By Erik Rockwell
Imagine a typical classroom scene. Kids sit at their desks, notebooks out. The teacher stands at the chalkboard, scrawling information that, yes, will be on the test.
That teacher was my grandmother. She taught in Iowa schools for 40 years.
Now I’m a teacher, too. But Grandma wouldn’t recognize my classroom. I don’t look out over rows of desks. I don’t tell students to keep their hands to themselves. I don’t confiscate silly notes and threaten to read them to the entire class.
You see, I teach at Iowa Virtual Academy, an online public school serving children throughout the state. I conduct classes over the Internet. I talk with students via email. I keep office hours through online collaboration software.
There’s no question some of the teaching tools I use every day might bewilder my grandmother. But she wouldn’t be surprised at all about what I’m trying to achieve with those tools. That’s because all good teachers work toward the same end: To provide children with a quality education that helps them lead productive and rewarding lives.
In my case, the technology I use at Iowa Virtual Academy makes me a better teacher. I work closely with students in a virtual classroom, guiding them through lessons much like a teacher in traditional school. I spend hours of one-on-one time with students who need extra attention.
This is direct instruction — and the school’s technology helps every step of the way. We assess students and closely monitor their progress, tracking their strengths and weaknesses. When issues arise, we diagnose the problems and intervene with plans to get things back on track.
I sometimes hear people who aren’t familiar with Iowa Virtual Academy refer to online education as a glorified version of home schooling. I can assure you from personal experience that it’s anything but.
For one thing, I’m a state-licensed teacher who is actively engaged with students and their parents. When a child scores a good mark, I’m there with words of praise. When a student comes up short of what I know she can do, I offer a gentle nudge. When I see a boy failing to put in the effort, I give him a motivating earful.
Like any good teacher, I’m there for students who need help navigating personal issues that might affect their academic performance. Not long ago, one of my students came to me with difficult news. A parent had just been diagnosed with a life-threatening health problem. I told the student I could relate. When I was in fourth grade, my mom learned she had breast cancer. We agreed to work together to get through this tough time.
Counter to what many people assume, Iowa Virtual Academy is actually a very social place. Students bond with their classmates much the same way kids at traditional schools do — over texts, emails and phone calls. They also get to know each other through a variety of clubs and student organizations, just like kids at traditional schools.
We get together in “real life,” too. Just this past year, we’ve had outings to Old Capitol Museum, the Museum of Natural History, Center Grove Orchard and the Iowa City Children’s Museum. We’re headed to a Pump It Up location later this month.
It’s true that online schools aren’t for everyone. But they provide a much-needed option for a wide variety of families — those required to move frequently, those with unique academic needs, those coping with medical issues, those with kids who aren’t thriving in a traditional setting because of bullying or other concerns.
So here’s the bottom line: Iowa Virtual Academy provides an alternate route to learning, but we share the same lofty destination as traditional schools. We want our students to become well-educated, well-rounded contributors to society.
That’s what my grandmother endeavored to do as a teacher for four decades. And that’s I’m trying to do every day as a teacher at Iowa Virtual Academy.
Erik Rockwell of Garnavillo is a teacher for Iowa Virtual Academy, a tuition-free online public school serving students statewide in grades kindergarten through 12th grade. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org