Week Seven: Hearing from Our Teachers – An Update from the CEO

Good afternoon, FAmily,

This week we’re celebrating Teacher Appreciation Week and it couldn’t be more timely. After Governor Murphy’s school closure announcement earlier today, we are more determined than ever to celebrate our incredible educators and all that they are doing to support our scholars.

As we wrapped up week 7 of online instruction last week, I found myself reflecting on a question I’m asked very regularly these days, and that question is “How is it going with online instruction?” 

As CEO, I’m often asked to speak on behalf of Foundation Academies. However, the real answer can only be given by our teachers, and so we asked them to speak candidly about their experiences with different aspects of the transition to online learning. To better share the perspectives of our incredible educators, over the next few weekly CEO updates, you’ll be hearing some answers to “How’s it going with online instruction?” directly from our teachers. 

We, as public K-12 educators, stand to collectively gain so much by sharing what’s working and what isn’t, and most importantly, sharing how we are adapting to meet the ever-changing needs of our students when it is clear that something isn’t working. I am extremely proud of how our organization prioritizes honest and open feedback on how we can consistently improve for the benefit of our students. It is my sincere hope that by sharing our experiences openly and honestly, we can begin a larger conversation that may also help ALL public K-12 educators to better serve ALL students across the state during these challenging times. 

Below, you’ll hear from our teachers Rafael Berriel, Nicole Cassell, Dr. Laura Bloom, Brian Kelley, and Sara Landau. 

As you read each teacher’s responses, I encourage each of you to consider the ways in which we as educators and engaged community members can work to address any areas of need identified or implied in their answers, for students and teachers alike. 

Rafael Berriel, Foundation Academy Primary School 2nd Grade Teacher

Q: How do you think the move to online instruction has gone from a teacher’s perspective?

A: Overall, I would say it went well, considering the great switch we all had to go through. There was a learning curve for everyone, parents, students, and, of course, ourselves as educators. Perhaps the first two weeks were the ones with the biggest load of work. For many parents, it was hard trying to figure out how to support their 2nd-grade children, some juggling their jobs, duties, and helping more than one child at home, as well as some who have not stopped working outside their homes during this pandemic. Many were dealing with email and educational software for the first time. Parents needed emails, passwords, usernames, and more usernames and passwords for different software, but once parents and scholars got used to logging in, accessing our classes, and sending their work, everything fell into place. 

As teachers, we had to be in constant communication with parents via text messages and phone calls. It was very common to be on a phone call late at night explaining to parents how to navigate the system, telling them what classes were going to be like, connecting them with the services they needed, or going over the steps they had to take to do assignments. When teaching online, at first, we had to understand the platform along with the nature of virtual interactions. It was really imperative to figure out how to keep the groups as organized and functional as possible. Leadership and the grade teams were there at every step of the way giving suggestions, support, and training to make it all work. These were exciting long days! Thanks to all the hard work from ALL of the FAmily at Foundation Academies, our kids transitioned into virtual learning without missing a beat. I was very impressed with everyone’s commitment and support. I am proud to be part of this organization.    

Q: How do you think the move to online instruction has gone for students?

A: In general, students have reacted very well to online instruction. They have shown real commitment to their education through this period of changes and adjustments. Naturally, there are some scholars who adjust better than others, but I can say that they have shown true commitment and hard work. Our kids are engaged during class and happy to see their teachers and school friends everyday. Being able to interact with their classmates and teachers at the same time everyday brings much-needed structure to their day. Many of our scholars have shown great improvement and quality work since online instruction started. I have seen how families have come together – older siblings supporting younger ones, or family members giving a helping hand if needed. Beyond families, I have witnessed parents reaching out to other parents and supporting each other. It has truly been a real community effort to make sure that our kids get the education they deserve. We know that parents have multiple responsibilities, and I certainly understand that it is a great challenge for families to deal with their everyday demands and the extra load of duties that these times require from all of us. In these complex times, our children and families have shown great resilience and maturity. 

Ms. Nicole Cassell, Foundation Academy Intermediate School 3rd Grade Teacher

Q: How do you think the move to online instruction has gone from a teacher’s perspective?

A: From my perspective, the transition to online learning has gone smoother than I could have ever imagined. Prior to our first day of online instruction, teachers were given professional development around using Google Meet and Google Classroom, which prepared me to roll things out with my students on week one. I have continued to receive support from my supervisors weekly, ensuring that I plan and execute quality lessons. Luckily, my students were already familiar with the platforms I have been using to assess them, and we really have not skipped a beat. 

Q: How do you think the move to online instruction has gone for students?

