Volume 1: Use Your Teacher Voice

By Marley McClune

Welcome to Hope Street Group Utah’s Introductory post to our new blog series: Use Your Teacher Voice. It’s no secret that Education is a hot topic across the media, online and in the Legislature. In this weekly series we are going to talk about the ins and outs of Education Policy and how to make the largest impact in your own communities. In Utah’s 2022 legislative session, we saw 209 bills directly dealing with education. Educators must now speak up for our profession in order to create positive change.

All educators bring skills and abilities to the table that strengthen communities and school.  The key is for each educator to find what their strengths are, and then use those strengths to help schools succeed. Teacher Leaders are vital in promoting change and guiding Utah to educational success. We need all types of Teacher Voices to be heard by our Utah Government. Our legislators want to hear from you, whether you are politically active, involved in the school community, a new teacher, or a teacher with 20 years of experience, your voice is important.

Now, what if you feel like your “Teacher Voice” isn’t very loud compared to your peers? 

The good news is, it doesn’t need to be. All teachers can be leaders.  The Utah State Board of Education (USBE) recently released the Teacher Leader Guidebook , highlighting 6 different types of Teacher Leaders:

  • Professional Learning Lead – do you have a knack for leading a killer professional development opportunity?
  • Formally Trained and Recognized Mentor – maybe your peers gravitate toward you to help them grow personally and professionally.
  • Lead or Master Teacher – are you a curriculum expert? Someone that can lead a strong PLC?
  • Education Policy Advocate – staying up to date with the latest educational news and policies?
  • School Outreach Lead – perhaps you are the go to leader in your school making connections within your community.
  • Education Ambassador – you can be the passionate voice for others as you speak up for the profession and your students!

What voice resonates with you? 

Harnessing and utilizing your unique leader skills helps build up the individual teacher along with the community.  In my own journey I have found that developing and growing my own unique teacher voice has helped me to become a more thoughtful educator, and a better leader to my colleagues and peers.

It can feel insurmountable when Education issues are dominating the news cycle. When we face these challenges with a solutions oriented mindset we are better able to gain perspective and work towards meaningful change. 

The first step towards becoming a voice in Education is to simply speak up, and share your story! It can feel intimidating, but we need your voice to be heard.  Together we can build positive changes that will support our students, teachers, families, and communities.  

Join us in this multipart series as we learn to navigate Utah’s Legislative System, how to build positive relationships with our representatives, growing our teacher voice, the ins and outs of local school board meetings, and more! 

Teachers, we need you – Be proud, get loud, and Use Your Teacher Voice!

Marley McClune is an FCS Teacher in Davis County, an ELP doctoral student at the University of Utah, and a Hope Street Group Teacher Fellow. When she isn’t teaching Marley enjoys trying out new recipes, wandering through the Ogden Farmer’s Market, and learning more about Education Policy.

What is UCET?

What is UCET? Why should I attend the UCET conference?

Do you have concerns or questions about attending the UCET conference? Well, I have some good news for you! You can be a general classroom teacher, special education teacher, technology specialist, administrator, or someone that just wants to learn and grow. This is the conference for you!

 UCET is the Utah Coalition for Educational Technology, but what does that really mean? “According to UCET’s mission statement, their goal is to promote the development and effective use of information technology in Utah’s educational institutions. UCET wants to provide a forum for the exchange of information in technology through conferences such as the UCET conference, meetings/workshops and publishing a newsletter. Finally, UCET wants to bring together any and ALL parties interested in the use of technology in education for the purpose of representing their varied interests to each other and to the public.”

UCET is organized into groups that support, advocate, and collaborate to help teachers grow and to share their voices.  As a means for educators’ growth and voice empowerment, UCET encourages technology use with an advocacy organization that shares success stories about educator technology usage. UCET also has grants, awards & nominationsEdcamp and UCET#utedchat, and UCET podcast. To learn more about UCET visit ucet.org

Kiera Beddes, UCET board member, provides this personal testimony about the conference experience:

UCET is more than teaching with technology. It’s all about a growth mindset and using tools to get you from where you are to where you want to go. More than any other professional development I’ve attended, UCET practices what they preach. They have a variety of sessions designed to meet a variety of learner needs. The focus is not on a passive sit-and-get, but rather an interactive learn-and-grow event. I have found that the people who attend the UCET conference are educators from all grades and content areas who are passionate, curious, and willing to learn. You won’t find a more welcoming crew. Join us!”

