Count Your Blessings

By Renee Koplon

I am consuming unhealthy amounts of news online and watching the evening news on television. I toss and turn throughout the night worried about the health of my family, my friends, my colleagues, and all of humanity. But during the day I feel calm and in control as our school buzzes along, doing what we are meant to do: educating teenagers. We converted our school into an online academy in one day – not an easy feat. Looking back now, well into our second month of teaching online, I can see why our transition was so successful: 

  • Every one of our teachers is willing to learn and grow.
  • Our students are invested in their learning and motivated to succeed.
  • Our parent body trusts us.
  • The administration and lay leadership are supportive.

Recognizing the enormous amount of stress involved in teaching from home and learning at home, we tried to maintain as much of our usual routine as possible. We kept our regular class schedule and the daily “bell” schedule, but we are running only alternate periods. One day we run the even numbered periods and the following day the odd numbered periods. Teaching only half the class periods affords everybody time away from their computers during the day and the flexibility to coordinate shared resources with other family members at home. Our teachers have the option of teaching asynchronously or providing live video conference classes. And while the students are working hard reading, writing, and responding to lessons in creative ways, they are not taking traditional tests. 

We struggled in the beginning with information overload. In an effort to communicate well, we sometimes tend to over communicate. Dedicated teachers assigned extra independent work, so that their cherished students would not fall behind in the curriculum. As it became evident that we would be in this situation for longer than we initially anticipated, we put guidelines into place to limit the number of emails and the frequency of assignments. Students respectfully provided feedback on their experiences. Teachers have been nimble, making modifications as needed. 

Having access to a plethora of technological tools has been crucial for our success. We are blessed to be working with a community where our students have computers and internet access in their homes. Our school is able to lend equipment to those families who need more computers. But all the technology in the world would be useless without sufficient training and motivation to learn. This academic year we happen to be focusing our professional development efforts on educational technology. We are working closely with a consultant who is providing as much training as we need – scheduled classes and drop-in open lab hours, all online. 

If you are a teacher suddenly tossed into the world of online education, do not despair about your failure to “cover the curriculum.” The most important thing for high school students to learn is how to learn. They have spent years learning how to learn in the traditional classroom. Now they are learning how to learn online, at home, and independently. They are learning how to manage their time better and to show up to meetings without familiar bells. Our students are improving their written communication skills and learning how to collaborate with classmates remotely. These are all skills that will serve them well in the future. Content isn’t everything. But don’t worry about content, you are teaching that too. Think about it this way: if you covered everything you intended to teach in the first seven months of school, and 50% of the content you would like to cover in the last three months of school, then your students will have learned 85% of this year’s curriculum. That is just fine. In fact, that is excellent.

So, I count my blessings – our faculty, our students, our parents, and our leadership. The collective efforts of everybody involved enable us to come together online every Friday before Shabbat for an inspirational and entertaining Friday assembly as we celebrate our accomplishments of the week and our bonds as a community. The Zoom setting for an assembly gives everyone the unique perspective of being able to see everyone else’s face, making it feel even more intimate than a traditional assembly, where we sit together in a dark theater facing the front.

Members of our parent body regularly share comments such as these:

I have NEVER seen my children this organized, motivated, and excited about learning.

As an added perk as I am working from home, I get to listen in on the teaching and it’s AMAZING! All different, all interesting, it makes me want to go back to school. 

Actually, despite all of our blessings, we all want to go back to school.

Dr. Renee Koplon is the principal of the Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community High School in Baltimore, Maryland.