HomeCommunityFrom the Other Side: How CHS teachers have been handling distance learning

From the Other Side: How CHS teachers have been handling distance learning

By MARTIN SEVCIK

Calculus teacher Mike Deckelmann never needed to rely on technology to teach. His style was completely analog, with no projector, no online applications and no computers. He would walk around his classroom and have conversations with students, developing personal connections and answering math questions simultaneously.

Michael Deckelmann moves offscreen in order to make his work on the whiteboard visible to his students. Unlike some of his peers, Deckelmann is able to use many of the same tools both in-person and online. (Photo by Martin Sevcik)

In March, everything changed. 

Every teacher at CHS has transitioned their courses to a distance-learning model as a response to COVID-19. Where Deckelmann could once look up and see 25 students bent over their work, he now sees empty seats. 

“It’s like teaching in front of nobody,” he says. “Generally, I’m getting used to it, which is kind of scary. The only time it really bothers me is when there’s total silence.”

There is one thing that has unified teachers during the transition to online learning: They miss seeing students in the classroom. Many teachers enjoy their job primarily because of in-person interactions with young people, turning the past six months into a difficult period of separation.

“If this was going to be the job in education going forward, and we weren’t going to be able to be in classrooms with students, I would look for other employment,” says English teacher Shelley Grahl. “This wasn’t why I got into it.”

Distance learning is as demanding as in-person schooling for students and teachers alike. But where there was once a tangible reward for their hard work, some educators feel disheartened by the transition online.

CHS teachers who choose to work from their classrooms often enjoy their lunch in the amphitheater, a space once teeming with students. (Photo by Mike Palshaw)

“If you love teaching, then you typically leave the classroom more energized than you came in,” social studies teacher Bill Schrier says. “You don’t get that on Zoom. It’s just exhausting.”

Zoom and Google Classroom are the primary ways that teachers interact with students. Unlike in March, where teachers had more agency when it came to communicating with students and delivering content, CUSD has created bell schedules and guidelines for online learning. While distance learning looks very different now, the final months of the 2019-20 school year still weigh heavily in the minds of many teachers. While they generally feel more prepared this semester, last year’s program was defined by uncertainty, some of which persists into this semester.

“Imagine opening a school and hiring brand new teachers and brand new administrators,” history teacher Marc Stafford says about this fall semester. “That’s the kind of chaos that it feels like. It’s not out of control, we’re just learning on the job.”

AP Statistics students watch as Juan Gomez talks through a slideshow. Like other teachers, he mixes synchronous and asynchronous instruction in order to deepen learning and prevent student burnout. (Photo by Martin Sevcik)

For some teachers, teaching fresh content to students online is a relatively new practice. Many AP teachers spent the interrupted remainder of the spring semester reviewing for the AP test, since most tests had significant parts of their curriculum removed. Now, with a brand new group of students, teachers are trying their best to present all of their content in the most effective way possible with nothing left on the table.

“This year is a full go,” history teacher Brent Silva says. “It’s very close to how I would be teaching in an in-class setting. There are differences, though, because you’re only seeing the students twice a week.”

Silva is referring to changes to the class schedule, which focuses on fewer, longer periods. For some, this schedule is problematic because of fewer opportunities to meet with students and less overall class time, but others appreciate the longer breaks between periods and the emphasis on longer class periods.

More than anything, teachers are realizing what they once took for granted in a traditional classroom. French teacher Suzanne Marden misses the conversations she would have with students who arrived early to class. Grahl misses how students were once able to quickly ask a question in class, rather than compose an email. Others appreciate the regularity of traditional classrooms, where expectations were clear and standardized.

“We’ve never done this before,” Deckelmann says. “We have no idea what the outcomes are going to be at the end of the year. Personally, I have to let myself off the hook a little bit for trying to live up to expectations from the past.”

At the end of the day, little can be done to avoid online learning in its current state. Teachers have to adapt to the current situation, holding out hope for a return to in-person classes by the end of the year.

“My thing with distance learning is that we can’t quit,” Marden says. “There’s nothing else we can do. I’m wrapping my head around the fact that we’re in the middle of a pandemic, and I can’t have what I want. It’s just the way it is.”

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