Working Remotely While Being a Cyber Charter Learning Coach
Finding the right school for your child is an important milestone in a family’s life. Should they be at a brick and mortar school? In virtual learning? What about the quality of academics, flexibility of programs, and safety?
A cyber charter school is a tuition-free, public option for many families, with many students enjoying the flexibility of classes, the home-based environment, and innovative technology. But what about parents?
As a PA Virtual parent and employee, I’ve witnessed the power of virtual learning. In this blog, I’ll share the lessons that I experienced as a Learning Coach, as well as some tips and strategies for cyber charter school success.
(Watch the Tate family's Honest Review.)
Every parent wants to know that their child is succeeding in school.
I often wondered what my kids were doing during the school day. Were they listening to the teacher? Were they learning? Were they participating in class?
Similarly, children want to know what their parents are doing during their day. My kids often asked me what I do at work every day and who I talk with.
Now, my daughters and I have the answers to our burning questions — and we’re all the better for it.
Having worked at PA Virtual Charter School in administration for 18 years, I never would have thought that I would someday be a Learning Coach as well. I’ve been at the school for so long that the PA Virtual team also feels like my family. Once I started working from home more due to pandemic-related closures, I made the decision to enroll my children at PA Virtual — and merge my two families.
Making the Transition
When we enrolled at PA Virtual, my daughter Sofia was entering fifth grade, and Gianna starting third. I knew the transition from brick-and-mortar school to cyber charter would be a challenge for my entire family.
As one might expect, I had so many questions.
- How would I manage my work schedule and responsibilities?
- Would I be able to support my daughters with their schooling?
- Could this arrangement work for our family?
- How could we concentrate with so many different things happening in our house?
- What will our office spaces look like?
- Would I be able to handle this?
In the weeks leading up to the first day of school, I spoke to administrators, teachers, Family Support Coordinators, and PA Virtual parent mentors. To be honest, I wanted someone to tell me that it would be easy, nothing would change, and I’d be able to juggle being both a Learning Coach and a responsible employee without breaking a sweat.
They helped me develop realistic expectations for my work as a Learning Coach, were supportive and encouraging, and helped me get to that starting line. I remember typing some of the highlights from those conversations and developing a ‘Words of Wisdom’ list to hang on my wall.
These guiding phrases helped me to prioritize, and guided my approach to being both a Learning Coach and an employee.
- Talk to your supervisor openly and transparently, and be ready to work out a plan.
- Be flexible, as you may not be able to squeeze everything into an 8-4 shift.
- Don’t sweat the small stuff — seriously!
- Develop a consistent morning routine that helps set the tone for the day
- Make your lunch breaks a priority.
- Establish your support system, and don’t be afraid to reach out for help.
- Develop a communication system where your students get the help they need, but still respect your work duties.
Advice About the Learning Coach Journey
Talk to your supervisor openly and transparently, and be ready to work out a plan.
I remember telling my supervisor that I would be enrolling my children at PA Virtual. I worried that he would be concerned that I would be distracted and less productive during the day. Instead, he was very supportive of our family’s decision to enroll, understanding of my need to help my children with their academic work during the day, and was flexible with moving meetings around to better meet my Learning Coach demands. While every employer will respond differently, I can say that transparency and open communication were key to this successful balance of work and Learning Coach.
Be flexible, as you may not be able to fit everything into an 8-4 shift.
After school started, it took a week or two to find a schedule that worked for us. I kept adjusting and tweaking our schedule as I grew in my role as Learning Coach. A typical day started at the sound of my alarm going off at 5:30 a.m., as my husband was about to leave for work. I usually hopped on the treadmill and walked at a slow pace for an hour. As this makeshift treadmill desk is in our home office, I also responded and sent emails, worked on various reports, and prepared for the day's meetings. At almost 6:45 a.m., I heard the buzz of the girls’ morning alarms. The quiet was nice while it lasted.
Don't sweat the small stuff — seriously!
Save that precious energy for multitasking and the day ahead of you! Once the girls were awake, they would usually get dressed in mismatched t-shirt and sweatpants outfit combinations, brush their teeth, and pull their hair into a messy bun. I realized that thriving in this double role of Learning Coach and employee meant I needed to pick my battles. I used to be particular about the girls' outfits and hair grooming for school, and this probably caused us to be late a few too many times. I gave up on the messy bun and sweatpants battle pretty early in the school year!
In the mornings, I would also make the girls breakfast and let them watch videos from their favorite YouTuber. Normally I have more strict rules about YouTube and social media usage in the house, particularly in the evenings, but these morning interactions were semi-educational, age appropriate, and short. This was another battle that I wisely chose not to pursue early in the year; to me, It wasn’t worth the frustration to insist on a technology-free breakfast!
Develop a consistent morning routine that helps set the tone for the day.
While my daughters were eating and relaxing downstairs, I used this opportunity to prepare myself for the day. Since class started around 8:10 a.m. for my girls, they headed upstairs to our classroom/office around 8. Yes, there were days when they were running (literally running) up the stairs to make it to class on time. Most days though, my girls had plenty of time to boot up their computers, log into Blackboard, check email, review their daily schedules, and log into their teacher's classroom.
My morning routine looked very different prior to becoming a Learning Coach. I would rush around getting myself ready for work, preparing the girls ready for school, feeding everyone breakfast, packing lunches, and ushering everyone into the car for the short trip to the bus-stop. Sometimes I had to turn around when the girls forgot their jacket, water bottle, library book, etc. And I’ll admit that sometimes I was the cause for the morning chaos if I took too long to get ready that day!