Kayla Towner, is a technology trainer/instructor for Utah Education Network (UEN) and a Utah Hope Street Fellow in Salt Lake City, Utah. She is an audiobook fanatic (mysteries and thrillers only), a lover of all baking shows, an outdoor enthusiast, and strives to be a significant educator, not a perfect one. Follow her on Twitter @mrstowner9 or email her at ktacke28@gmail.com.

It’s in the best interest of parents to leave curriculum decisions to teachers

By Ryan Rarick

Originally published as a Letter to the Editor by the St. George News, February 2022

OPINION — The 2022 session of the Utah Legislature kicked off in the middle of January. Amid the multitude of tasks the legislature hopes to accomplish before adjourning in March are a variety of education bills. Two specific bills, HB 234, proposed by Rep. Jordan Teuscher, and SB 114, proposed by Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, are creating quite the controversy among teacher circles.

The Utah State Legislature website and other media outlets have more extensive information on the contents of the bills than what I include here. However, in the interest of common understanding, a quick summary is that both of the bills would require teachers to publish curriculum materials anywhere from 5-30 days in advance for consideration and approval from parents.

Teuscher’s bill bore the brunt of media attention over the past two weeks. So much so that he has decided to pull the bill from the floor and “press pause” for now. Fillmore’s bill, which received a favorable recommendation from the senate sub-committee on education, is still under consideration.

The driving factor behind both Teuscher’s and Fillmore’s bills are to increase “curriculum transparency” in public education.

One problem: Curriculum transparency is not an issue.

Neither of these bills are necessary, and both bills will actually cause teachers to be less effective, more overburdened than they already are while dealing with how to recover the lost learning resulting from the pandemic and ultimately hurt student learning.

There are three primary reasons the bills are unnecessary.

  1. The curriculum is already transparent.

If any parent in Washington County School District feels the desire to see the curriculum their students will encounter, they can simply check Canvas, Schoology, Powerschool or email a teacher to see exactly what their children are learning in school at any given time.

2. Education professionals are the most qualified people to choose curriculum.

While parental involvement in education is absolutely crucial to student success, their participation in the selection of curriculum is not crucial. In fact, at the secondary level especially, the content becomes so specialized that teachers must be content experts to effectively select and deliver the best possible curriculum to students.

Teachers earn degrees and participate in years of professional collaboration and training to ensure the existence of a curriculum that both meets the Utah State Core Curriculum Standards and the needs of students at each grade level. Asking parents to become content experts in every area of the curriculum is unreasonable. Not to mention the fact that many parents will have multiple children in school at different grade levels simultaneously — thus requiring each parent to become an expert at each content and in each grade level. This is too much to ask of parents. Allow teachers to shoulder this task.

3. Challenging curriculum must be delivered by a caring adult.

One of the driving forces behind the “curriculum transparency” push is for parents to have some influence on how potentially “challenging” curricula is delivered to students. Instead of removing the challenging content from the schools, allow it to stay.

After all, when the content is delivered at school, a caring, loving adult is carefully planning the best way to introduce the concepts to young minds. Teachers receive training on educational psychology and cognitive development — they can expertly introduce the “hot lava” topics with students in a safe environment.

If the challenging content is removed from schools, that does not mean the students will no longer encounter the “challenging” issues. Nope — it simply means that students will encounter the “challenging” issues on a platform like the internet or one of the plethora of social media outlets. These places have no pity, empathy, care or love for the kids — teachers do.

Next steps

The bottom line is this — public education curriculum is not shielded from the eyeballs of concerned parents. There is no nefarious plot to secretly teach students subversive content in order to ignite a cultural rebellion.


The primary issue with public education curriculum is nowhere near that exciting.

The primary issue with public education curriculum is that not enough people are looking and talking about what is already available to be viewed. Teachers across the country, our own county included, spend their time figuring out how to help students learn at high levels.

How do I help a student with a learning disability learn high level math?

How do I help a student with a 3rd grade reading level comprehend an 11th grade text?

How do I help a non-English speaking student learn Medical Terminology in English?

How do I help an intentional non-learner find intrinsic motivation to attend school?

These are the questions that swirl around the minds of teachers everywhere. We would absolutely love if parents, guardians, community members, business owners and any other concerned adult helped reinforce the value of our curriculum into the minds and hearts of our students.

The bills proposed by Teuscher and Fillmore are unnecessary and overbearing. Parents and teachers can already interact right now through email, phone calls, Schoology, Canvas, Powerschool, et cetera.

Encourage teachers and parents to utilize the opportunities they currently have.

Once relationships are established, parents and teachers develop mutual trust to divide and conquer the enormous tasks of raising children. Teachers introduce new and intriguing ideas. Parents talk to their kids to help wrestle with the confluence of new ideas and established family values. This is learning.

As the old adage goes, “it takes a village to raise a child.” The value of the village is the diversity of perspectives the child encounters through interactions with each member of the village. Each village member has a different skill set to contribute to the collective. Parents are absolutely the foundation, but teacher expertise is integral to the growth and development of our youth.

Let’s do this together.

Submitted by RYAN RARICK. Rarick is an AP Language & Composition teacher and learning coach at Snow Canyon High School in St. George. He is a 2021 Utah Teacher Fellow for the Hope Street Group and a doctoral student in the TEAL Program at Utah State University.

What does student learning look like in your classroom?

By Kayla Towner

Published by the USBE Digital Teaching and Learning Team, January 2022

The moment I moved from being a second-grade teacher to a fifth-grade teacher, I fell in love with the power of technology in the classroom. After completing a professional development opportunity with Microsoft Education, I jumped in with both feet to utilize the brand new Microsoft OneNote Class Notebook and Microsoft Classroom (now called Teams). My students were so excited to use the latest technology to capture their learning in their online notebooks and voice record their thoughts.

The moment I moved from being a second-grade teacher to a fifth-grade teacher, I fell in love with the power of technology in the classroom. After completing a professional development opportunity with Microsoft Education, I jumped in with both feet to utilize the brand new Microsoft OneNote Class Notebook and Microsoft Classroom (now called Teams). My students were so excited to use the latest technology to capture their learning in their online notebooks and voice record their thoughts. They learned the concept of volume in creating 3-D figures in Minecraft Education, and I felt confident I was preparing them for their future. However, my students drowned in the intoxicating fumes of technology and many of them did not fully learn the content. I FAILED my students. As time went by, I learned different teaching models that had a technology emphasis, and I was able to revamp my craft. I realized that content and pedagogy are the front runners in education and that technology needed to be the enhancer. To transform my classroom and really prepare students for graduation, I needed to take these tools and implement them in a new way.

I believe Utah’s Portrait of a Graduate and Personalized Competency-Based Learning (PCBL) initiative is the new innovation, and needs to be focused on and implemented in K-12 schools. Utah’s Portrait of a Graduate describes ideal attributes of a Utah graduate. These characteristics such as mastery, autonomy, and purpose start at home and are refined in educational settings. The Utah Portrait of a Graduate requires a shift in both outcomes and how we approach education for K-12 students.

Though Utah’s Portrait of Graduate provided insight prior to the Coronavirus pandemic, I embraced the ideology in order to help my student’s learning once the schoolhouse expanded to their personal homes in March 2020. Before COVID, I attended a PCBL conference and learned the importance of student autonomy and student choice. I was mesmerized and overwhelmed by this new model, but I could see the value in beginning the road to transition to PCBL for my students. I started small and implemented these concepts in my own classroom. I created interactive resources like hyperdocs, personalized playlists, and choice boards. These resources provided opportunities for my students to develop their understanding in different ways and transfer the ownership of the learning from me to each student.

During the height of COVID my classroom became a true blended learning model that was focused on PCBL and Utah’s Portrait of Graduate. My students followed the station rotation model of individual rotation. I implemented the individual rotation model by providing students specific stations they could complete to achieve the learning targets. This blended model focused on students showing competency for any given standard. I was allowing them choice, time, and pace, goals aligned to the Portrait of Graduate. My students were getting autonomy in how they learned the content. For example, I created a choice board that focused on reading, listening, and writing. Students had Monday-Friday to complete at least two activities in each focus area. Within this choice board they could choose to read their own book, they could read curated online resources such as Newsela, Wonderopolis, Sora, Epic, etc., or they could read on our online reading website, Raz-Kids. For the first time, they were able to demonstrate mastery on a standard or objective where they got choice. I learned early on with technology, I needed to become the enhancer of the learning that was being driven by my students.

This model also allowed for students to have a purpose. Utah’s PCBL Framework identifies “student agency” as a core element for success, and explains that we need to empower students to take ownership of their learning with adaptable supports to amplify student growth and competence. Therefore, I had my students choose and keep track of their learning with our weekly goal trackers. The goals varied to reflect the needs of each student. For example, some students made it their goal to turn in all their assignments for the week. Others made it their goal to use a positive mindset when confronted by challenges. Every day students would reflect on their learning and their goals and identify challenges and ways to improve. In this new approach, my students were the MASTERS of their learning and demonstrated improvement in growth and confidence. I truly believe that all teachers, schools, and districts need to embrace the PCBL model and give it a whirl. The “personalized” in the PCBL framework supports teachers in making the model your own, it’s not one-size-fits-all. Adapt it, remix it, and play around with it. I can see future classrooms where students take the driver’s seat in their learning experiences. Students are motivated to make their own decisions in their learning experiences. They get to choose how they will design and apply knowledge, and how they will demonstrate their learning. As all teachers adopt a PCBL learning model we will create empowered lifelong learners who take ownership of their learning.

Kayla Towner, is a technology trainer/instructor for Utah Education Network (UEN) and a Utah Hope Street Fellow in Salt Lake City, Utah. She is an audiobook fanatic (mysteries and thrillers only), a lover of all baking shows, an outdoor enthusiast, and strives to be a significant educator, not a perfect one. Follow her on Twitter @mrstowner9 or email her at ktowner28@gmail.com.

A Teacher Lost in the Dust

By Natalie Johnson, Monument Valley High School – Navajo Nation

Published by The Educator’s Room, January 2022

I am sitting in the back of the school bus. Waves rock my body as we navigate the red sandy-washed roads. I’ve been riding in traditional yellow buses just about my whole life as a student, teacher, and chaperone. This time is different. Traditional Navajo songs echo through the bus, intermittent with the news Dine’ Bizaad. I don’t understand the ancient Athabaskan language, but I know CDC and COVID 19. The bus slows down, “beep-beep”; in the distance, I see a white, rusty Chevy pick-up leaving a trail of dust as the driver screeches to a halt at the wooden gate.

An 11-year-old boy behind the driver’s seat, scoots up to see over the dashboard, his little brown weathered hands clenched the steering wheel. His umber eyes between the wheel glowing with anticipation to see what his teachers have sent him. A little girl jumps out of the passenger’s side. She stretches up to one of the aides, “Yá’át’ééh!” Her little arms extend to give the aide on the bus her homework, and, in turn, she receives several white bags of frozen meals for breakfast and lunches and a folder of homework. This food is sometimes the only meal these students have for the day. They are over-packed with love and compassion, prepared by the local cafeteria ladies the previous day.

I moved into my new home in the Navajo Nation; my husband has spent the weekend packing up our home from ten years in Alpine, Utah. We just sent our youngest to the University of Utah. We wanted an adventure, but due to COVID 19, we could not leave the country. I told the middle school and Brigham Young University that I would teach in China at the end of July would no longer be an option. Now, I am unemployed.

While unpacking, the power and WiFi went out; I am alone. I opened the front door to see some signs of life. All is quiet. I don’t think other teachers have arrived from their summer break. The sun is setting over the magenta mesas of Monument Valley in the Navajo Nation. It’s going to be dark soon. Trying to locate some flashlights, my head becomes cloudy; my breath becomes tight… I feel like I’m suffering from an asthma attack, yet the air is fresh. I reached for my phone and remembered no WiFi—panic attack. I lie down on my half-made bed to relax and try to get my mind straight. I am having some doubts about why I am here away from my three college students, my beautiful home, and living in teacher’s housing in the middle of “nowhere.”

Just as I was about to repack my boxes, thinking, “Forget it! I can’t do this!!!” I knelt to pray for strength and support. The power went on, yet still, no WiFi to call my husband or one of my daughters to cry. I felt a warm feeling over my body, a sense of comfort that what I am doing was the right thing. I continued to unpack.

The next day, we had our first staff meeting at school. The principal welcomed everyone and told us the COVID plan. The Navajo Nation decided that students would not be attending in-person school this year. We are to teach online. How will we do this when most of our students do not have WiFi, let alone electricity, to charge their Chromebook? We are required to wear masks, wash our hands with hand sanitizers and limit our socialization to prevent the spread of diseases. We retire to our prospective homes and start developing curriculum on Canvas, printing the activities into packets. As an Art and Technology teacher, I am attempting to present my curriculum with limited supplies and without WiFi. I decided my students could use Google Draw in the digital arts classes. I created instructional videos on designing various activities such as a self-portrait, cartoon characters, landscapes, etc.

During the first week of school, a medicine man blesses the teachers. We gather around the amphitheater, six feet apart, in front of the hogan. I was sitting down on the stone, my legs dangling with tiny red ants crawling beside me, realizing I should have worn closed-in shoes instead of sandals. The ochre sand is burrowing between my toes; the tumbleweed stickers latch themselves to the balls of my feet. The medicine man and his son are preparing the fire pit for smoking a sage bundle for the blessing. We bowed our heads as he sang the Dine’ prayer for teachers to be healthy, patient, and encouraged. I am not sure what else was said, but it gave me a feeling of gratitude for having the opportunity to live on this sacred land as a white person. After the prayer, I stood over the smoke, waving my arms, blanketing my body with the sage scent, then returned to an empty classroom.

Navajo Nation – Monument Valley

Each house has a woodpile stacked up like a teepee to keep dry. Families heat their homes with dusty coal or gathered firewood in iron stoves. The local Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints donated loads of wood collected from recent Salt Lake windstorms. My husband, David, purchased a Ford F-150 to help haul. As he was driving in the deep dark of the night, he hit a deer head-on. He called several times trying to get through with our doggy wifi. I jumped into my car to rescue my husband. As I rounded a bend, I almost hit a mare and a colt strolling down the road. I chickened out, turned around, and went back home. Fortunately, I received another call telling me the bishop/school counselor rescued him. They stuck around while other volunteers emptied his truck. A tow truck driver arrived to haul the pickup to Moab, a two-and-a-half-hour drive north.

David was not happy, yet colliding with an animal or breaking down in the middle of nowhere is commonplace. Our cars get a beating with all the driving, sand storms, and occasional cougar attacks. Yes, cougars attacks. One time, a cougar ripped off the front of a vehicle, chasing after a jackrabbit. The teacher was amused and could not wait to hear the response from his insurance company. The next time the Reading teacher and wife, the Curricular Director, had not made their first payment on a new car when a cougar tore out the bottom of their vehicle trying to get a cat and her kitten. As a result, I am terrified of the dark.

The Navajo Nation is suffering a great deal due to this horrific virus. The Dine’ people is the highest Covid-19 infection per capita in the United States. 1The death rate is one of the highest amongst a population with high rates of diabetes, cancer, and other ailments. My students are experiencing physical and emotional pain. School is a second home for many students. It is a place to receive breakfast and lunch… a place to see their friends… a place of refuge from the trauma they might be experiencing from home… a place where adults show unconditional care and love for them. Our students are traumatized from seeing family members dying before them. The students are needing to find work? As I do mental health checks, my students are not doing well. I feel helpless.

School is a second home for many students. It is a place to receive breakfast and lunch… a place to see their friends… a place of refuge from the trauma they might be experiencing from home… a place where adults show unconditional care and love for them.

Although our teachers are originally from many places, we were drawn here like a magnet to iron fragments in the red dust. It is a lonely place without the companionship of friends and relatives, therefore, we rely on each other as a second family. If someone needs a babysitter, we pitch in. One family was thinking of leaving at the end of the year when he severely cut his finger. The family has so much support, that they decided to extend another year.

This morning, it was my turn to ride the school bus with the aides to the students’ homes. The weather was getting cold as I rugged myself up in the cold bus waiting for the heaters to kick in. As usual, we hear on the radio the morning songs in the Dine’ Bizaad. Stray dogs waited for handouts beyond the school cattle guard. There are feral dogs everywhere. I feel sorry for them. Last summer, a 13-year-old girl was mauled to death by a pack of wild dogs while running. As we drove towards one property, a copper color four-door sedan darted to meet us with a momma dog and her baker’s dozen trailing behind.

Hand prints representing the 100 indigenous women that go missing every year.

While teaching virtually, I was able to get to know my students through emails, phone calls, and the expressions of their artwork. Typically I am reluctant to give my mobile number to my students, but in this case, I have. It is not unusual to get a text or an email in the middle of the night or on weekends asking questions about their homework or just wanting to share their frustrations about life. I try to answer immediately, just in case they cannot get WiFi again.

Every week, I have been calling each of my advisory students. I have formed a bond with many of their grandparents, parents, and aunties. Many of the students look forward to the phone call, asking when they will see me next. One day, one of the students asked if she could come by the school to drop off her homework. I told her that she could simply place her homework in the box out front. “No, Mrs. Johnson, I want to see you.” She was so pleased to meet me in person when she came by. I was delighted to match the face with the voice.

It is mid-year; Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez has okayed the return of families to the school for tutoring with their advisor. We expressed our excitement at seeing each other in person when setting up appointments! As I was walking two sisters out the door, I said, “Goodbye, looking forward to seeing you in a few days.” The younger 7th grader quickly wrapped her skinny little arms around me and held me. I was a bit startled but quickly surrounded her in a hug. This pandemic is so unfair.

My head is leaning against the bus window as I gaze at the rising sun peeking over the golden mesas. A herd of mustangs are galloping alongside the bus. Their long majestic manes soar in the wind. Their breath is heavy and wild; I think they are enjoying the warmth of the morning sun.

The end of the school year is approaching. The race is on, getting all the assignments in order for Seniors to graduate. On the day of graduation, I did not know many of them. With the usual graduation ceremony cap and gown, girls wore their traditional squash blossoms necklace and earrings, with their hair tied into a traditional tsiyééł. The young men wore turquoise or “doo tl’ izh ii” necklaces, bracelets, and slightly scuffed cowboy boots. Their jewelry is highly prized for its scarcity and beauty. For many of these students, the jewelry holds a significant meaning due to the connection to family members who either made or gifted these priceless heirlooms—carrying a legacy for their family as well as the Dine’ nation.

The end of the school year is approaching. The race is on, getting all the assignments in order for Seniors to graduate. On the day of graduation, I did not know many of them. With the usual graduation ceremony cap and gown, girls wore their traditional squash blossoms necklace and earrings, with their hair tied into a traditional tsiyééł. The young men wore turquoise or “doo tl’ izh ii” necklaces, bracelets, and slightly scuffed cowboy boots. Their jewelry is highly prized for its scarcity and beauty. For many of these students, the jewelry holds a significant meaning due to the connection to family members who either made or gifted these priceless heirlooms—carrying a legacy for their family as well as the Dine’ nation.

I am now in my second year teaching in the Navajo Nation. Living here has become easier for me. My husband had to move to Reno for his work. My children are in Provo and Salt Lake. Because of the loneliness, I am experiencing, I am uncertain how long I will stay. I do know that I love my students and my colleagues. I take every moment to embrace the Navajo people. As I gaze at the sunset reflecting off the vermilion mesas, I no longer see darkness, I see the stars, moon, and the Milky Way’s huge expanse hugging the desert.

Natalie Sparks Johnson began her teaching career 26 years ago as a middle school Art teacher in Salt Lake City, Utah. A few years later, moved to Australia with her Aussie husband. She taught Art, Foods and Consumer Science, and College & Career Readiness in Brisbane, Northern Territory, and Perth. Thirteen years later, she moved back to Utah. After raising 3 kids, wanted another adventure to Monument Valley High School in the Navajo Nation. Best job ever!! She received her BA at Southern Utah University, MEd at the University of Queensland (Australia) and she’s currently working on a Masters of Education in Education Policy at Southern Utah University. She is working on her endorsement in ELL, Language Arts, and Digital Technology.

Introducing the Utah Teacher Fellows Podcast

Meet the entire Social Media team from the Utah Teacher Fellows, part of the Hope Street Group. Hear about our journeys in education and what gets us psyched about teaching. Some of us journeyed along the same path, while others meandered along eventually figuring out that teaching is the place to be.

We’re online, but are we connecting?

By Stephan Seabury

What’s it like to teach online?  It’s sometimes like this…this right now.  You are reading my words, yet you can’t see my eyes, feel my thoughts.  I could create an eloquent soliloquy extolling the beatific and meritorious efforts being made by teachers world wide…but could anyone really get a sense of it? Initially, teaching online has been like going suddenly from live performances to radio. I put all my content online, but how do I put me, or better yet, my students with each other, online?  We all know that a major part of human communication is actually non-verbal. A major hurdle then, for me and many other teachers has been, how do I connect with my students when I cannot physically be there?  

selective focus photo of man in official shirt sitting in office working on laptop
Photo by Proxyclick Visitor Management System on Pexels.com

Thankfully with technology we are able to more easily connect with our students than in previous years.  Now that has brought some interesting issues. For one, I have gotten so many tweets, emails, and administrative suggestions for all kinds of online learning systems that I’ve never heard of.  Thus, many of us have felt simply overwhelmed with trying to learn these new systems, and decide which are really worth our time to learn. The other night we watched the first online video from my little girl’s elementary school teacher.  She looked completely strung out and had posted it at 8:30 pm. You could tell that she had more than likely spent the last two days getting a crash course through Google hangouts, google sites, Loom, video conferencing, Nearpod and even the creation of take home packets.  And, with this new online world everything seems so urgent. I’m seemingly just going from one email, or online message to the next as I try to keep connected with my students. I worry that if I miss that email or message for help, my student may not log on again. As teachers, we are having to learn how to balance efficiently learning new online systems, while also not allowing it to consume our lives. Here are some quick tips for choosing what is worth your time and best for your students

