For my 52 learners, I’m learning just how much ownership they can take in their own learning. Talk about leaders.
Educator, Pike Road Schools
Q: What has it been like working from home as an educator and as a mom?
Britney: At the beginning, it was so overwhelming that I didn’t see a light at the end of the tunnel. Not only do I have to help learners navigate this, I’m also helping parents. I’m advising parents on how to log into things and upload things. In person, it would take two seconds to show them how to do 10 things, but adhering to social distancing norms makes it infinitely more difficult.
Once we entered our second week of e-learning, and everyone got connected to our online platforms, things started going much smoother. But, it remains a challenge being responsible for 52 learners as a teacher, while taking care of my own two children who have their own Zoom meetings and schedules. That has been the hardest part for me.
When schools are open, I can go to work and leave the mom side of me at home. I don’t have that right now. I’m spending so much time trying to juggle things. At school, I’m Mrs. Fureigh and when I come home, I’m mom and can help you with your homework. I’m realizing having that divide is something I really value.
Q: What has been the advantage of being a teacher and a mom?
Britney: Being both a parent and a teacher has actually given me the perspective of what would make it easier for me and my own child when I’m thinking about the families I’m serving. As a mom, I just want a gosh darn schedule. Show me what my child’s Monday through Friday is going to look like. What are your expectations for them and what support do they need from me? How can I balance their schedules with my own and make sure everyone in my family is on the same page?
I want to use what I notice as a parent and provide that for the 52 sets of parents who are counting on me to provide guidance. I don’t want to add an extra task for them to fill out a survey asking them what will work. They have enough they’re trying to juggle and just need someone to take the lead on the school front.
Q: How else have you been supporting parents?
Britney: Our district has been amazing in responding to the requests of us, teachers. We noticed having virtual office hours—a consistent window of time parents could hop on the phone or video with us to discuss anything that was on their minds—would be super helpful. And, it has been.
Rather than having parents reach out at 6:00AM or in the early evening after they got home from work, we could choose a two-hour window within regular school hours that our parents could reach us. Of course, if 52 families need to reach me at the same time, that doesn’t work, so I might not be free 100% of the time you need me. But, everyone has my contact information, so they can reach me via Zoom, email, texting, or a phone call.
And, I let everyone know I’m also a mom, so if you get muted for a minute while I take care of something happening in the background, I’ll be right back. That assurance though, as a parent, of knowing you can reach your child’s teacher between 1:00PM and 3:00PM, for example, is enormously important. Now, you can negotiate your schedule and the office hours to find a time to reach out.
Q: Thinking about what would be most beneficial during this moment for your own two children, how would you want their at-home learning to be designed?
Britney: I would want them engaged in real authentic learning experiences. Going back to the belief we started Pike Road Schools with, that learning can take place anytime, anywhere, how can we honor that belief during this moment? What skills are my children interested in learning? Let’s learn it. Let’s practice it. And then, let’s use it.
For example, my son is working on fractions right now. How can he learn the basics of what he needs to know, go practice it, and then build something with that new knowledge?
My son is into Minecraft and getting dirty—typical nine-year-old stuff. Now that he understands fractions, we are trying to use what he knows to build a virtual Minecraft world where his garden is made up of vegetables that occupy equivalent space but consist of different quantities.
So, he knows 40 units of green beans would fill the entire garden and 20 units of corn would fill the entire garden. But, he only wants each vegetable to take up 25% of the usable space. Now, fractions come into play. He learns he needs 10/40 of green beans and 5/20 of corn and can see that the two fractions both reduce to 1/4.
Whether this garden exists in a virtual world or in our backyard is neither here nor there. In both environments, he can take his understanding of fractions that he learned from his teacher and use that understanding to build something new. Imagine how much more this lesson will stick with him!
The struggle with this type of learning in this current moment is that it is harder to facilitate with parents working full time and being the teacher. But, us teachers could help facilitate this from afar and see how each learner applies these lessons within the context of what interests them most
Q: When facilities open back up, what do you hope to see as a major priority for learning?
Britney: One of the things we saw right off the bat when we moved to e-learning was the lack of equity with online learning access across the state. We aren’t assigning grades because not everyone has access. We see the economic divide where affluent families aren’t having any issues with getting their children up and running, while those who are not as well off are feeling the negative impact of this moment much more heavily.
What Pike Road Schools has been able to show—and if anybody could do it in Alabama, we could—is that once we got kids devices, pretty much everything was like we were still physically together. And, everyone could continue learning together. You might be seeing me on a computer or iPad screen, but you’re already familiar with the applications we use. Everything on the learning front is familiar.
I also hope we acknowledge the mental health impact this moment is going to have on our learners. Nobody in my group of 52 learners is able to comprehend the magnitude of what’s happening right now. And, for many learners, this lack of comprehension is a struggle.