I remember that feeling, as we turned around the bend in our neighborhood, when I saw that big yellow bus start to pull away. This is when I would start to think about the extra minute that caused us to miss the bus. It was that single minute that caused me to sit in the student drop off car line for an extra 15 while kids took their good ol’ time getting out of their parents’ cars. In addition, that initial 60-second delay caused me to be 30 minutes late for work. When I reflect back on our busy hectic morning routines, I don’t know how I even survived.
Make your lunch breaks a priority.
Normally, I worked through lunch or I would grab something fast and eat at my desk. When feeding growing kids who were learning at home, however, I really had to stick to my lunch break. I logged the lunch period on my calendar everyday between 11-11:40 a.m. This was a sacred time where I didn’t schedule any meetings. At exactly 11 a.m., we would all head downstairs to the kitchen.
Lunch was always such a big issue in our house when my girls went to a brick-and-mortar school. They were picky eaters and, despite my best efforts to provide nutritional lunches, would end up eating pancakes, a cold bagel with cream cheese, soft pretzels, or yogurt for lunch. When they came home, they were hungry and grumpy. With cyber education, however, I could finally feed them the warm and healthy lunches that they love and crave. I call that a Win-Win scenario!
Establish your support system, and don't be afraid to reach out for help.
There’s an African proverb that states, “It takes a village to raise a child,” which emphasizes the importance of community. Likewise, it takes a support system to be a full-time employee while serving as a Learning Coach for multiple children! I am not a superwoman, no matter how hard I try.
The role of a Learning Coach is to:
- Help troubleshoot or report technology issues;
- Contact the teacher or Family Support Coordinator if we lose access to a system or tool;
- Teach the asynchronous classes of art and music courses (x 2);
- Log physical education hours (x 2);
- Support the girls through all asynchronous assignments;
- Gather all of the materials for the upcoming science lessons or classroom activities;
- Remove gum from their hair during class;
- Pick up the chair when they fall out of it — in the middle of class;
- Give them a bandage when they get a paper-cut from flipping through their workbooks;
- And much more.
PA Virtual’s Family Support Coordinators, counselors, and teachers are so important to helping families succeed, and are always there to assist. But, as ready and willing as they are, they are guides along my journey, and can’t make the decisions for me on my time management and balancing work and Learning Coach responsibilities. It's vital for Coaches to also have an outside network — one that helps complete the support circle.
Early in the school year, I assumed I didn't need MY personal support team, and therefore didn't (initially) develop one. Beyond those first communications with teachers and administrators, I hadn’t pursued support connections. There was an emotional turning point during the year where I realized that, in order to be an effective Learning Coach and employee, I had to allow others to step in and offer their aid and expertise.
For our family, the solution was to draw on family connections. My mother-in-law helped on Wednesdays, when my schedule was busy and the girls had asynchronous blocks of time for art curriculum and completing other assignments. On Fridays, which are fully asynchronous days, my mother helped guide Sofia and Gianna through their music curriculum, and ensured they completed their assignments for the day and week.
The moral of the story: While most every parent can be an excellent Learning Coach, and even juggle being a full-time employee, having a plan is essential to your success and your personal well being!
Develop a communication system where your students get the help they need, but still respect your work duties.
Communication is key when guiding children along the cyber charter journey. It was vital that I find non-intrusive ways to communicate with them during their school hours — and equally important that they find respectful ways to address me while I was in a virtual meeting or on a call.
In our case, we used whiteboards, chalkboards, and Post-It notes to convey our messages without interrupting the flow of school and work. Sometimes the message was as simple as “Can I get a snack? I’m on a break." A simple nod or thumbs up was sufficient for those. For more complicated concerns, such as reviewing presentations before submission or helping load an assignment into Blackboard, we worked out solutions to address the questions with minimal interruptions. Developing non-verbal communication helped us stay updated with one another, while ensuring respect for each other’s needs and situations.
My Education as a Parent, Employee, and Learning Coach
One of the fundamental joys of enrolling Sofia and Gianna at a cyber charter school was the opportunity to be directly involved in their education. It was a special glimpse into student life, in a way that we don’t usually witness as parents of brick-and-mortar attendees.
By working alongside one another — me overseeing PA Virtual's human resources and marketing, and the girls learning and growing — we developed a mutual respect for skills, strengths, and the myriad of responsibilities that we juggle. It deepened our connections, as I saw how my kids behave and interact while in school, and they watched my daily work and understood the importance of my role as an employee. If anything, this glimpse into how companies operate made them aspire to enter the workforce someday!
Perhaps the most important lesson, however, was one of independence. I was amazed at how avidly my girls embraced this autonomy, navigating their environment with ease as they developed time management skills. I felt immense pride at seeing them flourish academically, socially, and even emotionally while they stretched their thinking, took healthy risks in class, and embraced the journey. These bright, talented girls successfully navigated a challenging time in our world, and their tenacity astounded me.
And what did I learn about myself? While we all know that parenting and careers can be difficult to juggle, I realized how crucial it is to find balance between independence and responsibility and the need for community and support. I’ve found that the Learning Coach experience stretched my perception of who I am, teaching me that I am capable of more than I realize — and that learning doesn’t stop when we graduate high school, college, and beyond.
I never expected to continue my educational journey, albeit in a new way, all these years after high school and college. But honestly, it’s been well worth it!
About the Author: Sherri Tate is Chief Human Resources and Marketing Officer 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 ergonofis on Unsplash, and Sherri Tate.