart.