Education - Teacher
JH Classical Academy teacher Teddy Sawyer teaches a 'virtual classroom' online while schools remain closed due to health orders. Photo: Courtesy JHCA

JACKSON, Wyo. — So many have made enormous adjustments to the new norm under pandemic control—maybe none more so than teachers.

School systems across the country have overhauled their instructional models from the ground up, and they did it practically overnight. Told to shutter their classrooms and board up their gymnasiums, administrators moved quickly to Plan B: distance learning.

Teachers scrambled to learn new software like Zoom and Google Classroom. They replaced blackboards and whiteboards with computer screens. The “apple” on the teacher’s desk is now, in many cases, a MacIntosh product.

“I’m pleased to note it appears like it has been a seamless transition but I would like to say our team mobilized in short order to put together our adaptive learning plan,” superintendent of Teton County School District #1 Dr. Gillian Chapman told Jackson Hole Radio during a recent live interview. “We are definitely ahead of many districts across the country because we’ve been using devices effectively, and technology as a resource.”

TCSD#1 began using Canvas, a learning management platform, some seven years ago—a move Chapman attributes to what she feels is a better preparation of students and teachers for this sudden new future.

Eric Fleetham, a law professor specializing in legal research and writing, borrows an age-old teleconferencing trick: Top-down dress code works in a pinch. Courtesy photo

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow also pointed toward Canvas and other measures Wyoming has been eager to put in place long before a pandemic made them top priority.

Parent consensus: Homeschooling is hard

Recognizing a hybrid form of learning utilizing technology and online education was a future she wanted Wyoming to explore, Balow pushed, unsuccessfully, for state funding of digital learning platforms. WDE scraped together funds and stood up a plan as best it could. That groundwork was crucial in what has now become a ‘baptism by fire’ test marketing of the Wyoming education system’s virtual learning capabilities and preparedness.

“We realize this is an unexpected and unintentional shift. Keeping connected will take extra effort, and we will do all we can to facilitate kindness and care,” Jackson Hole Classical Academy Head of School Polly Friess stated in an address to parents recently. “It’s been beautiful to see how what is important in life rises to the top in difficult times, and what isn’t necessary fades away. With daily routines interrupted and more stillness, we have an opportunity to listen better and to think more deeply.”

Distance learning, it’s the thing. It’s the only thing right now. Photo: Courtesy JHCA

JHCA went online for four days before a two-week spring break and then finished another four days in a shortened week last week. So far, teachers have adjusted their curriculum for the new venue and students also have adapted as best they can.

Chapman agreed, saying the transition wasn’t without its speed bumps.

“Our staff has gone through a range of emotions including grief, anger, frustration—but we’re also trying to settle into a routine and maintain a really strong connection with our students and their families,” Chapman said.

So far, so good, according to most reports from around the state. While some states have already raised a white flag for ever returning to brick-and-mortar this school session, Wyoming is among most playing it week-to-week with cues from Governor Mark Gordon and state health officer Dr. Alexia Harrist. It’s not ideal but nothing is anymore.

“It’s a little early to give ourselves a report card, but just one week in we are getting great feedback from around the state on how each district is implementing their adaptive learning plans,” Balow shared with Buckrail. “We are such a tightknit education system community in Wyoming—for a state so spread out—and I shared this with Secretary [of Education Betsy] DeVos this morning during a phone call with her.”

Kindergarten student Fox Lunz creates a healthy workspace at home for her art class. Photo: Courtesy JHCA

iPad pupils

It takes a village to raise a child…now, more than ever. In making the transition from classroom to Zoom room, educators have sometimes had to rely on student as teacher.

“It’s the waving hand button down on the bottom of the screen,” one student enlightened her first-grade teacher during math studies.

Teachers, in turn, have enjoyed enhanced features of the new virtual classroom, like the “mute” button.

At JHCA, one early observation has been overcoming the challenging learning environment. Obstacles to online learning have included distractions from siblings and parents. Dogs barking, parents having breakfast in the background, and the students themselves fidgeting with their laptops and iPads.

Discipline is difficult to maintain with all that cyberspace between teacher and wiggly student.

Younger students, say K-4, have not yet developed the learning hygiene necessary for a focused class session. Previous to COVID, computers for the average 8-year-old meant fun time. Now they are being asked to sit up straight, remain quiet until called upon, and, in the case of JHCA, dress appropriately.

What is the new protocol for distance learning? At the Classical Academy, a uniform is standard, even online. Kids that showed up the first day ‘back’ from spring break in pajamas, munching on Pop-Tarts learned quickly this new form of teaching has rules very much like the old kind.

“I do not want to see you lying on your bed.”

“No, you cannot just get up and leave the room. I can see you, remember.”

“Please stop changing your background.”

From the teacher’s perspective, classrooms today look like the opening theme of the Brady Bunch.

Teachers work hard to keep their kids on task and engaged. It isn’t easy with all that cyberspace between them.

Still, creative teachers rise to the occasion—something Balow said she was so proud of about Wyoming educators.

At JHCA, there was a ‘field trip’ to the kitchen for a science project. At Munger Mountain Elementary School, Daniel Primich incorporated TikTok into his lesson plans.

At a time when heroes were never more in demand, Teton County teachers have stepped up and stepped in to a gap created by a new world order no one could have seen coming. They’ve done it by getting up to speed on new software, changing their lesson plans again and again, and putting in the extra time to make sure they are connecting with every student in a meaningful way, even when pixels have replaced pencils.

“We can’t wait to have our kids and our staff back in our buildings,” Chapman said. “In the meantime, for parents who are struggling with so much going on at home…give yourself a break. Give yourself time to enjoy the family connections you have. If math doesn’t get done today that is okay. Give yourself a break. Don’t stress out about it. Just do your best.”

“As educators, we are balancing the need to continue educating the mind and the heart, while recognizing these are turbulent times and only essential learning should take place,” Friess added. “We understand the added pressure for parents and we are ‘here’ to support you.”

Sarah Walter gets her class settled down and ready to learn online. Photo: Courtesy JHCA