Janet Steele is a middle school teacher with Washington Virtual Academy. In addition to an impressive list of credentials –as well as several awards — Janet has spent 27 years in teaching and professional development.
Ms. Steele was kind enough to tell us her thoughts on teaching, online learning, students, and the future of education.
Actually, I never intended to be a teacher. In the ‘70’s my ex husband and I were stationed in the Deep South. At the time they would hire almost anyone to teach. I had no degree, but they hired me to teach anyway in a predominately African American junior high school. I had a large class of special education students and very few teaching materials. In fact I started with a ream of yellow ditto paper and a box of chalk. But who would ever know that I would instantly fall in love with teaching!? When I returned to the NW, I completed both a degree in Education and Psychology.
The first four years of my career I was a special education teacher. After a time at home raising my daughter, I returned to teaching in the regular classroom. Always looking for innovation, my teaching partner and I started one of the first multiage classrooms with 52 second and third graders. We used a thematic approach “traveling” around the world to combine the second and third grade social studies objectives of community and continents.
It was here that I discovered the “online” world that would support all our adventures.
We “traveled” in hot air balloons, cruise ships, air craft carriers, bi planes and even Lamborghinis! We connected with an online car webmaster who was so taken with my students’ love of Lamborghinis that he let them write “car reviews” of them. He also joined us via See U See Me to tell my students about his visit and test drive at the Lamborghini factory in Italy. The World Wide Web continued to enrich my students’ understanding of communities and cultures round the world from 1993 until 1999 when I left the classroom to work in education initiatives and technology nationally and internationally.
I returned to public education in fall of 2008 when Steilacoom Historical School District hired me to teach 5th grade and to deliver professional development to teachers. It was there that I learned about Washington Virtual Academy and saw it as the bookend to what I had been doing in the ‘90’s.
In the spring of 2010 I was hired into the K-8 online program to work with middle school students. I had come full circle and now had the sheer joy of leveraging all the power of the internet to support the education of students who were there for a multitude of reasons: some to escape bullying and harassment, some to remediate having dropped through the cracks in brick and mortar schools, and some whose learning was held back as they waited for the rest of the class. The challenge of helping each and every one of these students become successful through an online environment further convinced me of the power I had only glimpsed in its infancy. I had no idea how much I was going to love this job!
Online learning has far more flexibility for students’ learning styles as well as families’ needs. It is not unusual to have students who start their school day at 4 or 5 o’clock in the afternoon. Students who tend to work very slowly no longer feel pressured by the clock.
Students are placed at their correct curriculum level instead of lock stepped by grade level. In my experience this has allowed those students who had huge gaps in content knowledge and skills the opportunity to fill those gaps and move on with the knowledge and confidence they lacked before. This is accomplished through a mastery-based individualized learning program that makes sure they demonstrate understanding before moving on.
For teachers the opportunity to address needs on an individual basis is unparalleled. At anytime, on any day, online assessments let you pinpoint a missed concept or skill, and the technology lets you work one on one with that student to master it.
There is also the obvious advantage to a virtual environment with a decrease in resources needed: gas and mileage for the teacher, brick and mortar upkeep for the school.
One of the biggest surprises to me was how close I have become to my students and their learning coaches. When I began teaching for WAVA I presumed that with most contact being by phone or in a virtual classroom, we would be rather anonymous to each other. In reality the high degree of one-on-one with parents and students has allowed us to develop a much more personal relationship than in a traditional setting. Add to that the many face-to-face outings teachers and students participate in, and we come to know our students in a very personal way.
It’s difficult to settle on just one. I think it would have to be Mary who is an ongoing story of struggle and improvement. She came to my classroom late in the year as an 8th grader. Her mother, who was her learning coach, had serious medical and financial challenges. Mary and she both shared that regular brick and mortar school had been extremely negative. Mary had weight issues and had experienced severe bullying and harassment. Both sought an alternative learning experience to escape the downward spiral Mary was in.
Her first curriculum was level 7 which is typically what WAVA assigns as the curriculum tends to be more difficult than what is found in regular schools. It was quickly apparent that these courses were too challenging, and thus began the struggle to place her in curriculum that was at her true instructional level. Testing revealed a huge gap in reading and math skills. Additionally Mary had zero confidence in her abilities and no self management skills for working independently. Eventually we placed her at level 5 in math, reading and language arts, which was significantly below grade level.
