[Editor’s note: Jennifer Heighton is a Grade 4/5 teacher in the Burnaby School District. She spoke to reporter Katie Hyslop about how she, along with over 44,000 other teachers in the province’s public school system, is making the transition from in-class instruction to almost entirely online education over the last seven weeks.]
It was Tuesday, March 17, the second day of spring break when the provincial government announced the suspension of in-class instruction.
I was at home with my husband, who is also a teacher. We were hanging out together, since we were social distancing. The announcement wasn’t a surprise. I had seen how the other provinces across Canada had started shutting down and suspending classes.
The Burnaby School District, they’ve been amazing. They let us know right away that they were working on the transition from classroom learning. “Don’t stress, you'll find out more in the first week back.” They didn't want to start revealing plans to us ahead of time because then you’re not on break anymore, you’re working. They were good about not intruding on our private time until spring break was over.
But from the moment I found out classes were cancelled, I was watching news constantly and paying attention to teacher Facebook pages. What were B.C. teachers saying? What were they feeling? A lot of teachers said it didn’t really feel like spring break because of the anxiety over how we’re going to keep teaching our students.
When we left our classes on the Friday before spring break, we all said to the kids “OK, goodbye! Have a good spring break, see you in two weeks!”
We didn’t even get that sense of closure, of being able to say goodbye to the students in a way that would fit the situation. There’s a little bit of feeling disconnected from just the whole change. It happened quite quickly, those mid-March days. There was one thing after another, cancellations of trips, airport restrictions, 14-day quarantines for travellers. I’m sure you remember it well.
Week 1: Back at work (March 30 to April 3)
We had lots of meetings after the two-week spring break. The school administrator phoned us, we had a staff meeting and we contacted families by email or phone to connect with kids. I connected with all 27 of my students. Basically the communication was “How are you doing? Do you need a laptop or what’s your WiFi situation? How are the kids doing?”
Most were doing OK. There were some families who needed extra support, like food and technology.
I was also starting to learn the new platforms. The district had already got us on Microsoft Office 365 a year earlier. But my colleagues and I didn't know how to use its teaching platform, Microsoft Teams. Most of the time you're teaching in class, so we didn’t really need to.
But primary grades — Grade 3 and below — couldn’t use Microsoft Teams, so teachers had to come up with their own systems. They were talking to each other about using blogs, Zoom and email to communicate with the kids.
Zoom was approved by the ministry in early April, I think. They changed all the settings so it’s more secure. Burnaby agreed with the changes and said, “Yes, Burnaby teachers, you can use it.” Other districts have chosen not to use Zoom.
And those of us teaching the intermediate grades were learning about how to use Teams to post assignments and have meetings. We're finding Zoom is good for seeing the kids face to face, because Teams has some limitations there.
Week 2: Learning together (April 6 to 10)
The second week back involved more work with the platforms like Teams, and finding all the different websites that could help with learning. I needed to find, for example, a reading website where kids could access books online for free. I landed on Epic Books, so I signed up my class and gave them all passwords and instructions. Then I decided on a math site, IXL Math, and figured out how that works. There’s a myriad of websites out there, so that week was spent researching which websites I would use and how they work.
The online resources the ministry and our school district had rolled out was a really good idea. They did that during the first two weeks after spring break so families had something to do while teachers were trying to wrap our brains around all of this.
But when it comes to choosing what’s going to create your own program, each teacher had to make those decisions themselves.
We could use some of the resources the ministry recommended. However a lot of teachers ended up recommending things to each other. The teacher Facebook groups include one that’s all about sharing resources, and the ideas coming out of there have been phenomenal.
We also had lots of online meetings that week, with teachers helping each other learn more about using Teams. A friend from another school took it upon himself to research it, and after he showed me, I showed the rest of my school’s staff. There was a whole bunch of collaborating going on. All staff were involved — principal, classroom teachers, support teachers and education assistants. The first week was just two, maybe three meetings. The second week was a lot more, I’d say five or six.
Week 3: Getting things rolling (April 13 to 17)
The third week was when we began the rollout to students and families. So I was sending families lots of emails. “Here’s your child’s new email account. Here's how you get there. Please help your child log on.” And “I'm going to have a meeting with your child using Teams, can you help them log on so they can be there?” We were trying to communicate to parents about this new platform, hopefully in a clear way so they could help their kids.
