‘A lot to learn’: 27-year teacher goes digital during coronavirus

For the first time in her career, Kristin Barrus won’t greet students at her classroom door but through a computer screen from home this school year.

Twenty-seven years of teaching have boosted Kristin Barrus’s confidence inside the classroom.

“I could teach standing on my head on any normal school day,” the sixth-grade teacher recently told EdNews.

But 2020-21 isn’t any normal school year. K-12 leaders and health officials are still wrestling with how to safely reopen Idaho’s schools amid the coronavirus pandemic. Trustees in the state’s biggest districts last week responded by delaying the school year and voting to go fully online.

Debate over what’s best — and safest — hits home for Barrus, who grapples with Type 1 diabetes and high blood pressure. How would a return to the classroom impact her health? When would things go back to normal?

With so much uncertainty, she considered quitting earlier this summer.

“My (children) have been telling me to retire,” she said. But something about that “just didn’t feel right.”

Then, an opportunity. The Blackfoot School District, where Barrus has worked nearly her entire career, needed a handful of teachers for its online learning program for families hesitant to send their kids back to school.

“Getting a modeling job wasn’t working out,” Barrus said, so she took the offer.

With the school year around the corner, she sees her newfound role as both a blessing and a challenge.

“I have a lot to learn,” said Barrus.

Some of the terrain is familiar. The veteran teacher has a “good grasp” on Google Classroom, the platform she’ll use to deliver instruction to more than a dozen sixth graders in the coming weeks. She also garnered some experience teaching students over Zoom after schools shut down in the spring, though the sudden shuttering made that effort “mostly a mess.”

Other aspects of the transition online are foreign, even arduous, Barrus said. One particularly onerous challenge: moving nine month’s worth of sixth-grade coursework online.

“You wouldn’t think it would be that hard, but it’s a ton of stuff,” said Barrus, pointing to boxes of worksheets and other learning materials lining the wall of her mostly empty classroom. “I have to digitize all of it.”

Some unexpected help has come. Pocketful of Primary, a Youtube channel replete with dozens of snappy videos and vlogs from a bouncy teacher named Michelle, provides tips for educators taking learning online this fall: how to organize Google Classroomhow to record teaching videoshow to transform a classroom into a virtual classroom.

Barrus has “spent hours” traipsing the channel, which helps her “save hours” digitizing coursework. “It’s been a huge help.”

Still, other challenges are harder to foresee and address. Prepping for a year of online instruction has stretched Barrus’s desire to evolve her skills in an ever-changing K-12 environment. But years of in-person instruction have shaped her approach to teaching and learning.

She pointed to facial expressions. Aside from tests and other learning indicators, reading a student’s face can say a lot about how well they’re receiving information. “What’s the best way to do that through a computer?” Barrus wonders.

And that’s just one foreseeable challenge complicated by an abrupt shift to online, said Barrus, who stressed the need for teachers to create authority in the classroom and gain students’ respect.

With the impacts coronavirus has already had on learning, teaching effectively may be more important than ever, Barrus believes. “I’m up for the challenge, but I’m definitely feeling the pressure.”

Devin Bodkin

About Devin Bodkin

Reporter Devin Bodkin covers education issues in East Idaho. He is a former high school English teacher who specializes in stories about charter schools and educating students who live in poverty. He is a 2019 Solutions Journalism Network fellow and the Idaho Press Club's 2019 print reporter of the year. Follow Devin on Twitter @dsbodkin. He can be reached by email at [email protected].

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