About once every three weeks, Brother James Kelly didn’t feel well enough to teach because of the chemotherapy he was receiving to fight his prostate cancer.
Yet instead of giving the 28 students in his third-period honors British literature class at Mount St. Joseph High School in Baltimore a day off, some busywork, or a substitute teacher, Kelly utilized Skype, a software application that allows for real-time videoconferencing.
“I get to sit while it’s going, so I’m not exerting as much energy as I might if I were in the classroom walking around,” says Kelly. “I see the kids so I can watch the classroom dynamic.
“It’s different,” says Kelly, who also is president of the all-boys Catholic high school, “but I think I’m still able to engage them.”
On the first day of class, juniors Robert Stryjewski and Brent Hartley remembered walking into the classroom and seeing Kelly’s image projected onto a 4-by-6-foot whiteboard.
“It was a bit weird at first because it was different than anything we’ve ever had before,” Stryjewski says. “After a few times of him doing it, it got to be a normal everyday class, basically.”
Hartley agrees.“The first day was kind of awkward just because you have to speak really loud because there’s a speaker in the middle of the classroom,” Hartley says. “After a couple of weeks, I got used to it.”
Even without a teacher present, Kelly says the students don’t often act out.
“The kids are very aware of what I’m going through,” says Kelly, who has been at the school 10 years. “They don’t give me grief. They wouldn’t get away with it if they tried.”
Mary Ellen Dolan, Kelly’s administrative assistant, watches the students in the room and will write things on the board when Kelly needs to show something.
Having the ability to see each other was important to Kelly. “I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to see them,” he says. “If I couldn’t see them, I wouldn’t be able to teach them.”
A version of this article appeared in the June 15, 2011 edition of Digital Directions as High School Teacher Battling Cancer Skypes His Lessons