‘It is times like these when my school babies need me most’: Local educators share perspectives on distance learning

Cullman High School AP Language and Composition teacher Jennifer Calahan is seen working from home. (contributed)

CULLMAN, Ala. – COVID-19 has impacted virtually all areas of normal life, especially when it comes to education. With Alabama schools transitioning to distance learning back in March, teachers and students alike had to adjust quickly to learning online instead of in the classroom.

To get the educators’ point of view, The Tribune reached out to a handful of teachers and asked them to expound on these four questions:

  1. How has online learning differed from a normal classroom setting?
  2. What materials or programs have helped make the online move smooth for you and your students?
  3. Overall, what perspective can you give on distance learning with your students?
  4. Do you feel there’s an impact on your students not having your physical presence compared to your online presence?

Stacey Gardner, Fairview Elementary Kindergarten teacher

  1. “Online learning is definitely different than in our classroom setting. We aren’t all able to be together even on our Google Meet. I wish I were able to just hug my kiddos up and love on each one of them!”
  1. “We have been able to use Google Meet and that has been wonderful. At least I am getting to see most of my students or at least hear their voice on our meets. Some of us Kindergarten teachers did our ABC Countdown to Summer even though we aren’t in school. We got all materials needed for letters A-Z and delivered to all our students’ porches. These include different fun activities for the kiddos to do each day. We didn’t want them to miss out just because of COVID-19. They’ve already missed out on enough. We also set up a Facebook page just for our classroom parents so we can post pictures of what we’ve done and keep up with each other. It’s been really nice seeing everyone’s faces most each day!

“Some of us also did a project based off of the book ‘Flat Stanley.’ For instance, mine was ‘Flat Mrs. Gardner.’ We mailed them a letter explaining everything and a picture of ourselves so they could take us with them sometimes. Some of us have also been mailing our kiddos letters each week!”

  1. “Distance Learning is definitely tough; however, God has allowed us time to slow down and make the best of things. It may be tough, but it is definitely something we will make it through and something we will make the best of.”
  1. “Yes, I do! I feel that students missing the last nine weeks of school will have an impact on them; however, we will begin a new year making sure each child is taught what they would have been taught during that last nine weeks. We all miss our students and wish that we were able to have this last nine weeks with them. This is a major bonding time, a time that you see just how much your babies have grown from the beginning of the year. This is a time that you realize although you are the teacher and have made a major impact on their lives… this is a time that I always realize what a blessing they are and how much they have actually taught me throughout the school year. God places each one of our students in our classrooms for a reason, and my students will never really know how much they mean to this teacher. I hate that we have missed these last weeks with them but very thankful that we have still been able to keep in touch!”

Jennifer Tidwell, West Elementary fourth-grade English and history teacher

  1. “Online learning can pose as a challenge opposed to a normal classroom setting. This is because as a school system we have to make sure every student has a device and internet to complete online learning assignments. In a normal classroom setting you already have internet and devices for your students. I feel this was the biggest hurdle to get over through this whole process, but Cullman City Schools and our administration worked very hard to make this happen. If a student doesn’t have the right tools to complete assignments how can we expect them to be successful? It’s just like being in the normal classroom setting with no school supplies. No pencil, no paper… more than likely, no completed assignment. In a normal classroom setting I am able to see my students and look closely at their work. If they are struggling, I can pull them into a small group and work one-on-one with them.

“There will never be anything in this world that can take the place of a normal classroom setting. Every morning, while I’m drinking my coffee of course, I greet my students with, “Good morning! How are you?” Seeing their smiles and hearing their responses will never get old. As an educator you learn so much in the morning from your students that you cannot get over distance learning. During this time students and their families are in tough situations, losing jobs, needing food etc. It is times like these when my school babies need me most. For some, school is a place to escape, to some I am their ‘mother.’ With distance learning you just cannot be there 24/7 like you wish. Yes, with distance learning you can call or touch base, but there is absolutely nothing that can replace a hug from a student. For me, the biggest difference between distance learning and a normal classroom setting is my daily interactions with my ‘kids.’ Nothing beats a student telling you they love and appreciate you.”

  1. “Google Classroom, this helps teachers organize assignments for students and helps better foster communication. Google classroom aims to simplify creating assignments for students, distributing those assignments and grading those assignments without using paper. Screencastify is a Chrome extension that records your screen, voice and face. I have used this extension to show my students how to access different assignments and websites. It’s a game changer for sure! And KAMI is another Chrome extension. It allows you to take any existing document, including scanned PDFs, and write, draw, type, annotate, comment and enhance – all within your browser. This has been great because I can upload an assignment, for example, a worksheet on identifying elements in a story (plot, characters, setting, problem, solution, etc.) Students can then go into Google Classroom, click on the assignment, go straight to KAMI, and voila! Students can now type in their answers and submit the worksheet back to me.”


