South Aiding 'Rock Star' Teachers in Distance Learning

Posted on May 18, 2020
Thomas Becnel

Dr. Joe Gaston, University of South Alabama assistant professor of educational technology, demonstrates from home how to prepare online classes, including the use of QR codes so students can scan and access audio and video lessons.  data-lightbox='featured'
Dr. Joe Gaston, University of South Alabama assistant professor of educational technology, demonstrates from home how to prepare online classes, including the use of QR codes so students can scan and access audio and video lessons.

At the South Alabama Research and Inservice Center, the coronavirus pandemic has brought new urgency to online support for teachers and distance learning for their students.

“We were dipping our toes in online professional learning at the beginning,” said Dr. Stephanie Hulon, director of SARIC, “but COVID-19 is forcing us to say, ‘We just want to help. How can we help?’”

Across the state, kindergarten through high school teachers had to begin teaching classes online. Many turned for help to SARIC courses featuring faculty from the University of South Alabama College of Education and Professional Studies.

For one April session, “Early Literacy and Online Learning,” 158 educators logged into a Zoom session.

Dr. Lauren Brannan, a South assistant professor of leadership and teacher education, zipped through an hour-long survey of tips, programs and teaching techniques. On her computer screen, she shared ways to use interactive whiteboard apps such as ShowMe, Educreations and Google Classroom.

In between demonstrations, Brannan polled teachers on their use of personal lesson plans.

“Some of you rock stars are creating all of your own online content,” she said. “That’s amazing. I’m hoping today you can add to your toolbox for teaching online.”

In a Zoom chat box, teachers traded questions, answers and comments. Some wanted more hands-on time to practice with certain programs. Others struggled with the basics.

“How do you open the link through the browser window?” one teacher asked. “I am not good at all with technology.”

Dr. Andre Green, the principal investigator for SARIC at South, can see the coronavirus pushing educators out of their comfort zones. Change can be challenging. In the long run, that might be a good thing.

“We wouldn’t be doing what we’re doing without the pandemic,” he said. “I hate that it’s happened like this, but you can see the possibilities.”

Professional development for teachers often means schoolwork during the day and taking their own classes in the afternoon and evening. Green learned that lesson from his mother, who was also an educator.

“She used to say, ‘Don’t be a 2:30 teacher,’” Green said. “That’s a teacher who leaves work when the bell rings and does nothing after 2:30, as if teaching ends there. Many times you have to stay and help kids, and often you have to bring your work home.”

Dr. Pamela Moore, an assistant professor of counseling and instructional sciences, worries that new technology and working from home will overwhelm some teachers. She preaches time management and self care.

“When it gets to be 24/7, that’s not sustainable,” Moore said. “I catch myself doing it, working on an iPad around the house. I should not be sending e-mails at 11 o’clock at night. No.”

SARIC, which was established by the state legislature in 1984, is one of 11 regional centers in the state. It serves more 8,000 public school educators in southern Alabama and is funded through a grant from the Alabama State Department of Education.

Stan Stokley, principal at Saraland Elementary School, appreciates the convenience of online SARIC classes for his teachers. He participated in a Zoom training session with a South professor.

Communicating with schoolchildren at home, though, is much more daunting. Teaching is hard enough without technical problems and constant distractions. That’s been one of the lessons of the pandemic education.

“There’s no substitute for that one-on-one relationship with student and teacher,” Stokley said. “This has been hard for us. It’s hard to keep the attention of an 8-year-old in front of a computer screen at home.”

Dr. Benterah Morton, an assistant professor of leadership and teacher education, has first-hand experience with the challenges of home education. With three school-age daughters and limited bandwidth, online time at his house must be scheduled in advance.

“We have an app,” Morton said, “that we use to plug assignments and deadlines into a calendar. My wife is the calendar master.”

In a difficult time, he sees teachers supporting one another. Their jobs just got harder, so they’re forced to become more effective communicators. Flexibility and understanding are important.  

“It’s been an interesting experience,” Morton said. “When we’re in this setting, the tone of teachers has changed. I’ve seen teachers who were much more forceful in the classroom become much more compassionate when they’re online.”

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