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5-in-5: Q&A with Teachers Tracy and Maren Kelly

Most episodes of Future of School: The Podcast feature a “5-in-5” rapid-fire interview with an innovative teacher―five minutes, five questions, five perspectives direct from a practitioner. The podcast prioritizes hearing from every voice in education, from the association and district leaders driving purchasing and policy, to the teachers delivering instruction in the online or physical classroom, to the students and parents who have experienced the benefits of having meaningful choice in education.

The latest episode of Future of School: The Podcast features a “5-in-5” interview with Tracy and Maren Kelly. Tracy is a special education teacher of ten-plus years who taught high school and higher ed and who is finishing his dissertation. Maren, who also happens to be Tracy’s wife, is a middle school special education teacher.

Our 5-in-5 interview series highlights teachers’ perspectives on the future of school. Read below for an edited recap of the conversation between Tracy, Maren, and Amy Valentine, Future of School CEO and Education Evangelist, or listen to the full episode above to hear from Tracy and Maren, as well as Stuart Udell, CEO of Achieve3000, and student Glen Stahl.

Amy Valentine: Talk to us about the first experience that opened your eyes to the potential of blended and online learning.

Tracy Kelly: I think the first one for me was at the university level when teaching general education preparation for teachers, strictly online. It was all virtual. I think that’s how I got started in virtual. The year after, I went full time at the university, and I was doing hybrid. I was doing virtual and some face-to-face for four or five years. I became certified to teach strictly online and hybrid through Quality Matters. Now, look where we’re at, teaching everybody virtually.

Maren Kelly: My answer is entirely different. I would have to say that March 13 of 2020 was my last full day in the classroom, and the next week, they mentioned, “By the way, you’re going to be teaching virtually.” Since that time, I have been teaching completely online, which is new to me.

Amy: Maren, from your perspective, with your short amount of time doing online instruction and remote learning, what is one thing that you think people either inside or outside of education misunderstand when it comes to learning online?

Maren: That it’s easy. I know that many of my parents and other parents think it’s automatically a lot easier to teach online because we’re not in the classroom. But what they don’t understand is the whole behind-the-scenes aspect.

There are probably five different platforms that I’ve had to learn in a short amount of time to try and reach my students to the best of my ability and their ability. Luckily, my parents have been extremely understanding and helped with everything.

Within teaching, though, I’m not sure that there have been many misconceptions because we’re all struggling, trying to learn, and just trying to figure it out. As I’ve said, I think the biggest misconception is that it should be easy and seamless. It’s not.

Amy: Tracy, what about from your perspective? What is one of the biggest misunderstandings when it comes to the discussion of online learning?

Tracy: The research will show ─ and I know, especially in our house ─ that we are making ourselves available more hours of the day for students and families. Even our administrators are available because there’s a synchronous and asynchronous combination and we’re all over the board. Is it easier? It’s different. Is it less time? No. It’s more time, and it’s a juggle. It’s a bigger juggle than face-to-face. I think that’s the biggest misunderstanding.

Amy: What’s one strategy that you think every educator should use in their instruction?

Tracy: My mindset took me to patience. I don’t have a lot of it. I think that’s why I joke so much because what we do is stressful. Building a relationship in virtual is even more critical because we’re making that relationship not just with a student (regardless of that student’s level or grade level), but they’ve also invited us into their homes. Now we’re building that relationship with the family and the dog. We’ve had rabbits. We’ve had hamsters. We have to build that relationship so that families feel comfortable enough to let us into their homes and their daily lives. I think that’s what’s most important at this point.

Maren: That’s funny because I keep joking that if I were a brand new teacher ─ this is my 15th year teaching ─  I probably would have quit by now.

It’s time management just because there’s so much going on. We are a household of two educators, and we have a fifth grader and a third grader at home that we’re also trying to teach and manage, not to mention that he’s going to school and I’m going to school.

So there’s a whole lot going on at one time. Just managing your time ─ I haven’t mastered that yet. I was up until midnight last night trying to figure out how to upload and read for an assignment.

It’s just managing your time and also making sure that you’re finding time for yourself to take that time to relax, decompress, or whatever is your thing.

For many of the special education teachers on my campus ─ we have an ongoing text with each other, and we joke, trying to make light of things just because it is such a struggle. It’s trying to find out how things best work for you. It changes daily for us because we switch off and on, from who’s on campus and who’s not on campus. It’s just finding that niche of where you can manage your time.

Amy: When you consider and think about what the future of school should look like for students, what comes to mind?

