Berkeley County teacher shares distance learning experience

Berkeley County teacher shares distance learning experience
May 05 16:21 2020 Print This Article

This is a testimonial from Berkeley County School District teacher Allison Mackey about adapting to the distance learning environment. She worked diligently with students and parents to ensure learning continued in the final months of the school year:

Teacher Appreciation Week has probably never been viewed before in quite the way that it is being viewed this year. We, as teachers, are hearing from parents, more than ever, about how much we are appreciated and how valuable our work is to the family unit as a whole – not just to the children. As parents are attempting to work from home and now facilitate their children’s distance learning, they are getting a rare glimpse into some facets of teaching that they may not have experienced before. 

I am fortunate to teach in Berkeley County where we are 1:1 with technology devices. Each of my students has a Chromebook that they are assigned at the beginning of the year, and they take it home daily. In fact, we are one of the districts that is piloting the eLearning program throughout the state in an effort to provide options when there are days that need to be made up for weather or other unexpected days out. In fact, March 13, 2020 was a scheduled eLearning training day for us. I had no idea that I would be saying goodbye to my classes for the last time this school year on March 12 when they left for the day. There is likely a lunch bag in my classroom with a half eaten lunch inside, there are certainly jackets and hats on my front table and our agenda and homework is still written on the board. I was able to be in my classroom for one final day, after that Friday workday, to gather what I thought I would need for 10 days of distance learning. Looking back, there was no way to know what I would need or that we would not be back for the rest of the year.

The Friday workday and that following Monday were spent in a flurry of meetings with my departments (I teach two different subjects) and my team of teachers. We were attempting to keep learning on track with our current units and to keep our students in the routine that they were used to, with the exception of being in the building physically. I soon learned that that expectation was massively unreasonable for me and my students, but mostly for myself. The first two weeks of distance learning, I worked 14-16 hour days, easily. I would get started at about 7:00 am and fall exhausted into bed at about 11:00 pm. This was not directed by my principal, my school, my district or even by the state, but rather, myself. I knew that I was in control of my own schedule, more than usual, but I could not find the switch to turn off the teacher and be the mom and woman outside of distance learning.

I am lucky that I have a self-sufficient, 17 year old, senior in high school who is focused on graduating and going to college in the fall. It is a good thing that he is preparing to feed himself, as I forgot to eat dinner many days within those first two weeks. Much of my time was spent recording lessons on two different novels, communicating with students and parents as well as my co-workers, and grading….oh my, the grading never stopped. I felt like I had to grade everything so that they could see the importance of keeping up with their work, but also so that they could see that this period of learning was real and it counted. The mandates from the state and our district were changing rapidly and we attempted to absorb those changes as much as we could and adjust so that there were fewer adjustments required of our students and parents. At the end of those first two weeks, I was heading for a major meltdown and had a serious and tearful conversation with my principal. She gave me a directive that I was to “shut it down” by 5:00 pm daily. She said that she would prefer 4:00 pm, but that she understood that it may be 5:00 pm. I could not fathom how I would do that, but I was committed to reflect and monitor and adjust, as teachers are experts at doing. To be honest, I spent two more days working until 10:00 pm, but I made changes in what I was assigning and how much I was grading. A few weeks later, I made adjustments again and I have now found my groove – as much as that is possible!

When it was announced that this distance learning would be extended beyond the initial two weeks, that is when I found that I was making a shift from supporting my students to supporting whole families. The first two weeks, I found that my students were lonely. Many of them had parents who were still working, and they missed their friends and their daily interactions with us. I responded to each message in Google Classroom, even if it was just a daily, “Good Morning!!!!!” As they began to adjust, the reality was setting in for the parents that we were in this for the long haul.

My district and my school did a phenomenal job of making sure that devices were in the hands of all students, that paper packets were created if there were accommodations that required paper be provided, that Internet hotspots were provided and that families knew about meals being provided by the district. Our assistant principal even went out and installed Internet hotspots in some families’ homes. The general attitude of parents, when I initially called each of my homeroom students, was one of, “Man, this is going to be hard, but it’s ten days- we got this!” After the announcement and the reality of those first ten days, I saw the cracks begin to show. I was on more speaker phone conversations with the whole family, Google Meets with the whole family and sending many, many emails in an effort to explain Google Classroom, to encourage students to do their work and to assure parents that we were in this together and that we could do this!

We have some parents who are working from home, some who have multiple children, some who struggle with learning themselves and have tearfully told me that they can’t help their children with their work, and some who are working outside of the home and have to leave younger siblings in the care of my middle schoolers. Some families are a combination of all of these situations. The majority of my students are in regular contact and complete the majority of their work, even if it is late. The mantra that we are keeping at the forefront is, “Grace over grades.” However, I have had the struggles that many teachers have had with students being out of touch completely or with students who are turning in blank documents in an effort to show their parents that their work is “done,” when in fact, it was just the click of a button. 

More than anything, I am grieving the loss of these last two and a half magical months in the school year. This is the sweet spot in the year when you have established a family atmosphere with your class, there are inside jokes, routines, special events and celebrations and favorite lessons that are saved for spring. I am grieving the loss of my only child’s senior prom and graduation, although I am confident that there will be a special celebration when it is safe. I miss my students and my school family. I hope that this entire experience will show our society how truly remarkable teachers are, at all levels from preschools to universities, and how we rise to any challenge that we are faced with. I have seen the most inventive, creative and inspiring lessons, videos, homemade document cameras, parades, socially distant visits/gifts and just incredible amounts of time and effort poured into our children. Testing doesn’t matter, data points don’t matter, but the connection that was established with my kids is what has sustained us and allowed learning to continue, even though we have been separated physically.