by Georgia Charter Schools Association
[Editor’s Note: Approximately 17,000 students are enrolled in tuition-free, virtual public charter schools in Georgia, constituting the largest group of charter students in our state. For those who wonder how online education works, here’s a look inside, from the Principal of Duluth-based Georgia Connections Academy.]
By Heather Robinson,
Take a moment and form an image of a teacher in your mind. What do you see? Probably a person neatly dressed, maybe with glasses, standing in front of a group of students who are sitting in organized rows. The teacher is probably giving the students information, asking some questions, soliciting responses from students who raise their hands, right?
Teaching and learning in the K–12 sector has changed dramatically over the past 20 years and quite naturally, so has the teacher. While most teachers still work in a traditional school setting, there is a growing sector of educators who are embracing a career as an online instructor. As the school leader at Georgia Connections Academy (GACA), the most common misconception I see that stakeholders and even some prospective employees have is that our teachers are not in a professional setting–and that is absolutely not the case. At GACA, our teachers commit to being P3–positive, professional, and proactive–and we strive to live up to that every day. Really, the only difference in the expectations of a virtual school teacher from their traditional brick and mortar school colleagues is that they don’t have lunch duty or bus duty on a regular basis! To shed some light on what it’s like, I’d like to take this opportunity to share just a few of the “routines” in the day of a virtual school teacher.
Just like traditional classroom teachers, every day for a virtual school teacher is unique and driven by the needs of students. Most teachers at GACA work in our school office at least two days each week, so the day usually starts somewhere between 5:30 and 6:00 AM–either for the commute or to get prepared to work with students during the day. An advantage of working at home even part-time is that teachers are able to attend to the needs of students during those times when they otherwise might be sitting in Atlanta traffic.
While the school building and their classrooms (and by building and classrooms, I am referring to our Learning Management System) are nice and quiet, this is a great time to check and return any email that came in from students or learning coaches overnight and definitely a great time to tackle some grading. Our teachers are expected to grade student work as quickly as possible so that students can receive feedback to determine their readiness to move forward or readdress performance standards. They don’t have the luxury of taking their papers home in their bags; their “papers” are the electronic submissions that their students eagerly await. In our virtual school setting, the curriculum is rich and interactive and students are able to move through the curriculum at their own pace. In order to manage students’ progress, timely grading is a must and is part of each day for a virtual school teacher.
At 8 AM, our school day starts with our Morning Minute. The entire faculty meets in our school’s virtual faculty lounge and a member of our faculty shares our school’s mission and vision statement. There is usually an inspirational presentation to motivate us all to have a good day, and after the Morning Minute, the school day officially begins!
It is impossible to list all of the various tasks that a virtual school teacher must accomplish on any given day, but the most important task is providing support and instruction to ensure that our students are mastering the performance standards. Earlier, I said that the curriculum is rich and interactive, and that is still the case; however, there will never be a curriculum written that can replace quality instruction. Our teachers spend time daily using student performance data to determine which students need direct instruction on which topics and which are able to move along without it. They are personalizing instruction in the truest sense of the word. And I have come to believe that this is a pedagogy, or at least an art, that must be learned to be successful as an online teacher.
Second only to personalizing instruction is communication with students, parents, and colleagues. Teachers at GACA spend part of each school day communicating with learning coaches, students, and colleagues in a variety of synchronous and asynchronous mediums. A teacher in a virtual school builds an image of his or her students by gathering information about each student. The only way to get an accurate image of a student is to communicate! Teachers don’t have the benefit of watching their students complete assignments or interact in face-to-face small groups on a regular basis, so learning about student personalities, academic history, strengths, and weaknesses requires dedicated time spent on communication. Communication with families, both learning coaches and students, is the key to success in a virtual school setting. Teachers spend several hours each day calling students to touch base, assess student mastery, assist with school tasks, or taking calls to answer student and learning coach’s questions. Teachers also travel often to field trips, G–Labs (in-person study sessions), marketing events, and school-wide events. Even though we are a virtual school, we do not believe that face-to-face interaction is unnecessary. Whenever possible, teachers go into communities to work with students. We often have students in our school office to work on skills, read with their teacher, or complete some credit recovery assignments.
Of course, teachers at GACA have a tremendous amount of data at their disposal. An integral part of every school day is spent reviewing and analyzing this information to communicate performance to students, parents, and to colleagues. Collaboration about student performance with other teachers, both vertically and horizontally, is the foundation of our school improvement initiatives. Teachers meet weekly with their learning teams to share student performance data to increase student achievement. And, if they are not meeting with their learning team, they are contributing to the team’s shared dialogue to collaborate about best practices, standards that need to be re-addressed, and standards that are being mastered by their students. Teachers implement strategies developed within their learning teams to support students who are struggling and to enhance the curriculum for students who are advanced. These learning teams are the heartbeat of our Professional Learning Community and every member of the faculty and staff at Georgia Connections Academy belongs to at least one learning team.
At this point, you might be asking yourself, ”Where IS the classroom?” Virtual school teachers do not miss out on having their own classroom; it just doesn’t have four walls. Each teacher has a private, virtual classroom that is accessible by students in their classes and, as you would expect, they use their classroom in some unique and innovative ways. While teachers can invite their entire class into their virtual classroom, we find that this is the exception and not the rule. Because we are committed to personalizing instruction, teachers most often provide targeted instruction to individual or small groups of students based on student needs. One of the best features of the virtual classroom is that the instruction is recorded. Students can play the recording as many times as they like; they can rewind, fast-forward, and pause the recorded session. This is something that you just can’t do in a traditional classroom! To determine who to meet with each day, teachers review student
performance to build their classroom rosters, plan their lesson presentation, and deliver instruction, remediation, or acceleration to their selected groups of students.
During the day, the GACA teacher might attend some online professional learning, which is available to them 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. They are also required to participate in face-to-face professional learning within our state and throughout the nation. Professional learning can be regularly scheduled on their calendar or can be “just in time.” The virtual setting allows for professional learning to be embedded during the school day and is available in asynchronous and synchronous formats so that teachers can schedule this as part of their day or after school hours. Teachers have a great deal of flexibility in how they continue to develop as a professional, but they don’t have any flexibility in whether or not to engage in professional learning. Virtual schools sit on the cutting (sometimes bleeding) edge of teaching and learning, and to provide the highest quality of instruction, we must stay connected to our professional growth.
Wrapping up a school day is not as predictable as in a brick and mortar school. There’s not a bell that sends the students home. While we do have a time that our office closes, every teacher reading this knows that neither a bell nor a closing time end the work of the teacher. Because our teachers have access to their classrooms as long as they have internet access, many teachers continue to work long after our office closes. That’s not because there is an expectation to do so, but because they care about the success of their students. Simply put, they’re teachers.
I hope this sheds some light on what it’s like to be a virtual school teacher at Georgia Connections Academy. One thing is for sure: it’s never boring! While we certainly don’t know everything there is yet to know about this innovative modality of learning, I am sure that I can speak for every teacher at our school when I say that’s why they came. Being a virtual school teacher is challenging, exciting, and rewarding, but what teaching job isn’t?
Heather Robinson is the lead Principal of Georgia Connections Academy. She was formerly Assistant Principal at Georgia Virtual School, a school program operated through the Georgia Department of Education. She deeply believes that learning can be enhanced and expanded in an online classroom and that virtual classrooms meet students’ needs in a way that is “unique, authentic, and interesting.”
The views and opinions expressed on CharterConfidential are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any agency.