Maren: That’s kind of a hard one for me just because I think that kids learn better ─ especially the type of kids that we teach ─ when you’re face-to-face with them. Looking at the computer right now and seeing a parent with a child trying to do what I would normally do with them is a struggle for me. I know that they don’t have the education and experience I have in reaching that kid even though they’re that kid’s parent. A teacher and a parent are two different things.

Looking at the benefits of a hybrid or blended model, it’s being able to have at least some in-person time with our kids even if it’s in small groups. Even if I can only have two kids at a time come in and we’re all distanced and masked so that we can have that personal time with each other. A type of blended model would be best moving forward even for general education kids. I have friends who remark, “We don’t know what’s happening.” I say, “You have to make sure you stay in contact with your teachers. If you have questions, you need to push your kids.”

I think parents have to stay on top of their kids more so than before. They have to rely on their children to do their work independently. Whereas in the classroom, you have more of a direct access instruction. For me, I would say a blended model would be best if possible.

Tracy: I’m going to agree with the blended model. I’m just not sure that having the student do both or the students in our nation doing both on a weekly, daily, monthly basis, whatever it is, is the best idea.

I think, Amy, you and I have talked enough about revamping education. I’ve always been a proponent of charter schools only because they do things differently.

Guess what? It’s 2020. We’re doing things differently in education. I appreciate where we’re at. I understand people’s struggle but don’t come at me with “I’m a lifelong learner and, oh, I don’t know how to teach virtually.” Well, you’ve just blown that lifelong learner trust out the window.

If you’re going to be a teacher, you’re going to be a lifelong learner, be open to everything.

Should charter schools be face-to-face and virtual? Great! Love it! Should public schools be face-to-face and virtual? Love it! Let your parents tell you or your local control for federal funding. Let them tell us what works for a community. If half the kids want virtual, great! If half the kids want face-to-face, great! We’ve got the staff. Let’s make it work.

Let’s make education synchronous. Let’s make it asynchronous. Let’s make it virtual. Let’s make it face-to-face. Let’s make it hybrid. Let’s make it count to what we want the next generation to guide our country. Let’s not be stuck in a building, a brick place, or in virtual. Let’s make it what those kids need and that the community decides they want to make it worthwhile and meaningful from here forward.

Amy: What is the one big dream you have about education that you would love to turn into a reality?

Tracy: I’ve always wanted to start a charter school. I don’t know if I’m understanding the question big enough. But, for me, since I got into education, I’ve always wanted to start a charter school because in the local community we used to live and teach in, we did a tremendous disservice to a lot of our minority groups. Because the neighborhood I grew up in was a minority group, I really want to build a family community school in a minority neighborhood.

As a general rule, there are too many underserved communities in our country. I want to build a school in a community where parents volunteer to keep the grass. A place where we have actual people cooking actual food in an actual kitchen to serve those communities, and those kids. If we’re talking farm to table, then let’s do farm to table. Let’s not just say it. Let’s create those small, simple neighborhood schools that develop stronger communities. That’s what I would want.

Maren: How am I supposed to follow that? One of the things that I always think about is growing up. I actually grew up in Tehachapi (California), and I moved away for a while. But I remember growing up and always having everything accessible and having my teachers think outside the box. They weren’t confined to teaching out of the textbook. They came up with projects, ideas, and things to get us out of the classrooms to learn all of those standards that we needed.

But, to me, I learned those standards better because they were hands-on. If I could pick one thing, it would be funding so that we could teach kids outside the box.

If I teach science, I want to teach them about the solar system, take them out, have a camp out, and do an astronomy lesson. I want to do more art projects. Schools no longer offer enough art or music, and all of those things that studies show help kids and their brains expand and learn more by giving them those extracurricular activities.

I grew up in choir and band and doing all of those extra things, but those things are no longer accessible to my own children. And that’s sad to me because I think we’re so focused on “Okay, you have to learn what’s written in the book.” In the long run, that’s not helping them because how many kids will remember what they read in that textbook? Unless they can apply it to what’s out there, they’re not going to understand it as they get older.

I feel like being able to have the funding to give them those extracurricular activities and make that the norm. Instead of making those activities an exception, make it the rule because I feel that in our society now and especially as much as we have to offer in this world, we’re doing them a huge disservice. That’s sad to me. I try to do everything, and we try to do everything to get our kids involved, but it’s no longer something at the school. I feel like we need to be able to make that the rule and not the exception.

Future of School thanks Tracy and Maren Kelly and all of our great guests for participating in our podcast. To hear all episodes of Future of School: The Podcast, visit https://anchor.fm/futureofschool

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