  • Bells and whistles vs practicality:  Sure students can write on my iPad and project to the white board.  But they can also just be handed a marker too. Is the platform you are looking at something that over-complicates the process simply because it looks cool?  Remember impact is more important than style sometimes.
  • Learning curve for you and for them: How long did it take for you to learn the system?  Go through it as your student and think about how their experience might look. Then create a process to help them access your platform.
  • Accessibility for your students:  Is there a multi-step process for a student to login?  Do they need high speed internet or a webcam or other software to be able to interact with your platform?  Is it worth all that? 
  • Take time for you.  The online class will be there just like your real one has been.  So set specific office hours and then stick to them. Turn the phone off if you have to and go outside, connect with family and friends when possible. You can also pre-record things for your students and then post and walk away for a moment. It will be okay, your students will still be there.    

Now,  how do I truly connect with my students through this process?   First off, the students actually miss us, their teachers, and each other.  I teach at the high school level and so, naturally, have personal experiences with what some might gently call, teenage ambivalence.  But, when I did my first online ‘class’, I tossed the curriculum out the window almost immediately. My students just wanted to virtually hang out with me and each other.  Some even messaged later about how much they enjoyed that aspect. Thus the lesson here is, our students need connection. They need to see other humans and interact with them; maintaining some of the human element in online learning.  So whatever platform you choose, just choose it. Just try to find a virtual way to connect with your students. Here are some ideas:

  • Don’t stress the content and don’t throw it out either.  These are difficult times and students have plenty to stress about, so follow Maslow before Blooms.  Find a balance with your content vs student health and insure that students do not become overly penalized for missing assignments. Because their parents may be missing jobs or students may be missing access to your online class.  
  • Have a starter/bell ringer as you would normally:  It can take some time for students to login.  You do not want to just sit in awkward silence as the little blank tiles start to fill the screen. 
  • Greet the students at the ‘virtual door’:  Just as you did when you stood at your door between class periods, say hi to the students as they login either through the video or chat messages. Allow them a way to either emote back or respond in the chat.
  • Themed meetings and let the students be involved in choosing them.  You would be surprised how excited students at all levels will be if they can still share with each other. And as they choose the theme you get increased buy in.  My high school students will be doing a pet show at our next ‘class’.  
  • Interactive lessons with tools students can manipulate on screen.  Some online platforms allow students to annotate and write on the screen just as you would if they were standing at the whiteboard.  Now of course make sure you get your bang for your buck in effort, by creating lessons that allow students to interact with you, but did not take forever to create.  
  • Screen share a game like Kahoot or other trivia styled game.  Students could even share their screens and you could play a pictionary or gestures style review game online.  
  • Take time to interact with each student:  Just as in the regular classroom, acknowledge each student.  You can chat to them during the session, send emails or personal messages.  I allowed each of my students a brief window during our online session just to either chat or talk about how things have been so far.
  • Manage the chat/audio/video:   Most online chats like Google hangouts or Zoom will have a chat feature and video/audio.  Learn to manage these features like you would in class, because it can run off the rails almost immediately.  You can do a gradual release where students first can only chat to you, then to the whole group. 
  • And, finally look at the camera sometimes: by looking at the camera you are attempting to make eye contact with the students; attempting to truly connect with them.

In the end teaching online can be like performing to an unknown audience that you can’t see.  An audience that seems distant and unconnected to what you are saying. But remember, you actually do know this audience, you have met them.  They need that connection still. So breath, find what works and then keep that connection.



Stephan believes that in order to really engage in our rapidly evolving world, we must be able to know how to learn for ourselves and then be adaptable.  Thus, students must have teachers and parents who help them learn how to learn and create, and not memorize and repeat.

It’s Thursday- Thank a Teacher: Taunya James Edition

Did any of you attend the UCET 2020 Conference? If you did, you probably saw Ms. Taunya James win the award for Outstanding Teacher of the Year for the amazing hands-on and tech experiences she provides for her 2nd grade students. Read on to learn a little more about this amazing educator.

Taunya James - Taunya James

Where did you do your teacher prep? Metropolitan State University of Denver and New Mexico State University

Where have you taught in your career? Denver, Colorado; Las Cruces, New Mexico; Lusby, Maryland; and Ogden, Utah.