School and my classroom were their safe place. It’s where they got fed. For some, being at home every day is where they’ll face more abuse or neglect than would otherwise be the case had they been at school all day. That’s going to take years to undo.
Many of my fourth-graders are the oldest and take care of their siblings. They’re handling the baths, preparing lunches and dinners, cleaning, and doing other chores. And, no money’s coming in, as parents have lost jobs.
This experience is traumatic for many kids. Even if they are in stable homes, home is just not a normal place right now. Home is no longer the place you just play. Mom and dad look different—stressed. Mom and dad are now the teacher, which is confusing for our younger ones.
What we have to prioritize when schools reopen is our sense of community. Schools are not just buildings—they are places where you see your family beyond your home. It’s a place where we’re all together—we all care about each other. We can’t get that feeling over a 20-minute Zoom call.
Q: What’s one of the biggest insights you’ve had about your learners and your own children during this moment?
Britney: Less is more—of everything. Less activities, less schedule fillers, less homework, less assignments. At the end of the day, it’s all about togetherness. I know that’s so cheesy, but how do we survive this? Together.
During normal circumstances, if my 14-year-old had a crappy day because eight different things didn’t work her way, I would never know about it. We’d be running from one activity to the next. But right now, we can talk about it. I’m learning so much more about her.
For my 9-year-old, I’m shocked at how much he can do. I’m learning he’s so much more capable than what I’ve given him credit for—and, I’m a teacher! Seeing him interact with his teachers and peers on Zoom calls makes me realize how normal he is. And, I can humorously acknowledge his immaturity is the same as all his peers.
For my 52 learners, I’m learning just how much ownership they can take in their own learning. Talk about leaders. They showcase such leadership in-person at Pike Road Schools all the time—be it through time management or expressing their learning in ways that are uniquely relevant to them. But, seeing them continue that leadership at home is incredible.
It’s one of those answers I look for when we talk about what success looks like. Do you measure yourself by the scores your children get at the end of the year? Or, do you measure how independent they are and how much self-confidence they have in their abilities?
Educator, Pike Road Schools
I would say 95% of my children are taking what we have learned thus far—about how to learn and to own their own learning—and running with it. They don’t need direction from their parents. And, when you get that compliment from a parent, the tears of pride just pour.
That’s the best compliment you can receive as a teacher. Not that they don’t need help, but that they understand what their goal is for the day. They understand how to tackle that goal and what to do when something doesn’t work—whether it’s coming up with a solution on their own or independently reaching out to me for help. That’s a skill, no matter where they go, that will make them more successful.
It’s one of those answers I look for when we talk about what success looks like. Do you measure yourself by the scores your children get at the end of the year? Or, do you measure how independent they are and how much self-confidence they have in their abilities? And, more so, in speaking about their inabilities. Can you be on a Zoom call with 25 of your peers and tell us what you’re struggling with?
That takes a level of vulnerability I don’t even have at my age. It really will bring you to tears because you realize this group of students are a family, and you have helped create that. You have helped create that security.
When one kid expresses themselves, others immediately say, “Oh, I know! It’s hard. I’m sorry that you’re struggling. Maybe you should do this.” You’re sitting there as the lead learner (what Pike Road Schools calls teachers) thinking, “You’re 10, and you’re helping with this kid’s mental health.” I’m doing nothing. I’m just sitting on the screen crying my eyes out because you’re able to talk to your fellow student like he’s an adult.
Those things are not measurable. A test is not going to measure what’s happening with these kids.
Q: If you were speaking to a state legislator, what message would you want them to hear loud and clear about what makes a learner “successful”?
Britney: We need to focus, especially at the younger ages, on each child knowing who they are as learners. Seeing my 52 kids able to identify who they are as learners, particularly during this disruption, has been monumental. They know how to persevere and take ownership of their learning.
It’s a result of how we, as a Pike Road Schools community, operate within our four walls of a classroom, allowing this ownership to translate beyond. When one of my learners has a technology question—and I’m not immediately available and their parents aren’t available or don’t know how to use an application—what do they do? They start problem solving on their own and then they start reaching out to their peers. They start answering questions I don’t even have the answer to.
Q: Seeing how independent and supportive your learners are, what shifts do you want to make in your own teaching practice moving forward?
Britney: It changes my entire thought process about how much I need to control. As I make my own shift from teacher-centered to learner-centered learning, I have to let go of feeling like if I’m not there, learning won’t occur. That philosophy is so wrong.
This moment has been so eye-opening. I can’t be with my learners every moment of every day, but what I have instilled in them has translated. They are incredibly self-sufficient. For future groups of learners, I want to relinquish control much sooner because they’re capable of handling it. I haven’t been giving them the benefit of the doubt, and I’m ready to do that now.