  1. “Distance Learning with my students has been exactly what it sounds like. TOUGH. Yes, in today’s society we have all kinds of technology that we have been blessed with that take the place of face-to-face interactions, BUT kids need those face-to-face interactions. In my opinion, today’s society is lacking in social skills. Kids need those skills to function throughout life and eventually into the workforce. Although distance learning can pose a challenge, there are benefits as well. During this time of COVID-19 distance learning has kept my family safe and my students’ families safe. Education is always a challenge, but that is what I signed up for. Distance learning has pushed me to learn more about technology. It has pushed my students and their parents to learn more about technology. In the end, we WILL WIN this battle. As an educator it is my duty and responsibility to learn something new every day, and with distance learning I have done just that. People may think we as educators just sit at home all day, but we don’t. I am constantly grading, reading assignments, replying to parents’ questions/concerns, researching, etc. I do this because I want my students to have the BEST opportunity to feel successful while practicing distance learning.”
  1. “I do feel like there is an impact on my students not having the ability to see me every day compared to my online presence. My students need me just like I need them. I, personally, have always been a visual learner. I need to see it to believe it. A lot of my students are like this. When you are in the normal classroom setting you can jump, sing, do cartwheels to help your students learn. Distance learning can sometimes ‘put a cap’ on that. I am the type of teacher who brings as much energy as possible to the classroom (hence the reason I drink coffee). I feel if students watch me enjoy learning, they will enjoy it too. Like I said before, I teach ELA (English Language Arts). Reading is a huge part of my class. I have students who love it, hate it and who are stuck in between.

“For the students who are stuck or hate reading, my goal is to help them find books/genres that suit them. For example, I love mystery books. A big part of my job has to do with library day. As students are turned loose to find their ‘just right books,’ I am there to help guide them if they need help finding a book. Our librarian and her assistant do a wonderful job helping students as well, but as you know it takes a village. That being said, physical presence is so different as to distance learning. I can’t just go meet students at the library to help them find a book, but what I can do is give them resources to help foster their love of reading!”

Tidwell added, “I am extremely thankful for all of the parents who have worked so hard to help teach their children during this difficult time. They are true heroes! I am also thankful for my colleagues. We have worked tirelessly to give our students the best education possible considering the circumstances. I also want to give a shout-out to Cullman City Schools and administration for their persistence in leadership throughout this pandemic.”

Jennifer Calahan, Cullman High AP language and composition teacher

  1. “Online learning is different in so many aspects from what I am accustomed to at CHS. I can’t greet my students as they enter my classroom, which I miss so very much. Classroom discussions are vital to learning, and the online discussions are just not the same. Being able to see students’ faces as they listen, read and work independently is also imperative to knowing when they are in need of more guidance, and that is a situation that is impossible to replicate online.”
  1. “I have used Google Classroom, Zoom Online meeting, YouTube AP lessons and an online discussion forum to continue my assignments.”
  1. “The perspective I am able to offer is the need to stay self-motivated and schedule daily time to access the assignments and email. The greatest downfall from my vantage point is that we tend to skim instead of read, which causes us to miss information. Distance learning requires careful reading for details and a strict adherence to the schedule.”
  1. “I am a strong advocate of ‘face-to-face’ classrooms. I know this has been completely necessary and am so thankful CHS had the resources to continue educating; however, the lack of social interaction among students during learning has been a deficit.”

Calahan is also the sponsor of Cullman High School’s student newspaper, The Hilight.

When asked how that has been affected, she said, “Sadly, our publishing programs are only on our school computers, not the take-home devices; therefore, the newspaper staff did not get to publish our last two editions.”

Superintendents’ takes

For further comment, The Tribune reached out to Cullman City Schools Superintendent Dr. Susan Patterson and Cullman County Schools Superintendent Dr. Shane Barnette.

Barnette praised the teachers, saying, “Online learning is a challenge for much of Cullman County. While we have good connectivity at all of our schools, many of our students only have internet service through their parents’ phones at best. Some do not have any access at all. Thankfully for those students, our teachers have worked hard to provide hard copies of lessons that they have picked up, completed and returned to school. Of course, with these lessons, extra protocols had to be taken to reduce potential exposure to the virus. Overall, the experience had gone smooth, but mainly because of our excellent educators and understanding parents.”

Patterson echoed Barnette, and shared, “During this unprecedented time, our teachers have been giving an amazing effort to support their students’ continued progress through distance learning. Many have found ways to connect with their students and parents through social media, virtual meetings and online learning platforms as well as traditional methods of email, phone calls, cards and work packets. The most difficult part for our teachers, as they have expressed, is how much they miss the classroom and one-on-one interactions with their students. For teachers, not being with their ‘kids’ is heartbreaking, because over the course of a school year they get to know them and love them as their own. As superintendent, I have witnessed firsthand the coming together of our teachers, administrators, support personnel and community as all have worked hard to make a positive impact throughout this pandemic. We are truly blessed to have outstanding educators and community support that have pulled together resources and implemented plans to benefit our students with little prior notice over an extended period of time.”

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