Meredith Stephens has been a teacher in both Arizona and North Carolina. She has been an educator since 1991, and currently instructs students in the English department at Orange High School, teaching AP English Language and Journalism. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English from UNC-Greensboro, and instead of focusing on obtaining her master’s, she has been analyzing the works of Shakespeare, studying at the Globe Theater in London, the American Shakespeare Center in Virginia, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in New York, and the English Speaking Union. After Gov. Roy Cooper closed schools across the state to protect students and staff from the transmission of the coronavirus, Stephens, like all Orange County teachers, has had to adjust to online instruction.
“The greatest challenge is being able to genuinely engage with my students,” Stephens said. “When schools first closed, my students were excited about this new animal called online learning. Almost every single student attended classes and they were fun and energetic. However, about three weeks in it became an old hat, and I think students became a little bored with the online media. These days, now that the fourth quarter grades are null, it’s extremely difficult to get student interaction.
“I absolutely miss student interaction the most,” she added. “I miss the opportunity to get to know students as individuals in the halls before and after class and to catch up with what’s going on in their lives, like sports or hobbies. When you’re in the same room with a group of people, discussion flows, but online in a Zoom classroom, everyone is very hesitant to speak. I miss having students come into my room and eat lunch for no other reason than it’s the place they like to hang out. I miss students walking up to me and sharing their accomplishments. I miss students feeling comfortable enough to come to me when they have a problem and have someone to talk to.”
Given the social, emotional and economic stressors of the pandemic, teachers have been reaching out to students to offer support, but find it difficult to connect.
“All of us as teachers are more keenly aware of some of the social emotional issues that could be affecting our students,” Stephens said. “At the same time, however, it’s more difficult to reach out online to students, and they are possibly not feeling as comfortable reaching out to us. I’m aware and I practically plead with my students to let me know how I can help. It was easier to read the room and meet students where they are in person. Honestly, the economic factor is huge. Some of my own students are working full time right now because both of their parents have lost their jobs. That is heartbreaking. I try to be as understanding as I possibly can be and individualize work for the students who need it.”
Additionally, as is the case nationwide, some students lack the resources to complete online assignments.
“Fortunately, we live in an amazing county that has supplied so much for us," Stephens said. “My set of students this semester don’t have issues with internet access. My greatest obstacle is that a few of my students don’t have printers at home, so I just mail them what they need. However, the equity factor with the lack of technology for some students is definitely a huge concern.”
With children of her own, Stephens also experiences online learning from a parent’s perspective.
“As far as I can tell, my daughter is adjusting to the online platform successfully, but as a parent am finding it pretty frustrating,” she expressed. “The online platforms that a parent needs to access to check on grades are nearly impossible to figure out. I’m very comfortable with computers, but for the life of me I cannot figure out how to sign into all the programs.”
Despite the downside of not being able to engage as effectively with students’ personal lives and the school system’s challenging task of administering resources, there may be an upside to instructing through online platforms.
“Surprisingly, I think the tutoring aspect of my job has become more effective,” Stephens said. “When a student and I meet together in a one-on-one Zoom session, it’s our time with no interruptions and we can continue as long as we need to. Whereas in the school setting, tutoring is done in the moments during lunch and before or after school. It is constantly interrupted by a student’s need to go to some activity or another tutoring session. This experience has reignited in me the things about teaching that I love most: the focus on nurturing individual students to see improvement. The absence of all the other teacher stuff is so refreshing: no more lunch duty, staff meetings, or discipline issues. I don’t miss any of those things.”
Most educators have transitioned to new technology platforms to supply material, and instruction has become less centered around grades and tests, with a greater emphasis on individual improvement.
“Now that Zoom is becoming a norm, I think that when we return to school, it will be easier to connect with students in off school hours,” Stephens said with regards to the new technology. “I often get emails during the evening from students needing some help with a project and emailing back can be a little confusing. A quick, five-minute Zoom session could quickly clear up things, now that it’s becoming more common. I’ve also been using Canvas a lot more as a hub to collect assignments and it is a little more efficient than Google Drive. I will probably continue that trend.”
“In theory, placing little emphasis on grades is a brilliant concept because the goal is to nurture a love of learning and individual goals so that students are not competing against other students. I love the way that no grades allows students to have more choice on what they want to concentrate on,” Stephens explained. “In reality, most students are not interested in doing extra work if there is not a grade attached to it. It’s disappointing, but that’s the culture that we have created and we won’t be able to change that overnight.”
Even the material administered has been adapted, with teachers honing in on exactly what will best prepare their students for success.
“Teachers have had the opportunity to put the priorities of their lesson plans under the microscope,” Stephens said. “We’ve had to evaluate each activity to determine if it’s truly relevant, trimming down our lessons and laser focusing on fewer tasks that are better quality instead of a large quantity of tasks that are not as effective. Most tests have been abolished this year, so most teachers are now free to teach whatever they personally feel from their own experience to be the most valuable. The AP classes still have exams, but preparing for that exam is preparing students for success in future classes.”
AP exams will still be administered this year for students to earn college credit, as CollegeBoard has shortened the length of exams and has adapted them for online administration.
“I am very thankful that CollegeBoard decided to offer online exams this year,” Stephens expressed. “It just wouldn’t be fair to this year’s students who have worked so hard to be denied an opportunity to demonstrate what they’ve learned. It’s a shorter exam and the students still get credit as they would have any other year. In my opinion, a shorter exam that is as cleanly designed as it is makes the exam more achievable, because although there’s a bit of stress with the whole online aspect, there’s much less stress in terms of the exhaustion factor of a long exam or multiple long exams in the same day.”
When Stephen’s isn’t busy teaching, she is most likely staying fit or working on her theater hobby.
“I bought an exercise bike since I can’t go to the gym as I would like to, but mostly I’m doing a lot of acting projects,” Stephens said. “A lot of at home, digitally-created art that I can share with other artists around the world. I’m working on a feature film right now that should be released on May 15th called ‘Lock In.’ It’s about an entire world that is locked in their homes for just over six months and what they do to get through it. It’s surprisingly funny and touching, and I’ve just had a blast working on it. It’s amazing that people might think acting isn’t really a job or think of going to the movies or the theater as something really frivioulus. However, when the world begins to come undone, people look to the arts. We start singing songs together, we start writing poems together, we start drawing and making things and expressing ourselves in creative ways, because that’s the core of the human spirit. It’s actually a really wonderful time of inspiration and creation right now.”