John Watts

Alternative Paths Training School & Programs
Dumfries, VA
John Watts; Special Education Teacher

Promoting a sense of place and inter relatedness through technology and online learning

How do I begin to find words that convey what this journey has been like for a classroom teacher this past year?

For a workaholic, year-round school like APTS, it really was a great shock to suddenly be told to pack up our laptops and go home back on March 13th.  I can recall making eye contact with staff who I knew I would probably never see again as they finished up their 2-week notice at home and not with their colleagues.

Although it felt like an invisible hurricane was drawing near—most of us still held a very naïve timeline in our heads–thinking we would still return to school in a week, or perhaps two, tops.

Suddenly all of us educators were thrown into a world of unknown teaching delivery—that seemed inconceivable when we first considered it—100% remote learning from home, with most of our students needing one-on-one academic assistance, even if their IEP’s technically said differently.

So where was my classroom?  How could I salvage meaning out of this kind of teaching without a student body in the classroom to build up momentum and chemistry?

I must confess, that previously, my biggest use for online teaching was in presenting short videos with discussions and quizzes to follow or to end the school year with some kind of big, culminating show on power point or google maps.  Indeed, just going beyond the 30-minute mark, past the greeting stages, seemed like a pretty ambitious journey initially.

It all started off very innocently, and very frantically, trying to learn from other staff how to do face to face reservations and then how to share documents and videos on screen and especially, and most of all—not wanting to fall behind.

And them came the seemingly endless hours of seeking out and receiving tips for web-site resources to teach.

While all of this was very exciting at first, especially the virtual tours at museums—pretty soon it got to be too vast to keep track of—just as we were warned by our supervisors to make sure to take time off for ourselves so as to not fall prey to online burnout—in other words working overtime searching and compiling lesson activities until our eyes wore out.

The biggest incentive I learned about online teaching is not the search for excellence but rather, the fear of embarrassment—the need to assemble enough resources to cover the time adequately with students and their parents watching.

I have continued trying different ways to break down the wall of what holds back or limits lessons online.  So sure enough, this meant I did indeed fall victim to that seductive syndrome of working at home way too late (and way too many hours on the weekends).  I still wish I could get more students to be able to SHARE the SCREEN with me so that it was not me as the teacher initiating how the assessments would go.  For example, “Can you point Bobby to the day of the week on the RIGHT side of the top?”  “Can you say “yes” or “no.?”

So, I continue to look for the same values in the online teaching at home as I did in the classroom.  And my creative impulse had to work with so many more sensory parameters and delivery limitations.  Indeed, for the first few weeks, apart from locating great websites and virtual tours, and mailing big envelopes of hard copy homework, most of us teachers never envisioned that we could do hardly anything from an online standpoint.

Until we did.  Amidst a million awkward glitches and delays, all of which still manage to keep us on our toes while never assuming anything from day to day.

Originally, I was worried that what made me an effective, and creative teacher would somehow look counterfeit, and not translate via the computer screen.  I felt even more empathy than ever before for my students, as we all disliked looking at our own faces while we talked and endured the strangeness of voice delays, picture freezing’s and awkward interruptions—“sorry, you go ahead.”  “No, you were first.”

Online teaching—and its reciprocated learning—remains a very challenging proposition for the old school teacher like myself, who has had it pounded into his head for decades to seek out SENSORY modalities such as touching and hearing and tasting—everything and anything that connects rather than isolates.

Upon returning to the campus, new changes followed closely on the heels of older changes.  Suddenly, overnight, all the accrued community artifacts and the many textbooks had to be packed away due to cleaning issues and new regulations regarding the age of our publications.

Instead of riding the momentum of doing big GROUP SHOWS within the physical layout of the classroom and all my accumulated knickknacks and props—not to mention my rich collection of books and other community artifacts–I had to think twice as hard about HOW teachable moments could be transmitted and conveyed.

But, still, after months of online slogging with scheduled student appointments carving my work day up into hourly increments, I felt like I had built up enough memorable activities to take pictures of the events so that we could look back and review our ONLINE traditions—just as I did in the physical classroom.  And for me, this meant taking photos of science lessons, or arts and crafts with big poster boards,  or even pictures of the student and their parent on the other end of the screen holding up some show and tell item to display.

Eventually I started to get that same warm glow back like I did on the in-person classroom days.  I went to bed excited to carry over the previous days lessons with even better results.

Currently we are deeply ensconced in the next stage of the adventure—blended learning with students in the classroom and back at home.  The big challenge being, how do I integrate classmates together, new students with peers they have never met in person, with widely different academic needs, all in the same sessions?

And I am reminded, that instead of worrying about becoming a more accomplished computer technician, that I am, above all else an educator, and that means that no matter the odds, or what generation I hale from, or what the new rules of the game are, I am blessed with the innate ability to find a way to make lessons come alive, no matter what language or format they are cloaked in.

It is a dedication that teachers feel deep in their bones—one relationship at a time, one conversation and one idea at a time.

And when it comes together—so that everybody is sharing in the dialogue and growing together—then the old glow returns and reminds me that there is no better job on the planet.