To start semesters in Eric Olsen’s high school math class at Idaho Technical Career Academy, students are given a Google slide where they write their name and add five to 10 pictures that summarize their interests.
Some students add pictures of their favorite sports teams. Some add pictures of their pets or their favorite television shows.
Over the next few days, Olsen students present their slides to the class, allowing students to get to know each other better. Sometimes the class breaks into lengthy conversations about their favorite dog breeds. While none of this has to do with math, Olsen said it has been crucial to building classroom culture in a virtual environment.
“That was the highlight of the year, for me,” Olsen said. “Some kids were able to develop that sense of ‘I’m not alone here.'”
Meridian Technical Charter is completely virtual. Olsen’s classes, made up of students from all over the state, will never meet in person, so Olsen puts a priority on his students building relationships.
For the 2020-2021 school year, at least 11 Idaho school districts will start or continue online school offerings launched during the pandemic-affected year. Among them are some of the state’s three largest school districts: West Ada, Boise and Nampa. At these schools, many teachers will have to adjust to a new style of teaching, knowing that their classes are going to stay virtual for the entire year.
Lisa Stitt has been teaching for 20 years, just ending her ninth year in Boise. While she was previously teaching sixth grade, she’s moving to teach seventh and eighth graders at Boise Online School.
Stitt joined Boise Online School for the 2020-2021 school year. With a child at home, Stitt didn’t want her schedule to be disrupted by schools switching between remote, hybrid and in-person. She knew staying online for the whole year was the safe choice for her family.
“I enjoy technology and I’m good at it so I thought I would try something new,” she said.
Before the start of the school year, Stitt said Boise offered training on how to use the virtual classroom platforms (like Zoom, or Google Meets) and added that there were extensive courses for credit made available for teachers.
“The district did a good job of making sure we were prepared,” she said. Throughout the year, Boise Online School’s sixth grade teachers met every Wednesday to check in with each other.
Olsen said he did not get any formal training for his position as an online teacher. Instead, Olsen said he shadowed with another teacher in the school for a couple of weeks. And while Olsen was teaching his classes, he continued to seek guidance from his peers.
He said moving to online classes reminded him of his first year in teaching all over again, and any teacher who is going to an online school needs to be ready to make adjustments.
“Be flexible and be willing to adjust your expectations,” he said. “Both for you and your students … everything doesn’t perfectly translate over.”
Despite being able to find his footing in remote teaching, Olsen said there are some lingering problems he is facing when teaching remotely. Idaho Technical Career Academy policy states that teachers are not allowed to require students be on camera with their microphones on during class, making it difficult for Olsen to ensure his students are participating.
“Motivating students to do their work when not in the classroom is an entirely different ball game,” he said.
As a math teacher, Olsen also worries about his assignments. He worries about students simply clicking through their online assignments and not learning the material presented.
Not only that, but Olsen said there are websites that students can go to now which will complete math problems for them while showing all the work, making it impossible for the teacher to know if the students did the assignment themselves or not.
“I have this balance of juggling what can be assigned and what work the students will actually complete,” he said. “There’s no plagiarism checker for math.”
When Olsen was teaching in person (he taught for nine years at Meridian Technical Charter High School) he says his strength was building classroom culture and having strong relationships with the students. His goal for the 2021-2022 school year is to continue to get better at accomplishing those while teaching online classes.
Olsen taught five classes last year and said two of them established a culture that he was happy with, which resulted in more students using their microphones and cameras in class and engaging in classroom conversations.
“That’s huge,” he said. “Just getting the kids talking to each other.”
Olsen has also used other tools at his disposal to foster relationships with students through the computer. He engages students in conversation before class starts, often about something not school related. Olsen also has a virtual bulletin board called Padlet where students can write down things that they have in common with each other.
While he’s still working on it, Olsen said creating classroom culture will be one of the biggest tasks for virtual education moving forward.
“If the kids are connected to the teacher, they learn better,” Olsen said.
Though much of the 2020-2021 school year felt like “emergency response,” Stitt said she was still able to connect with her class through online group activities, games and other projects. Stitts’ students made a class mascot, held dress-up days and comforted each other when someone was having a bad day. The class also made its own class picture even though the students didn’t meet in person.
“It was really cool to see that happen,” she said.
Stitt said the biggest thing she learned teaching remotely in the 2020-2021 school year that she will take with her as she continues in the Boise Online School is constantly checking in on the students’ emotional wellbeing. Stitt said she has started making it a priority to reach out to every student to see what they need to succeed in the classroom.
“Kids know what they need,” Stitt said. “One day it’s more time on an assignment. One day it’s groceries. I’ve never asked that question this much.”