As I got to know Mary better, I came to realize that she had dropped through the educational cracks by second or third grade. She had learned early on that it was easier to just check out than to work hard and still fail. Counteracting this attitude was a daily struggle. As the end of the year neared, it was very clear that Mary was in no way prepared to enter a high school program. The difficult decision to have her repeat 8th grade in WAVA was made. This allowed her online school to remain open over the summer giving her extra time. By the end of the school year we had her at the correct curriculum and grade level, but without the work ethic and self management skills she needed to be successful.
The following fall, Mary started off the year pretty much where she left off in the spring. Each week was a struggle to get her to attend homeroom or to complete lessons. She would often have days intervening with no work accomplished. At that point I became determined to overwhelm her with support and began calling her on almost a daily basis. It was essential that Mary knew that a teacher genuinely cared about her progress. Being able to pull her into my Elluminate classroom let me model writing and math concepts with her one-on-one. It was these sessions combined with the self-paced online lessons that created Mary’s first successes in school.
As the months went by, she began to steadily improve. At the end of each month, I would call to celebrate each progress goal she had made. At the end of April, I was stunned when I went to do state reporting and saw that she had made every single goal! When I called her that evening and told her that she rocked, the pleasure and pride in her voice was a high for me that had no equal. She had finally done it on her own!
Mary still faces an upward battle in high school since she is still significantly below grade level. She and her mother have made the decision to continue on to Washington Virtual Academy high school where they will work to place her appropriately. Had she chosen to go back to brick and mortar, I am sure she would have been placed in standard ninth grade curriculum, which would only have set her up for failure.
As to those who I would encourage to enroll in an online school, the obvious answer is that it is a perfect fit for students who grasp concepts and skills quickly and usually wait for the rest of their class. These students are no longer held back from learning at their own pace. Instead they can finally move forward, mastering curriculum at the pace they deserve and have the freedom to pursue enrichment activities or to follow a ‘rabbit trail’ of interest.
Ironically, this same argument holds true for those students who are consistently left behind as the teacher and class move faster than they are able. Their advantage is that they no longer move past material without mastering it. I’ve seen several students who took advantage of this to repeat a math level which rebuilt needed concepts and skills allowing them for the first time to be successful from that point forward.
As to who I would discourage, it is not a good fit for middle or high school students who lack the maturity to follow a schedule or who do not have an adult available during the school day.Students are expected to maintain the same amount of attendance as in regular school as well as make very specific progress goals. Some enter thinking that they can attend and complete work when they feel like it. Those students quickly fall behind and their teachers must intervene with support and strong expectations on a frequent basis to help them succeed. If the student and the learning coach are not able to make this shift, we help them see that WAVA is not a good fit.
Online learning creates the foundation for strong content knowledge and skills. In WAVA this is extended through high quality enrichment lessons that students may choose to explore. Additionally, there are many face-to-face outings every month in which students and families may participate. In fact, the school offers far more opportunities than are offered to students in a traditional school.
Additionally, doing schooling with WAVA allows families to pursue interests and activities on their own that support and align with the distinctive needs of the student. For example, many students enroll in private music or athletic options that are not offered through their district schools. Since they can complete lessons around their own schedule, students can be available during the school day to pursue their own personal goals.
WAVA has quite a few students that are enrolled in a “shared” status. This means that students, as an example, may be enrolled in WAVA for math and science and take the remainder of their classes at their local school. Some districts allow students to enroll 100% in WAVA but still participate in music, athletics and extracurricular activities at the local school.
We also have many students who are part time WAVA and part time homeschooled. This means that the families are able to pursue curriculum in the homeschooled portion that is unique to their needs. An example of this is where the family chooses to provide part of the curriculum through materials produced by their religious affiliation.
Personally, in the future I see education needing to provide more opportunities for students to learn in alternative methods, particularly online. As the cost of maintaining facilities and providing transportation increases, the cost-effectiveness of online learning will become even more valued. I cannot reiterate enough the advantage students have when they are placed in their correct level of curriculum and progress based on mastery at every level before moving on.
In my mind’s eye twenty years from now I envision programs like WAVA also being delivered via community centers where one learning coach supports a small group of students in their personalized, mastery-based learning, all working at their correct level and pace. This would fill the need for those students who do not have an adult available during the day but who benefit from a structured learning environment based on their personal educational needs.
For too long educational and political bureaucracy has allowed too many students who were outside the middle of the bell curve to fall through the cracks. We have so many wonderful freedoms in this country. I strongly believe that for our young people should also have the freedom to experience alternative education in the way that best meets their needs. Foremost of these is the power of online learning to free a student from the limitations that they experienced in the traditional classroom setting.