The More Things Change: Walking the Hallways of Virtual Education
Guest article written by Deborah O’Brien, Principal of The American Academy’s NoDropouts
Sometimes it feels as though everything in the world has changed. And in some ways, it really has.
As a public school principal at the elementary, middle and high school levels, I’d wake up early in the morning, often arriving when the parking lot was still empty and the building was still dark. As teachers and students arrived, I’d walk the halls to take the temperature of the school: Did our students look happy, energetic and excited? Did our teachers seem enthusiastic, confident and ready for the day ahead? Some principals are content to hold court in their office — and that might very well work for them, their teachers and their students — but I needed to be surrounded by the people who make a school what it is, Students and teachers. Parents and aides. Staff members, custodians and volunteers.
Today, if you watched my day unfold, you might think things are very different. I still wake up early, but now I do not rush off to a school building. I get dressed, pour myself a cup of coffee, and take my place at a desk in my home office. I open my laptop. I pick up my phone and make call after call. I read the email I’ve received from teachers. I review the progress students have made overnight. I send them text messages. I check their Facebook pages. More calls.
This is how I walk the halls.
When, after 20 years in Washington’s Ritzville School District, I decided to leave my job to accept a new role as the principal of an online high school dedicated to serving former dropouts and other at-risk students across the nation, I knew there would be some significant changes in the way I did my job.
But two years after taking that leap, I am struck by just how similar my new role is to my old one. The hallways may look different, but the job is very much the same. I still work with teachers to help them be the very best they can be. I still meet with students to help them overcome social, behavioral and academic obstacles. I still consult with parents who have concerns about their students’ learning.
I’m still a principal — and I still love what I do.
For hundreds of years, the conventional image of a school didn’t change very much. There was a building. Rows of desks. Students. A teacher standing up front. This model endured because it worked. And it still works for millions of children around the world.
Over the last decade, though, the conventional idea of a school has begun to change. And in coming years, it will change more, as we come to better understand that the traditional model, while still beneficial for most students, most of the time, is not a perfect fit for everyone.
It is natural and reasonable for educators to be wary of these changes, but we should not confuse reasonable wariness with blind resistance.
The students in my school often have children of their own. They frequently work full time. They sometimes are facing illnesses that make it impossible for them to leave their homes. They are often the victims of gangs or bullies. They sometimes have learning disabilities or psychological challenges that make a traditional school a poor fit for their needs. The educational model we offer — accredited online classes coupled with personal mentorship and local advocacy — gives many of them the flexibility and support they need to continue pursuing their educational goals.
It is my job, and my great joy, to help these students meet those goals. And I am extremely proud to say that it is working. Remarkably, the physical distance that separates my students and I — something I initially viewed as a potential challenge — has been an incredible benefit. For students who have been let down, time and time again, by adults in their lives, there seems to be some comfort in that distance. They get to decide when to open themselves up and let me in. And in trade, all I ask is that they be accountable for their decisions; you’d be amazed at how many do just that.
Yes, sometimes it feels as though everything in the world has changed. And in some ways, it really has.
But at its heart, what we do as educators is no different today than it ever has been before. And each day, as I walk the halls of my school, I’m reminded of how important it is for us to keep doing it.
Deborah O’Brien is principal of The American Academy’s NoDropouts program, which works with school districts across the country to give at-risk students a second chance at academic success. For more information about NoDropouts, visit NoDropouts.com.