Parent Perspectives: Amy's Journey as Learning Coach, Employee, & Mom
What’s it like being a parent of a cyber charter student? Can one balance being a parent, full-time remote worker, AND a Learning Coach? Amy Page shares her perspective on being a PA Virtual employee and having her son enrolled at the school.
My story as a cyber charter school parent began amidst a balancing act.
Like any other parent, I've found that raising children is a series of managing multiple responsibilities and spinning (proverbial) plates.
We want to be involved, but not TOO much or too little. For those of us who work full time, employment is sandwiched between morning and evening parenting. We read articles telling us how to get our toddler into Harvard Law School (eventually) while preparing our high schoolers for a job with the CIA as a world languages translator. On top of that, we have a child who comes to us on a Thursday night in search of exactly 17 gummy bears, 2.5 paper clips, a red Solo cup, and two fluid ounces of earthworm tears — all for a project due tomorrow. (Note: While that’s a satirical description, the sentiment and need for obscure supplies is real!)
Prior to August 2020, I had so little involvement with my son’s schooling that I was at the mercy of his agenda book (see also: his keenness on copying correctly). As a single mom, I managed (and still do!) the responsibilities of two people, in addition to my full-time employment. I also tried not to be THAT type of parent who emails the teacher too often, but wanted to avoid becoming THAT OTHER type who is upset when he didn’t do well on a test or project.
Weary of the murky grey area, I made the decision to enroll my son, Elias, in virtual school — and today I’m going to give you an honest, raw review as a second-year parent of a cyber charter school student.
My Parent Experience
What Sold Me on Trying Cyber Charter School
Elias ended up in virtual school as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. There were so many unknowns swirling around in my mind, and I knew keeping him at home in the 2020-2021 school year was best for us. It just so happened that I had a longtime friend whose three children were flourishing in cyber school. I reached out to her, and after much discussion and contemplation, knew in my heart that this was the right move.
Believe me, I had hesitations! I feared that I would be overwhelmed and frazzled — and was proven wrong. I envisioned Elias becoming a recluse incapable of making friends that weren’t imaginary — except that didn't happen. He gained academic confidence, and I knew my child was safe while he learned and matured. He thrived. I thrived. And I haven’t felt an ounce of regret at making this change.
Life as a Learning Coach
The PA Virtual Learning Coach experience had a profound impact on me — so much so that I began working at the school in August 2021. I knew how to manage distractions and stick to a schedule, having worked from home since 2016, and both Elias and I thrive on consistency and stability. Maintaining a schedule was important for both of us, because it laid out expectations and helped build personal responsibility.
For Elias, this included maintaining a morning routine and setting his alarm. He also sat at our dining room table, which allowed him to feel included in the household happenings, yet maintained enough structure to keep him on task. Not feeling secluded and withdrawn was crucial to his success, and aligned with his personality.
As for me, I worked upstairs in my office, but Elias knew my door was open to him for any questions. His classes were synchronous, so he wasn't teaching himself and just reading; he was in front of live, state-certified teachers. The live class minimizes feelings of disconnection, and Elias was able to interact with classmates, go into breakout rooms, work on group projects, and more. During his breaks between classes, I encouraged him to get outside, play with the dogs, shoot some hoops out back — all mimicking a “traditional” day, but performed from home. As a treat, he got to watch TV during his lunch break. So our day looked, in some ways, similar to a traditional format, but all from our home.
Overcoming Obstacles and Challenges
As with any educational model, cyber learning requires adjustment, and has some challenges.
Learning in a virtual environment may make for an easier commute, but students face similar stress when it comes to academic performance, any learning difficulties, and interpersonal relationships. Learning Coaches have the benefit of drawing on the experience of our Family Support Coordinators, who invest in our child’s work and well-being. I continually stressed that it’s ok to have a bad day. Elias is still a growing boy; his body is changing, and moods are real. If he was overwhelmed by something, we take a break.
Workspace location was a major factor in Elias’s success. The previous year he was at a desk in his room, which led to feelings of disconnection. Moving him to an open space in the dining room had a tremendous impact, making him more comfortable, engaged, and more connected to his classmates — all just by switching rooms!
One important obstacle that we encountered was procrastination. Waiting until his asynchronous day (no classes) on Friday to do all his extra work failed miserably. While he generally tried to complete work required for each day, in this instance, it piled up. If you ever meet Elias, ask him about the ONE time he did NONE of his work and saved it ALL for Friday — a day I took off to spend the whole day with him.
Motivation is a challenge, regardless of the educational environment. The same was initially true for Elias and cyber learning. He (and I) love a good incentive, so at the beginning of his 5th grade year at PA Virtual, I bought a roll of carnival tickets. He earned these tickets for different things like participating in class, volunteering to share/read, good grades on tests, and more. He cashed in his earnings for rewards ranging from take-out for lunch, extra screen time, candy, a new book, or $10 to any store. In addition, I’ve found that Elias appreciated school reward certificates — as cheesy as they may be — and they boosted his academic confidence when he finds them tucked in his laptop or notebook.
Because we’re not participating in person with other students or in a traditional classroom experience, it was difficult to re-create that communal educational atmosphere and the excitement of things such as new materials. To counter this, I also did fun things to try and mimic a class party for him, complete with fun snacks, decorations, and activities. Not only were these activities fun, but they were great morale boosters for both of us! We’re also both fans of fresh school supplies. In reality, PA Virtual supplies what you need already, but fresh pencils, a fun pencil case, and a brand new notebook can work wonders in making you feel like you’re in a ‘regular’ classroom!
Observations and Outcomes
Developing Personal Advocacy
When Elias was in brick-and-mortar school, he struggled with asking his teachers for help. It was very public for him and an admittance that he didn’t understand something. Through this virtual model, Elias was able to ask for assistance in more discreet ways. A quick chat message or email was easy for him — and I have loved watching him take charge of his education.
