Last week, I had the pleasure to spend the morning with Leslie Fetzer, an Occupational Course of Study Biology teacher at North Carolina Virtual Public Schools (NCVPS), who was in DC visiting the Department of Education because she was recently named the iNACOL/SREB National Online Teacher of the Year. Leslie works in a blended model, partnering with a face-to-face teacher, to teach students with disabilities. She is also on the NCVPS team that builds all of the online courses from scratch and depends daily on Blackboard Learn and Blackboard Collaborate.
As a former teacher who loved walking in the door each morning to greet my classroom full of energetic second graders and hear their stories from the evening before, I am always curious why teachers like Leslie made the decision to teach online. Leslie strongly believes in the connection between students and teachers as well. She thinks it is important to “watch what they watch, listen to what they listen to, and read what they read.” She also thinks it is important to engage them with the tools and topics that they respond to, which is what led her to using technology in her classroom.
Through activities like collecting polling responses through cell phones and sharing content through prezi, she noticed an increased energy and enthusiasm in her class. Leslie remembers one student acting up in class and another coming to her defense saying, “Don’t mess with the Fetz!” This loyalty enabled her to get her students excited about science. As technology options in high schools progressed, she began teaching part-time in an online school.
Leslie remembers clearly the moment when she decided to switch to teaching online full time. She was teaching a chem lab. Her class size had grown over the years, and in one moment, she looked across the room and noticed ~12 hands in the air. She knew each student had a different question, and she couldn’t get to each of them fast enough. She felt strongly that if she had been teaching online, she would have been able to give each of her students the personalized attention that they needed.
Leslie thinks that personalization is the key benefit of online courses. Teachers can adapt both content and pacing to meet each student’s needs. She often creates short mini-lessons and records them in Blackboard Collaborate just for one student who did not understand a concept that day. She posts course-specific announcements each day to help students pay attention to the 1-2 most important things for that day. She also believes that in some ways she is more connected to her students online, especially the shyer ones who wouldn’t talk as much in a larger setting.
Leslie very clearly goes above and beyond for the benefit of her students and was so proud and thrilled to report that her students “walk proud” in the hallway and are scoring proficient on end-of-year tests.
Keep an eye out for a blog post in May from Leslie, who is going to share some course design tips with us. And in the meantime, check out this video featuring Leslie on she gets to know her students on a personal level in an online teaching environment.