What is the funniest thing a student has ever said? As I was teaching my second grade students, I set my coffee near a student’s desk. A little while later, I saw my cup and teased the student about drinking coffee saying that it’s not good for you. The student laughed and another student asked me why was I drinking it then. Laughing, I told them that I was old; they were still growing but I finished growing a while ago. The class laughed and we moved on to the next subject.

We were reading a story when I noticed one of my students silently, studiously looking at me. He looked from my head to my feet and back again several times. After a couple of minutes of this, he burst out, completely serious, “Now I know why you are so short! ”

Needless to say, I lost it! I started cracking up! Afterward I told him chuckling, “Yes, I’m short… I’m not sure the coffee caused it though”. He gave me a big smile that seemed to say he was very proud of his deductive reasoning.

What advice would you give to new teachers? Find the humor every day. It will get you through the hard moments.

Describe any experience you have had in education policy. I have met with you senator to discuss an upcoming bill and why I didn’t agree with it. He was wonderful about listening to my opinions.

What’s the biggest change you would like to see in education? (I personally think this is a great idea) An ongoing fund for every teacher that is used for learning opportunities where you can use it every year or save it up for a maximum of 3 years for a larger conference event.

Why did you choose to become an educator and why do you choose to stay in the profession? I realized I could help others become lovers of learning. I love working with the students too much to leave.


Taunya is the best! Follow her on Twitter for more inspiration @TaunyaJ




Rocking Distance Learning

macbook pro on white table
Photo by bongkarn thanyakij on Pexels.com

By Taunya James

When the announcement came that we were moving to distance, or online, learning; I started helping teachers around me gear up for the challenge. As our school’s Ed Tech Coach and a Second Grade teacher, I was essentially working multiple jobs with a hard deadline of two days. The coaches joined together over the weekend to get a jumpstart on what we needed to accomplish during the two days. Two days to help everyone become comfortable with Google and Canvas Learning Management Systems (LMS). Two days to vet the amazing outpour of support from the online community offering free accounts to teachers during this time and make sure we had district permissions to use them. Two days to get my own digital classroom set up for new online and unplugged lessons. Those two days went by in the blink of an eye!

At the end of the second day we were as ready as we could be. We overcame every challenge thrown at us and did it with grace and laughter. The first day of distance learning started and I was excited to see the students in our new classroom environment. And then it happened. In the middle of getting ready to go to school and start my digital classroom, an earthquake rocked northern Utah. As I screamed to the sky, “ARE YOU KIDDING ME?” I ducked for cover and waited it out. After the rocking stopped, I got into my car and headed to school like so many other teachers. We were sent home and the message went out that online school would start the next day so buildings could be inspected and families could check in with each other. I wondered how my students were going to handle the latest curveball.

I was so impressed to find out that most of them started the lessons without me.  Many had signed into our LMS and were working, asking questions, and helping each other! We were then reduced to less than 10% of our staff allowed in the building so school was completely being handled online. A group of us worked hard to sanitize district Chromebooks to check out to families in need. The teachers from my school were working from their homes and going strong. Sure, we had more to learn and kinks to work out, but we were moving forward. I was helping teachers through Google Hangout meetings, phone calls, text, and email. I started having live classroom discussions every morning and afternoon. Many others in my building are now doing the same and loving it. 

Then the announcement came from our governor that we would not be returning to school buildings on April 6, but continuing distance learning through May 1, and possibly longer. After that, the few families that were reluctant to join our distance learning lessons started coming online. Teachers started learning more programs and how to incorporate them into their lessons and all of this happened in a two week period. We have many more weeks to go before we can go back to our rooms and yet we continue to teach because that is what we do.   

It’s not the same. Online learning is different from face-to-face interactions, but we are working with what we have during a world crisis. Teachers around the world are working together with a common goal; to keep our students safe and help them grow physically, intellectually, and emotionally.  Parents are right there with us. Helping students get into chat rooms, listening to us read and participating in our discussions. Our administrators are popping in and joining in our learning. The tech department is working hard to keep us connected. Counselors, speech and language teachers, and special education staff are right there, too. I am so proud to be a part of this amazing group of educators; not just the ones in my school or district, but all the educators that have been working together online and supporting each other during this time!  As many challenges as we’ve had putting distance learning into action, the education community is rocking this! However, we miss our students and cannot wait to get back into our classrooms and see the smiling faces of our charges in the room with us, ready to learn!  
BIO:  Taunya James is a 24 year veteran teacher, Ed Tech Coach, and Utah Teacher Fellow.  Follow her on Twitter @TaunyaJ

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