Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Virtual School Observation and Interview - 3/31/08

I spent another hour on Monday evening with a virtual school AP U.S. History teacher. I have access to her online course, but not to the student view that teachers use for administrative duties. I scheduled the meeting to ask a few more questions and take a tour of the management side of online teaching. The discussion was extremely productive. We talked about many aspects of online teaching and learning. I reorganized the discussion a bit to try to bring some order to the interview.

Life of a virtual school teacher
The virtual school has a policy to hire only teachers with at least three years experience. Many teachers apply for positions at the school, therefore administrators are able to attract excellent candidates. However, they are finding that an experienced, accomplished face-to-face teacher does not necessarily make a good online teacher. In reality, the jobs are VERY different.

Virtual school teachers manage up to 200+ students. Students can register and join courses at any time during the year. This means that students will be at different points of the course at any given time. Regular contact is essential, especially with new students. Therefore, telephone contact is critical. Teachers work 12 months out of the year with minimal vacation. They are required to be available to students from 8:00 am - 8:00 pm, Monday through Friday. It's clear that this could be overwhelming for someone who is not extremely organized. There is definitely a learning curve associated with balancing the position. The inbox is never empty. Therefore, teachers compartmentalize tasks and create checklists for keeping on top of the workload. Some teachers are "chippers". Chippers chip away at grading and administrative tasks little by little. Others are "chunkers". Chunkers set aside large blocks of time for grading or conferencing.

The unique requirements of the job along with the work-from-home environment can create a feeling of isolation. In order to address this issue, new virtual school teachers are assigned a mentor. At least one face-to-face conference is scheduled each year in a central location. This gives teachers the opportunity to meet in groups across horizontal and vertical teams. Connections are made that continue after the conference. Teachers are encouraged to reach out to one another for help, guidance, and support.

Internships are new to the virtual school. Administrators are hoping to create an environment in which preservice teachers can learn about online teaching, consider it as a teaching option, and learn the ropes in a way that leaves them truly prepared for the realities of virtual school life. If successful, the school will consider hiring new teachers with the hope of supporting and mentoring them into long term positions.

The only constant is change
The virtual school strives for continual improvement. The rapid growth of the student population combined with the accelerated evolution of technology can create a less than stable working environment. Teachers are constantly reminded that change is constant at the school. Even the management hierarchy changes regularly as the needs of the school change. This can be unsettling for some teachers. It's another aspect of the position that makes it quite different from the brick and mortar school.

The unique aspects of virtual school teaching are not necessarily negative. But, they are very different. New teachers must be armed with realistic expectations about the position as well as sufficient support in their new role.


JeanneW said...
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JeanneW said...

Your report jives with my findings. My virtual teacher is exceedingly organized, on the telephone for many hours each day, and "on duty" for many hours a day. She makes it look easy, but I know it's not. I found your statement that successful teachers in traditional classrooms aren't necessarily successful online teachers very interesting. Clearly the jobs are significantly different and pre-service teachers should understand those differences before considering either position.

I now feel fairly certain that I lack the skills and availability to be an effective online teacher, though I feel successful in the F2F classroom. I know many teachers, however, who could easily be successful in both environments.

Thank you for sharing this valuable information.

Mark said...

I wonder how the work schedule at this school compares with other virtual schools in other states. I wonder if the teachers feel they are compensated adequately in comparison with F2F teachers. I was always quite resentful of my after hours work in child welfare. It brings to mind the oddness of having medical resident students work those ridiculous hours and still provide quality care. I think if I was compensated adequately for that amount of required availability, I would be comfortable with those hours. Otherwise, I could see some online teachers getting frustrated with that situation. Preparing a teacher to provide excellent instruction online, I believe, is a major task and the importance should not be underestimated.

J-Lang said...

If I were a virtual school teacher I wonder if I would be a "chunker" or a "chipper." Probably a "chipunker," a combo of both. I was intrigued by these terms as I hadn't heard them before, though the rest of what you find was consistent with what I have learned about the unique working environment of the virtual school.
What I think is most considerable is the open and accepting attitude toward change. In the traditional school I think that change is often the most difficult thing for people to handle. These same people that have difficulty dealing with new initiatives, management structure and even buildings, are those that don't like change in their personal lives. But I think that if you are in the business of teaching children you should know a think or two about change, the students' K-12 experience is full of change and flux. Again, for me, change is necessary and inevitable. As much as people would like to hide away in the walls of the school and ignore the world outside, the students will be going there anyway after graduation and we might as well get them ready for the one that exists now and not the one that used to.