By Christine Garland
Head set on, the backdrop of her classroom a cozy living space in her own home, computer up, apps ready, this is how virtual school teacher Jena Sherry starts her day. The only chair in her classroom is hers. The only whiteboard is smart and her kids — all 80 of them — are not from one district or school building, but all over Wisconsin.
“People say, ‘oh my gosh, you’ve got 80 students,’ but the time is so much more efficient,” Sherry said. “With the different methods of teaching, you can easily handle 80 students.”
For two years, Sherry has taught for WIVA, Wisconsin’s virtual academy. Wisconsin is a school of choice state meaning every single one of Sherry’s students is there by choice.
So what’s a school day like for a non-traditional virtual teacher? Well every day Sherry gets up and, like many teachers and professionals, turns on her iPad or other device to answer a few emails from bed. The difference — as you can imagine — is that she can continue working from bed or something like it (hello pajamas) while others dress and go to work.
Sherry’s classes are live, but they’re also recorded so anyone who misses a class can catch up on their own time.
“Students can be here there or everywhere and still be schooling,” Sherry said.
This means that a student who is struggling or prefers to work in the summer, can finish coursework in July instead of June. It also means a sixth grader working at a fifth grade math level, doesn’t have to suffer the in-class embarrassment of working at a lower level than his or her peers.
The flexibility also helps with behavioral issues simple solutions often resolve. For example, when students are hungry, they can grab a snack. When they need to run off excess energy, they disappear outside for 30 minutes. Late risers can start school at 10 a.m. and finish at 7 p.m.
The flexible schedule is particularly attractive to students’ parents, many of whom are “learning coaches.” Learning coaches agree to aid the virtual learning experience. These coaches are often a parent or grandparent. The intensity of their responsibilities directly correlates with a child’s age.
A first-grade learning coach, for example, might have to help about 80 percent of the time but a high school student will need very little oversight from a learning coach.
“The older the students get, the less responsibility the learning coach has,” Sherry said.
Instead of grades, Sherry’s students, who are in sixth, seventh and eighth grade, have to master their assignments. Once they do, they move on to the next one.
“Unlike before where kids could take a zero, if you don’t do a lesson, when you open the online school tomorrow, it’s there waiting for you,” Sherry said. “And if you don’t do it, it will wait for you the next day. You can’t just skip through. You have to have it 100 percent mastered before you move to the next class.”
During the school day, students login and participate using Blackboard Collaborate, video, polling tools and other resources. Students often use emoticons — the slow down and speed up emoticon are two favorites — to non-verbally communicate with Sherry during class.
Sherry uses a mic that works like a walkie-talkie system to prevent people from talking over each other during lessons. And, if students get a bit rowdy, Sherry can shut off sharing tools until class gets back to normal.
Between live lessons and grading, Sherry takes calls from parents, operates “office hours” for her students, or meets with colleagues — things she could never do during the day while teaching in a physical classroom.
Last year, WIVA expected student enrollment for K-12 to increase from 700 to 800. By the time school started, enrollment it hit 2,000. This year, enrollment reached 2,300. And who, exactly, is enrolling? Sherry said her class population mirrors bricks and mortar classrooms.
“I have kids that are super overachieving. I have kids that are super underachieving that try not to work and get away with it. I have some kids whose parents work from home so it’s convenient for everyone. I have some autistic kids who really thrive in this environment because no one is pushing their buttons,” Sherry said. “It’s like a bricks and mortar classroom.”
So why does Sherry do it? More on that later this week!