By Dave Russell

Teaching makes most any list of the “noble professions.” COVID-19 and the resulting changes in delivering education might bump it higher up those lists.

Jackson County Public Schools moved last week to a schedule offering remote-only lessons to 37 percent of students and a combination of two days a week in-school/three days remote for the others. Instead of engaging one group of students at a time, teachers now plan for three groups.

Catherine DeWeese, a special education teacher at Smoky Mountain High School, said the difference between remote teaching and in-class is huge.

“Hands-on activities are really impossible to do remotely,” she said. “In class, you can change things up. If they’re not getting it, you can just move on to something else or change how you are doing it. Online I spend so much time making sure what they need is online that you can’t really change it up.”

Describing herself as a “veteran teacher,” DeWeese spent time over summer break learning how to operate the online platform.

“That’s not how I was taught to teach,” she said. “Remote planning is trying to create the documents related to what I know and make it fit into the online platform. In person, I pull from what I know, it’s more conversational, and we have interaction. The kids don’t interact as much online.”

DeWeese works two to four hours per day longer than this time last year.

Building relationships is her biggest challenge. She took time over the summer to stay in touch with her students, she said.

“I was trying to hang on to those relationships and make sure they knew we were still here for them,” DeWeese said. “I’m trying to work on those relationships so they will log in and do school work.”

She often sets up Google meets with students to check in with them one-on-one.

“Ideally I can have my computer someplace where I can stream whatever I am doing in class to the kids who are online and I can teach in-class,” she said. “The problem with that is when I have to do the one-on-one stuff with students.”

She lauded the school system’s technology team, Pam Cabe and April DeBord, for spending hours producing easy-to-follow videos and other resources for teachers, she said.

Ty Dengler, a science teacher at SMHS, echoed her sentiments about the team.

“They put out tons of software, they’ve been great at answering questions,” he said.

He also feels relationships are harder to maintain this year.

“The biggest difference between in-class and remote is finding a new way to engage the kids,” he said. “When we have them in class they are kind of a captive audience.”

Discussion and experiential learning are large parts of his teaching style, and the virtual platform can be a barrier.

“Sometimes when you’re in a virtual meeting you throw out a question and it’s crickets, they don’t want to speak over the computer, broadcast to everybody’s home,” he said. “Not having the hands-on, and difficulty showing the demonstrations or having the lab, makes it hard. Watching a demonstration video or computer simulation, they’re not physically seeing it. Not seeing the kids is difficult for me because I’m not seeing them have that ‘ah-hah’ moment.”

Dengler puts in one to three hours more per day this year than last.

“There have been multiple nights that I have fallen asleep at my computer trying to get going for the next day,” he said.

Some things have not changed.

“It still comes down to the motivation of the student,” Dengler said. “Those who are motivated and excited about learning, they’re coming to the classes and putting in the effort.”

Fairview Elementary School Principal Eleanor Macaulay sees the strain the school year is putting on teachers, especially the extra hours they are working.

“Teachers are working late in the day and they are in here on weekends, and they are not able to put distance between their job and their home life,” she said. “The balance is not there yet. Not yet, but we’re going to get there.”

Macaulay points to three areas where teacher workload has increased.

“One would be teaching three groups of students per day,” she said. “Another would be supporting families right now because this is all so new. Families are trying to get devices up and working, figuring out where they are going on the devices, and that is causing a lot of stress.”

Providing feedback is another issue.

“Students are submitting assignments online when they are not in school and teachers have to go in and give them feedback on their work, and they are not having time in the day to do that because they’ve got face-to-face kids,” she said.

Administrators and faculty are constantly looking to make improvements in plans moving forward, she said.

“We’re having conversations about ‘How can we adjust this to make it more manageable for teachers?’” she said. “Our student support staff is helping families as well, through phone calls and home visits.”

Parents have given feedback and support.

“When I signed up to be an administrator, I knew it would entail long hours,” Macaulay said. “Typically I work a 10-hour day at school and I work at night. It has changed what my workload is. I still work about the same hours, maybe a little bit more, but a lot of what I am doing now is looking at feedback, evaluating and making adjustments to what we’re asking teachers for, what we’re asking parents for, and making sure students get quality instruction.”