Virtual Teacher Interview: high school English, Bay Area California

Today’s interview is from fellow Bay Area high school teacher, Katharine Keigher. I met Kat through our mutual friend, Rachel, because we all love crafting! Cross Stitch, knitting, sewing, you name it! Fun fact: Kat has the most ADORABLE Etsy shop.

I think you’ll find Kat’s interview enlightening, particularly in the ways teacher tech literacy affects classes and the truth behind the mental health issues distance learning is exacerbating.


Julia: Tell me about your school and your role. What are the demographics of your school? How many students do you have? How many staff? What grades do you teach? What subjects? How long have you been there?

Kat: I work at Menlo-Atherton High School, which is a public school in Atherton, CA, and is part of an all-high school district. My school is extremely diverse, serving both the wealthiest and most impoverished communities in the area. We have a private foundation which fundraises in excess of two million dollars per year to provide smaller classes, electives, and other educational enrichment and resources. We have approximately 2,400 students enrolled in grades 9-12. We have more than 200 staff members. I have been at M-A for nine years, and I currently teach AS (Advanced Standing) English III and English III (College Prep).

Julia: In what ways was your school prepared for distance learning?

Kat: In most ways, my school was not prepared to implement distance learning. In terms of resources, I think we started in a better place than most schools, but it was by no means a smooth transition. Individual teachers, including myself, were already prepared – either due to our own foresight, or due to our classroom routines already lending themselves to distance learning modification. For example, my classes were already paperless, so students had no learning curve regarding how to access, complete, and turn in work online. The district was able to rally resources for teachers and families fairly quickly, and within a week of the closure, students were able to come to campus to pick up a Chromebook or wifi hot-spot for use at home.

Julia: In what ways was your schoolunprepared for distance learning?

Kat: When the initial closure was announced, I spent most of my day helping other English teachers digitize their assignments (from paper), or getting their assignments from their desktop to Google Drive, or helping them understand how to use Canvas (our LMS). My school has little to no mandates for teachers’ use of technology. Prior to the closure, older or less tech-savvy teachers had no extrinsic motivation to get their courses online. The district did not have then, nor does it have now, a clear plan for what distance learning should look like.

Julia: What does your typical school day and week look like now?

Kat: After the closure, I would post assignments on a weekly basis. Assignments would be accompanied by a video of me walking through the assignment and answering questions that I anticipate the students might have. I would also have weekly Office Hours for students to drop in to ask questions. I only held synchronous instruction once, as it was difficult to schedule time around other teachers’ synchronous instruction and my child care responsibilities at home. Prior to distance learning, I had asked students to download the app Remind, so that I could keep in touch with them. This made it easier for me to quickly answer questions. A couple times per week I would meet with individual students via Zoom to help them through an assignment. These were generally impromptu and were arranged with the individual as needed. 

Julia: What platform do you use to teach (Zoom, Google Classroom, etc.)? What are the pros and cons of that platform?

Kat: I use Canvas and Zoom. Canvas is not particularly popular with most teachers at my site, but I find it to be a very good LMS. It has a lot of customization options, great Google integration, and it has integrated accessibility features. More important than these was my subscription with Screencastify, which allowed me to easily record my screen or myself (or both) for instructional videos. These videos were posted to YouTube for students. 

Julia: What’s the funniest thing that happened so far during distance learning?

Kat: Nothing? It was awful? I mean, it was completely necessary and I will gladly do 100% distance learning in the fall if it means keeping people safe, but it was not ideal. I think the only thing that seemingly brought me or my students joy during distance learning was seeing everyone’s pets.

Julia: How do you think kids are handling this time emotionally? What should other teachers and schools prioritize?

Kat: I don’t think they’re handling it well at all. I’ve had many students report that they are/were unmotivated, depressed, ready to give up, considering dropping out, bored, stir-crazy, or just plain not happy. Many of the comments from families at our most recent board meeting support this, with parents pushing to go back to campus to support their student’s social/emotional health. I know my own kids, though much younger than my students, are also feeling the effects of being shut off from their friends and mentors. However, I do think it’s more important to prioritize the physical health of the public. I have anxiety and depression. I take my medication and speak with my counselor at least one per week. I know, first hand, how difficult this can be on someone’s mental health, but if we rush into reopening schools, the effects will be much more devastating. 

Julia: What do you think will happen in the fall? Is full-time distance learning the future of education?

Kat: have no idea what will happen in the fall. I hope that my district will continue 100% distance learning until such a time that students AND staff can return to campus safely (people tend to “forget” that while the COVID numbers for minors are low, schools are not run by minors). I worry that if we plan to do anything other than 100% distance learning, we will be, once again, caught off-guard by a school closure. For me, it would be better to plan for the “worst case scenario,” which is that we will not be able to safely attend in any capacity. I don’t think full-time distance learning is the future of education. However, I do hope that this situation has helped teachers and other educational stakeholders understand the importance of technology in the classroom and 21st century skills. Hopefully, going forward we will see an increased focus on technology budgets, digital citizenship, and ed tech professional development. 


For me, Kat’s interview was a sobering reminder of just how much schools have to think about what next year is REALLY going to look like. Teaching remotely from March through June of this year was one thing, but teaching remotely for the entire 2020-2021 school year is daunting and is a very real possibility.

Kat also shared that her school is in the process of proposing and approving schedules for the fall. Menlo-Atherton, much like my school, is currently hoping to start with a hybrid in-person/virtual system in the fall. Here are examples of their proposed schedule:

What will the fall hold? It’s anyone’s guess at this point. However, I think us teachers would do well to take Kat’s advice and plan for the “worst case scenario.”

Hang in there and take care of yourself,

Julia

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