At a time when a growing number of researchers examining virtual education have questioned the effectiveness of online learning programs targeting students at risk of dropping out, Leslie Fetzer hopes to show skeptics just what is possible.
Fetzer, an online biology teacher for the North Carolina Virtual Public School, works exclusively with troubled students who have been diagnosed with learning disabilities or struggle with academic motivation. She’s also the instructional leader for biology teachers in the 2-year-old NCVPS Occupational Course of Study program, a blended, team-teaching model for students with special needs in which each student has an online instructor and a face-to-face instructor for each course. And she teaches fully online credit-recovery courses to students in grades 10-12 at NCVPS, which delivered courses to just over 19,000 students last spring.
Fetzer is the 2012 National Online Teacher of the Year, as recognized by the Southern Regional Education Board in Atlanta and the Vienna, Va.-based International Association for K-12 Online Learning. Digital Directions Staff Writer Ian Quillen interviewed Fetzer in March, shortly after the nine-year teaching veteran and third-year online teacher won the award.
Whenever we talk to online teachers or administrators, we always hear that it’s most important for teachers to be good teachers first, and master teaching online second. You appear to be proof of that. But how did you make the migration to virtual instruction?
Fetzer: I learned really quickly that the most important thing is to grab students’ attention, to make them excited and want to learn, to build relationships with them. And so, I would do whatever it took. I would read books that they were reading, watch movies that they were watching, and listen to music that they were listening to. So when I actually heard about the opportunity to teach online, I jumped at the chance, mostly because of the tools I knew I would get to use in the classroom. And then I realized that teaching online really afforded me the opportunity to get to know my students even better and to personalize the instruction for them even more than I was able to in the classroom.
How long did it take to figure that out?
Fetzer: Not long at all. I would say during the training period. And I did do both. I taught face to face and online part time for, oh, probably a little bit less than a full year before I decided I was going to take the jump and do this all the time.
You have said that you left your previous career as a medical writer, in part, because it wasn’t interactive enough. Did you worry about how a natural extrovert would transition to the virtual classroom?
Fetzer: It’s funny, because I say that I was in front of the computer all day long as a medical writer, and really, that’s what I do now, but it’s so different. There’s an entire community online. It’s a community not only with your students and the relationships that you form there, but with the parents, with the stakeholders of the schools, and with my coworkers and colleagues. We have an electronic learning community, and we grow and share with each other. It’s very much a community feel.
Do you feel like it’s more challenging to teach science online than an English or humanities course, as some suggest?
Fetzer: That’s just a misconception. Yeah, sure, it can be a little bit challenging, but that’s why we’re online teachers, because we enjoy that challenge. Really, there’s a whole host of things available to help teach science online, like interactive labs, and lots of ways that you can share what you’re doing, in both kind of a blended approach where you maybe do something interactive and then do a hands-on lab.
In your new role as the National Online Teacher of the Year, you’ll be expected to be the face of a growing teaching role that some still don’t understand. How would you describe your typical day to them?
Fetzer: A typical day is difficult to explain because it does change daily, but there are some fundamentals that I do every day. There’s grading, so that everything that was submitted, we grade it and give feedback within 24 hours, and that feedback is always directive. We’re also going to always communicate, and that happens all day long. Another thing that I do is I create announcements each day. These announcements are a place where I do some reteaching of the content; I just break it down into manageable chunks and teach it in a different way than is already there as part of the course content. Our motto is “See it, hear it, read it,” so visually and auditorially, we’re presenting it in a variety of ways.
I understand you also have some responsibilities that are a little bit different in the Occupational Course of Study program. Could you talk about that a bit?
Fetzer: So we pair up and co-teach together and communicate daily. I’ll hear from a teacher and she might say, “Angela really didn’t understand this concept,” and then that night I act like a little fairy in the night and think of content just for Angela. And while I am at it, I might pull in something that I know she really likes. If her prom is coming up, I’ll try to incorporate something to do with the prom into the lesson. So it’s very personalized. Sometimes, if they are struggling, they need a little bit of an extrachallenge. Sometimes, the entire class wants a differentiated assignment. It’s all through that communication with that co-teacher in the classroom. And some really great relationships have formed—some friendships have formed—with those teachers as well.
You also teach online credit-recovery courses, which have come under fire recently from some critics of online learning. Do you think any student can succeed in an online credit-recovery course, or does it have to be the right fit for the right student?
This interview with the 2012 National Online Teacher of the Year, Leslie Fetzer, is a Digital Directions exclusive.
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Fetzer: I definitely think that every student can be successful in [online] credit-recovery courses. I think that, just like in the classroom, you’ve got really great teachers that can grab those students and get their attention. That’s what we can do in a credit-recovery class, and sometimes we can do it online because they can move at their own pace, so they take a little bit more responsibility for their own learning. I think they also kind of get the feeling that, “Wow, this online teacher really, really cares, because they are not letting me go.” In a big classroom with a brick-and-mortar school, if you’ve got 25 students and one starts to slack off, sure you’re going to do your best to grab them, but sometimes that follow-through can’t happen just because of the sheer numbers. It’s just not the same with online.
What do you hope to accomplish in your year as the reigning National Online Teacher of the Year?
Fetzer: I’m sure there’s a lot left to discover that’s bigger than I’d dreamed, but I am excited because it has given me the opportunity to have a platform to talk about what we’re doing, especially with meeting the needs of students with disabilities that have [individualized education programs] and 504s [plans under the 1973 rehabilitation law], both in inclusion classrooms and in mainstream classrooms. Because I think this is the population that has been left behind a little bit when it comes to online education. The success that we’ve had, I’d love to see that happen across the nation. So I am really, really excited to have the opportunity to speak to that specifically, and also to dispel some of the myths of online education.
A version of this article appeared in the June 13, 2012 edition of Digital Directions as Making the Online Connection