Things I Learned Working at a Virtual School
If you would have asked me during my graduate program what the likelihood of me working at a virtual school was, I would have told you slim to none. However, sometimes life has a funny way of taking control of things. As you can imagine and possibly relate to, I was furiously applying for jobs once I received my diploma. I applied to anything and everything available because I was determined to get a job in my field. I didn't have anything against virtual schools – I just simply knew nothing about them. My internships prepared me for working with large and diverse caseloads in a brick and mortar setting, and I was surprised to see just how well those skills transferred into this virtual setting.
When I accepted the job offer, I was skeptical and unsure of how well I would adapt to this new environment, but soon after I started working here, I felt at home. I was pleasantly surprised and excited to see just how involved I could be with my students and how much of an opportunity I had to build strong relationships with them. It was interesting to start working from home and at my first virtual school, but as with anything else, it just took some practice to get used to it. In this post, I will share some insight and things I've learned while working at a virtual school.
Communication is Key
First and foremost, and perhaps even more importantly in a virtual setting, communication is key. One of the biggest and most obvious potential barriers in a virtual school program is that the students are not right in front of us like they are in a brick and mortar school building. Because of this, we are not able to pick up on different physical and non-verbal cues, so we heavily rely on different forms of communication. Ideally, students and parents need to be highly motivated and consistent with their communications to be successful in this model of education.
A preconceived notion I had before working in a virtual setting was that there was no way to build strong relationships over the computer. I learned that I was very wrong! I have been able to make many great connections with both parents and students over the years and make great impacts as well. I have been able to do this through consistently responding to emails as quickly as possible, having phone calls in addition to emails, and scheduling meetings with my students where I utilize my webcam so they know they’re talking to a real person and can see my non-verbal cues. I’ve found this to be the deciding factor in whether or not a student feels a connection with me.
Importance of Technology
Technology is becoming more and more important and necessary in our world, and it goes without saying that it is paramount in a virtual work or school environment. Relying so heavily on technology has positives and negatives, requires patience, and comes with a learning curve.
At PA Virtual we have many different systems that we use for classrooms, assignments, attendance, presentations, and more, and it can definitely be overwhelming at first to learn how to navigate them. Thankfully, we have a dedicated New Family Orientation team to work with new families and an onboarding process for new staff members.
With having so many options at our fingertips, we can provide many unique experiences to our students and deliver information to them in different ways. We often utilize emails, announcements, newsletters, videos, podcasts, interactive presentations, and assemblies to keep our students interested and engaged.
Although technology can help us move forward in new and innovative ways, it can come with its own headaches at times, too. We have to learn how to deal with power outages, systems being down for maintenance, and even just remembering all of our passwords! While these issues can be frustrating, it’s important to be patient and realize that these things are out of our control. Having a back-up plan is a great idea for when internet connection issues happen – like going to a family or friend’s house, or heading to your local coffee shop to work. Even more important than that is to communicate when we are having problems so we can receive the help we need.
Flexibility in Environment
Working in a virtual school provides me with lots of flexibility in my environment, which is wonderful. I’ve been able to continue working while sick, injured, and even while taking care of my grandmother after she had surgery.
After I began working from home, I took special care to designate a room in my house as my office, where it is free from distractions and has everything I need throughout the day – my desk, dual monitors, wireless keyboard, mouse, headset, printer, scanner, and stationary, as well as all of my counseling resources I may need to access at any point. I’ve also found that it helps me to be more productive when I “go to work” in my office, and it helps me set boundaries to create a healthy balance between work and home.
However, working from home on a full-time basis can get stale and boring at times so it’s also nice to be able to switch things up within the house. I can work from different areas inside, and I’ve even worked from my back deck when it’s been nice out! I think it’s super important to freshen up the routine every once in a while to avoid getting complacent and bored.
Things That Surprised Me
As I’ve touched on throughout this post, many things about working at a virtual school were new and surprising to me, and they often differed from what I expected in my mind.
As a School Counselor, I was very concerned that I wouldn’t be able to develop strong relationships with my students that would allow them to feel comfortable talking to and confiding in me. I thought the virtual barrier would prevent me from making progress with students who were struggling and going through hard times. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that despite being in a virtual environment, I have been able to do all of that and more! I’ve been able to express my passion and dedication to my students and families and connect with them more than I ever thought possible.
I also didn't expect to make many friends or have connections with my colleagues and other school staff in this virtual setting. While creating those relationships does take work, it is possible, and I’ve made some lifelong friends since working here at PA Virtual.
Advice for Brick and Mortar Counterparts
Many brick and mortar teachers are currently educating students virtually for the first time ever due to the pandemic, and many of them are having trouble adapting and getting into a groove.
My advice for those people is this: things take time and change is difficult, but not impossible. With patience and an open mind, everything else will fall into place with time. It’s also important to remember that kids are resilient, and they will be able to adapt (probably even better and faster than us!).
To me, the most important thing is to remember why you wanted to be a teacher/counselor/administrator and do your best to let your care and dedication shine through.
My logistical advice is to set up a designated space in your home that is dedicated to working, as I mentioned above. That will be paramount to feeling like you’re in your element and will help create your work-life balance.
Finally, don’t feel like you always need to be “on” or available. When working from home it can be easy to check emails after hours or work on a project at night since it’s right there a room away, or you could easily be tempted to transport your laptop to the living room. Admittedly, I have done this at times, but I make a conscious effort to not make a habit out of it so that I can still feel like I am at home and not always at work.
There are several things I’ve learned from working at a virtual school, especially since it was my first job out of graduate school and I had many preconceived notions. I was happy to learn that most of my assumptions were wrong and that I was able to get into a routine and feel confident and comfortable over time.
It can certainly take time to adjust and adapt to this environment, and there will be trials and errors when finding out what works best for you. But, once you get past that initial adjustment period, it can be extremely rewarding! If you are new to a virtual environment or are considering working in one, just remember to have patience and an open mind. You will discover what works for you and things will fall into place.
If you’d like to learn more about what it’s like to teach at cyber charter school, check out this video.
To learn more about cyber education, have a look at our Ultimate Guide to Attending a Cyber Charter School in PA. This comprehensive guide provides helpful information about cyber schooling, including cyber school teacher profiles, curriculum examples, and comparisons of all cyber charter schools in Pennsylvania.
About the Author: Lauren Lombardo is a PA Virtual Guidance Counselor for students in grades 9-10.