Teams is not an easy platform for young kids. In our district, Grade 4 is the youngest grade using Teams. And to access it they need to have their own email account. Trying to teach my Grade 4s and Grade 5s about email, about Teams, when they’re 9, 10 or 11 years old was challenging. For a lot of them, it was their first time on email and their first time on this program. And having to learn how to use it when you’re at home and the teacher isn’t right there looking over your shoulder and demonstrating is tricky.
Parents have been a huge part of this, too. We are grateful for all they’re doing and I know and am cognizant of the fact that some of them are working from home. We’re trying to make it as easy on them as possible, while supporting their kids.
Some parents are grateful for the work that’s been going into the effort to continue learning. And I haven’t heard from any who are overwhelmed, but I read social media and know some people are. Which is why I try to make the assignments manageable, not go over the limit. We are trying to make sure we don’t overload families, if at all possible.
That week was stressful and exciting. The exciting part was rolling out the new platforms to the kids and being able to talk to them again. I was so happy to chat with them online and be able to see their faces even for a brief moment.
The stressful part was trying to make the experience as smooth as possible for families. The kids are using different devices: some are Apple devices, some are tablets, some are laptops. And the program doesn’t necessarily operate the same on all the devices. So there were technical difficulties. Some kids logged on and were like “my mic’s not working.” Or they’re typing in the chat window: “I can't hear anything.” So you’re typing back saying, “OK, check your settings, check this, check that.”
Meanwhile you've got eight other kids in the meeting waiting for you to start. The stressful part was all the tech glitches, especially when the users are unfamiliar with the program and it’s not their fault. That’s how it is in these times. And then for us, there was the frustration of not being there to help them along.
Week 4: Moving into more lessons (April 20 to 24)
By then I was moving toward a few more curricular-type assignments. They get math every day for about a half hour in IXL Math, and I monitor and give lessons related to that. I’ve given them some reading and writing assignments based on some of the things that I had done in class. And then there’s been other opportunities too, like physical education and a program the music teacher developed. We’ve been trying to give them a variety but not overload them.
Every district put out its own guidelines regarding how many hours kids should be learning. For ours, kindergarten to Grade 3 students get approximately one hour of school work per day. Grade 4 to Grade 7 is anywhere from an hour-and-a-half to three hours per day. And Grade 8 to Grade 12 is 10 to 15 hours per week.
The assignments and the learning, that’s part of it — but the social part is super important. The kids can hear each other's voices. They can connect with their classmates. They feel like they’re part of school, they can hear my voice. And I’m hoping it's helping give the kids a sense of normalcy in these unsettling times.
Week 5: The work continues (April 27 to May 1)
The different thing last week was we finally were able to pack up and send home the things the students had left behind. So that’s art supplies, their folders, notebooks and even jackets, shoes and things that had been left behind in the cloakroom. That was a big process. The district has been very good about health and safety so they didn’t give the go ahead to principals to start getting the supplies back to families until last week.
So last Wednesday, I was at the school handing out the supplies as families arrived. We bagged all that stuff and brought it down to the gym. Then parents came to pick it up and we had this whole process. Appointments were made based on alphabetical order and parents were given a period to arrive so we could maintain social distancing. Every single decision, because of the pandemic, has involved a lot more organizing.
I find the online part right now is actually more than a full-time job. If you asked my husband, he’d say I worked long hours before this all started. But I would say I’m working pretty long hours right now. For example, my next project is to learn how to videotape myself teaching with what's called a document camera. I want to teach math with these blocks my kids are familiar with. How do I do that, record it and get it on the screen? The document camera needed special software, needed a special cord, so I had to figure that out. And now I have to learn how to use that software.
After six weeks, I feel like I’m finally settling into a routine, although I’m still learning and troubleshooting new things.
It feels like a marathon. We’re completely changing our delivery model while worrying about our students at the same time.
Online teaching will never replace the rich social experience of the classroom. And the classroom effectiveness in teaching skills and building relationships is difficult to replicate remotely.
But I am sure glad that I have technology during this time to be able to connect to my students. I think most teachers feel the same way.