Introducing “Teacher X”… On The Busy Life of an Ottawa Virtual Academy School Teacher

Mainstreeter Staff
Teacher X
For many parents of young or adolescent children, COVID-19 has changed the annual back to school routine into a harrowing dilemma. Prior to Labour Day, the media was awash with information and articles assessing the potential risks of sending youngsters into the classrooms and balancing the pros and cons of in-class learning against virtual online schooling. It was a no-win situation. The attitudes of parents quoted in the news coverage often reflected outright anxiety, either borne of fear for the health and safety of their children or of worries about having to quit their jobs to stay home with their kids. One stakeholder voice that often went unheard as schools reopened was the voice of a key player in the drama – the actual school teacher, and in particular, the school teacher who, as a consequence of COVID-19, was grappling with massive changes to the manner in which they have always taught their students.

  In late September, several weeks into the new school year, The Mainstreeter interviewed an elementary school teacher who made the difficult choice to serve as an online teacher, a member of the Ottawa District Catholic School Board’s (OCDSB) Virtual Academy. To ensure student and teacher confidentiality and candid responses, we are referring to this veteran of more than 20 years of elementary school teaching in Ottawa as “Teacher X”. We will check back with her in subsequent issues of The Mainstreeter to report on how virtual or online education is actually working in Ottawa from a teacher’s perspective.

In a school year full of unprecedented challenges, oddly enough, the biggest challenge that Teacher X has faced in the opening weeks of classes in her new role as a Virtual Academy teacher has less to do with her ability to teach than her ability to learn. She says that the opening weeks of school have posed logistical and technology challenges that leave her wondering at times whether she is as much of a student as the youngsters in her Virtual Academy class.

“Yes, we’re following the Board’s curriculum the same as the in-class teachers, but the materials have to be delivered in an entirely novel kind of way, and it’s very demanding, and frankly quite stressful,” says Teacher X. “Every time I plan a lesson, and every time I teach it online, I’m always thinking: “how am I going to do this, how are they going to receive this, how are they going to read this, and how are they going to submit it back to me? Those are the questions that I have to ask myself constantly.”

She explains that what would normally require a simple trip to the school office photocopier for 25 copies of a worksheet to hand out in class, has become both a logistical and technological challenge that neither she nor her school board were properly prepared for.

“This is the real challenge I’m confronting every day in class,” she admits. “Normally, I would tell my students: Okay, here’s a worksheet for everyone. But now in the virtual world, I have to take that worksheet and think about how I’m going to push it out to the students in a way that they can work through it, and then send it back to me. And, let’s face it, the email system, just doesn’t cut it.”

In talking about the many challenges that online teachers and the school board are facing this most daunting of all academic years, and the “tweaks, as she calls them, that the board is already starting to put in place to remedy the problems, Teacher X is quick to point out that there are many positives as well that have emerged in the early days of the return to school.

According to Teacher X, there are 6500 elementary school students currently enrolled in the OCDSB’s Virtual Academy (this does not include high school students who are enrolled in a different component of the Board’s Virtual Academy). She is one of about 50 online teachers with the elementary level Virtual Academy, and the Board she says is recruiting actively, especially for French teachers, who are in critical short supply. Former teachers are being courted and cajoled to return to the profession, and even candidates without full teaching credentials are now being sought by some boards.

For Teacher X, her class of Virtual Academy students is a far cry from her norm, as it is comprised of youngsters from several schools in the West End of Ottawa and Barrhaven, as well as from one school in the East End of the city.She conducts her classes from within a familiar setting, the same classroom in the local school where she has spent many years of her career teaching in class students.

Throughout the rest of the school building are teachers and students she knows from prior years who are attending the regular in class stream, however, she sees them only sporadically on breaks in her normal teaching day or when she is on the duty schedule. Under the OCDSB model, Teacher X can have up to 80 minutes of supervision duties each day during recess or lunch.

“I think that once we get into a routine, I may also be supporting students or classes that need academic support for up to 45 minutes per day,” she says. “At this point, a few weeks in, I just feel like I need more time to plan my classes than I currently have available to me during a school day. I definitely enjoy planning for it, it’s a real challenge, but it’s a t two-edged sword because of the amount of time that’s required to pull it off.”

After the first few weeks of classes, Teacher X can already tell that the two cohorts of teachers within the Board – the regular in class teachers and those teaching online with the Virtual Academy – are experiencing different challenges in fulfilling their unique responsibilities to their students during the ongoing pandemic.

“The challenges for my colleagues with in class students are very distinct from my challenges,” she observes. “For me, it’s the whole aspect of planning lessons for synchronous nonstop online delivery and the issues of pushing out the work in formats that both teacher and students can make work. For the regular teachers, their daily challenges are with the actual protocols involved with COVID-19, with following the public health guidelines to make sure that desks are sanitized, that kids are being sufficiently distant with each other. These are very different stresses, even though we are doing exactly the same job.”

In our next installment of the life and times of Teacher X during the COVID pandemic, the focus turns to resources, student reactions and the virtues of virtual teaching.

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