Test taking is another aspect of schooling that Elias struggled with. Naturally, he didn’t want to be the last one done and when students started to finish, he would race through the rest of the test. It goes without saying that he never guessed the right answers that way. With cyber school, students don't know when other students finish a test. He could take his time, ask questions to his teacher or myself, and work at a speed conducive to his learning style. This approach aligns with my philosophy that we are not designed for under-the-gun test taking. We learn other skills in life — crawling, walking, playing sports, learning to ride a bike — naturally and without negative consequences tied to time. With virtual learning, Elias could demonstrate his mastery of the material without watching the clock.
Perhaps the most important area of growth for Elias is related to personal responsibility. Let’s be clear: he was only 11, so I still had to remind him repeatedly of things. Yet when it comes to school, he never missed a class or misplaced an assignment. He had his classes organized through his school account on Google Drive (school requirement), kept all of his school books in one place, constantly checked his online weekly planner, and even set alarms to remind him of when his lunch should be over. He navigated Google and the school’s online learning portal with ease, and found solutions to his questions.
And what parent isn’t excited to see their child take command of their life?
Watching Elias develop leadership skills was a fascinating and rewarding experience — and encouraging, given my initial concerns about him becoming reclusive. Though he occasionally hesitated to speak up in class, his confidence soared at PA Virtual, and I’ve watched him take leadership roles in district sports and help younger players. Normally, he would interact with teachers and students through in-person PA Virtual events and meet-ups throughout the year, as they visit museums, zoos, and more. Though the COVID-19 pandemic altered these usual gatherings, Elias nonetheless flourished — thanks largely to his cyber schooling with PA Virtual.
Learning Coach Lessons
And what about my growth? Well, as a recovering helicopter mom (or a drone mom, where I’m watching from a distance), I’ve learned to trust that my son is capable and responsible. Though I struggled with wanting to have a hand in everything, or have him do projects and schoolwork in the way I think he should, the cyber charter model forced me to find balance. As his Learning Coach, my opinions and influence mattered, but I did not need to stress about small details because the school caters to the individual, unique needs of students. PA Virtual held Elias responsible — and my role was to empower and support him in that endeavor.
The Cyber Charter vs. Brick-and-Mortar School Difference
As you can imagine, there are some differences between cyber charter schools and brick-and-mortar settings. One of my favorites is the cyber school’s lack of that dreaded morning rush. There’s no need to race out the door to the car or to the bus stop, nor the hundreds of reminders to remember library books or homework papers.
Another key difference is the volume of individuals in the building, and how that affects attention and safety factors. At a brick-and-mortar school, Elias was just one of hundreds of students who leave their homes to learn in a separate building. Teachers and administrators are trying to manage all these students’ educations, plus events such as picture days, theme or spirit days, and even the stress of planning a class party. Additionally, being in a traditional school setting was even more difficult right now as we navigated through the pandemic. Schools were balancing masking and distancing, while trying to create an emotionally healthy environment for both their students and staff. And, in the spirit of transparency, some of my biggest fears about school bullying, violence, and health emergencies were no longer in the forefront of my mind. I’d be lying if I said that peace of mind isn’t a major consideration!
And let’s not forget the quality time that we were able to spend together. In the not-too-distant teenage future, Elias will likely be upset with me for one reason or another on any given day, so I cherished these 11-year-old days all the more. I enjoyed being able to assist him with classwork, cheer him on when he gets a perfect score on a test, and listen to his class interactions. And let me tell you, it’s a sweet, sweet sound hearing him read aloud to his class — so much so that, sometimes, I took a brief minute to sit outside the room and listen. In a physical school setting, I wouldn’t have these same opportunities.
Advice to Anyone Considering Cyber Charters
Start with a list of your program must-haves, must-nots, and “take it or leave it” elements. Research your options, and reach out to enrollment departments to ask your questions. Don’t feel shy or silly! This is your child’s education, and asking questions doesn’t make you difficult. Prior to being a parent and employee of a cyber school, I was hesitant to ask too many questions. No question is crazy!
If you do decide to enroll, continue asking! PA Virtual provides a wealth of resources for parents to new and seasoned parents alike, including Parent Ambassadors, Student Service Coordinators, guidance counselors, and even video Lunch and Learn calls where you can meet other new families. You’re never alone or in the dark, and people want to help you every step of the way. There’s always someone to respond to your email, take your phone call, and jump at the chance to help you and your child succeed!
I remember a time when I emailed Elias’s teacher after a rough morning (complete with many tears), and I knew that he needed some time to decompress before jumping into his school day. His teacher understood, and did not call on him to answer questions aloud or volunteer that morning. That compassion meant the world to me, as it signaled a genuine interest in my child’s well-being. I even mailed his teacher a Christmas gift, and when the postal service couldn’t track it down, the school took over to try to find it. Talk about service!
Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that, in March 2020, Elias would leave his brick-and-mortar school for the last time. And yet I am thankful for this change. Being a cyber charter parent carries different responsibilities, and more of a hands-on demand during the day. But the return on investment is priceless, as I was able to witness moments I would otherwise miss out on. He was cared for by professional educators, not lost in an overcrowded classroom, and I was present to watch the small moments that make up his day.
And should the day come when he needs more earthworm tears and gummy bears...I’ll be ready.
NOTE: This blog was originally published in September 2021, and has been updated for accuracy of content.
About the Author: Amy Page is Pupil Health Coordinator at PA Virtual.
Still curious about what it's like to be a Learning Coach and PA Virtual parent? Check out our Parent Experience page to learn more!
Photo credits to Helena Lopez on Unsplash, and Amy Page.