End the duopoly

With the quick shift to online learning, educators (and sometimes their children) step into IT support

Originally posted on Chalkbeat by Caroline Bauman on April 9, 2020 a nonprofit news organization covering public education. Sign up for their newsletters here: ckbe.at/newsletters
Jane and Cathy Asher.

Jane Asher is home for the rest of her sophomore year of college – and she has a new job. It doesn’t pay anything, but it comes with free rent.

Jane Asher’s mom, Cathy Asher, is a longtime art educator and art therapist. After years in the classroom, Cathy Asher now finds herself staring at her kindergarteners through a screen, trying to teach digital art lessons like creating sculptures from egg cartons.

“Jane is my tech support,” said Cathy Asher, who had started a new job at P.S. 188 in Manhattan just a month before schools started shuttering in New York and across the nation in response to the new coronavirus.

As districts across the country race to make the massive transition to online learning, some veteran teachers are struggling to quickly master new technology – from live lessons on Zoom to tracking attendance virtually to uploading assignments to Google Classroom. Since some teachers have had little to no time to prepare for this professional sea change, tech-savvy colleagues, school librarians, and even educators’ own children now find themselves in the role of tech support.

For the past three weeks, Lindsay Toub has been getting up at 7:30 a.m. and not closing her computer until after 10 p.m. as she answers questions from fellow educators, records how-to tutorials, and teaches her own fourth grade students in the Central Bucks School District, about an hour north of Philadelphia.

“We have so many amazing teachers, many who have been here for 15 years,” Toub said. “Even though a lot feel uncomfortable because this isn’t what they’re used to doing, having someone who they have a relationship with to hold their hand and take step-by-step – that makes all the difference.”

Lindsay Toub in her classroom.
PHOTO CREDIT: Lindsay Toub

Toub’s school uses Microsoft Teams for video instruction, as well as Seesaw, a remote learning app. Toub has used Seesaw for years and has started contributing her own how-to videos to a district repository that helps teachers navigate all the new technology.

“If you add up all the hours to find these resources and make the tutorials, it’s a lot, but it’s been rewarding,” Toub said. “We don’t need everyone starting fresh here.”

In a small district in central Nebraska, Valerie Chmelka is also pulling crazy hours.

Chmelka, the media specialist and librarian at her elementary school in Grand Island Public Schools, has fully stepped into the role of tech support for her fellow educators who are in week three of remote learning with Google Classroom.

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“During the first week, I would start getting emails at 7 in the morning and they wouldn’t stop until 8 or 9 o’clock at night,” she said. “I had a hard time setting my own boundaries with it, because I know how easy it is to become frustrated with something hard and new.”

She knows full well the difficulty of this massive shift for seasoned educators – she was in the classroom for 15 years before switching three years ago to her role as media specialist.

“This is a hard time, but the tech piece doesn’t have to make it harder,” Chmelka said. She’s helped her district’s IT department create a list of answers to frequently asked questions, which has helped “cut down on the sheer number of requests.”

And she’s also fielding questions from parents and students – 89% of district students receive free and reduced-price lunch, and many wouldn’t have a computer or tablet at home if not for her schools one-to-one device policy.

A day in the life: Valerie Chmelka’s handwritten log of IT requests from fellow educators.
PHOTO CREDIT: Valerie Chmelka

“Some students have had issues with their computer, so I’ve masked and gloved up and headed out to the school to meet students and swap their device out,” Chmelka said.

It’s not surprising that librarians like Chmelka are taking on this responsibility, said Kathy Lester, the advocacy chair of the Michigan Association for Media in Education.

School librarians have been the “tech support person in their buildings since the days when tech was film strips and VCRs,” Lester said. She is also a librarian and media specialist herself at a middle school in Plymouth-Canton Community Schools, west of Detroit.

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“I just taught a PD for all the teachers in my building on Zoom about distance learning,” Lester said. “But not every school, or even every district, has someone who can do this. And that’s not good for teachers, or their students.”

And some of these helpers find they get something out of the stopgap arrangement, too. Jane Asher has helped her mom, the Manhattan art teacher, upload materials to a Google classroom folder and taught her how to use a hashtag on Instagram — #communityheros — for a collage project her kindergarteners are completing about first responders.

The 20-year-old American University student says helping her mom has had benefits she didn’t expect. “Before, I didn’t really ever get to see what my mom does. And I was starting to realize how empty my days have been outside of my own school work.”

This article answers questions raised by our readers. Share your coronavirus-related questions, concerns, and ideas here, and keep up with our reporting on COVID-19 here.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.

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