A: My third graders have honestly blown me away with their responsibility and maturity during this transition. Naturally, there are some students adjusting better than others. For some scholars, virtual learning has helped them immensely. Being able to hear only their teacher’s voice through headphones has really allowed them to grasp skills that they otherwise had not yet mastered. On the other hand, for some of my scholars, learning at home is distracting. When within the walls of FA, distractions are limited, and a teacher’s eyes are on them at all times. Teachers can give students feedback or extra help whenever they need it, without a scholar always having to ask for it. I have really been encouraging scholars to advocate for themselves, because I won’t always know when something isn’t clear to them. The Intermediate School team has been consistently reflecting on our instruction, and when we are offering extra help to those who are struggling. Overall, scholars, parents, teachers, and school administrators are working tirelessly to ensure that our kids are continuing to receive quality instruction and the support that they need. I am proud to be part of the FAmily! 

Dr. Laura Bloom, Foundation Collegiate Academy Math Teacher

Q: How do you think the move to online instruction has gone from a teacher’s perspective?

A: I think it has gone well. Since I can’t be there to see their papers and most of them don’t like asking questions in Google Meet, I have made sure that every lesson is just a baby step more conceptually than the previous day’s lesson. A much larger proportion of students than I had expected learned the material from the previous topic really well, even though it was the hardest material in the whole course. Also, I got a good enough handle on the technology quickly enough to be able to make quality lessons pretty easily. I also got some suggestions from a colleague for how to use my phone to be a document camera, and using it makes teaching math live much closer to what students experience in the classroom.

Q: How do you think the move to online instruction has gone for students?

A: I think it has gone very differently for different students. Some of our students have had a hard time being home, where they have had to deal with a lot of responsibilities. Some of our students have had a hard time doing their schoolwork because they have felt the need to work many hours at their jobs to help support their families, or because the opportunity is there to earn more money for college. Some have had to help take care of younger children or help younger siblings do their schoolwork instead of being able to do their own schoolwork. Some have missed school to translate for their parents at the doctor’s office. A number of students have had a hard time getting themselves to do their schoolwork while in their home environment. 

The majority of our students have been doing a fabulous job coming to the live class every day and learning the material. Most have been diligently doing each learning activity. Many have been working in groups (by phone) with their peers, with a result that the whole group learns more. They have taken responsibility for their own learning, and are learning how to be skilled independent learners – a skill that will help them in college and the rest of their lives.

Brian Kelley, Foundation Academy Middle School Science Teacher

Q: How do you think the move to online instruction has gone from a teacher’s perspective?

A: It certainly hasn’t been an easy transition. As a 6th grade teacher, we had reached that point when students were comfortable with their classmates, as well as accustomed to the expectations and structure of our class. When a student was having difficulty, we were able to see it and address it very quickly, even when the student wasn’t able to articulate the problem. That has changed being online. It’s a different way of teaching and learning for both students and teachers.  However, when you consider what’s at stake, you work that much harder to ensure you and your students are learning, growing, and adapting each and every day.

Q: How do you think the move to online instruction has gone for students?

A: I can say that it hasn’t been easy for many of our students.  A lot of students had problems with technology initially, but Foundation Academies’ technology staff worked wonders to ensure all of our students have internet access and/or Chromebooks. Some have shared with me that they have responsibilities at home (i.e., taking care of brothers or sisters while parents are at work) that have impeded their classwork and assignments.  At the same time, others have adapted very well. One student even noted that she liked the freedom to complete lessons without the pressure of completing the lesson during class time.

Sara Landau, Foundation Collegiate Academy Geometry Teacher

Q: How do you think the move to online instruction has gone from a teacher’s perspective?

A: Prior to beginning online instruction, teachers were set up for success by the leadership team, which made it very easy to transition in terms of preparation. Even though we were overly-prepared, I think we all hit bumps the first week, but we did a great job adjusting and it has been smooth sailing ever since. Overall, it’s been an easier transition for me than expected, but I definitely miss the in-person connection with staff and students. I’ve tried to find ways outside of instruction to connect with students, even if it means downloading TikTok, so we can talk about the funny videos we have watched.

Q: How do you think the move to online instruction has gone for students? 

A: I try to consistently ask the students for feedback as this is new territory for all of us and we all adjust differently. The two main pieces of feedback I have received is that it is harder for my students to learn when I’m not physically with them in the classroom and they miss the connection with me as well. They’ve asked that I take some time in the beginning of class each day to share a story or a motivational quote to help enhance the human connection many of us are missing from making the move to online instruction. Little did they know my storytelling would turn into me ranting about how I don’t understand TikTok’s algorithm, but together, we have found this as a bonding tool to continue the discussion outside of the online class setting. Thanks, TikTok. We’re all addicted now.

Special thanks to each of the teachers who shared their honest observations and experiences. True growth is uncomfortable, but by acknowledging where we are right now, we can make a plan to move toward where we would like to be

As I mentioned above, Foundation Academies prioritizes honest feedback from our parents, students, staff, as well as our greater community. And so, as a valued member of our community, what are the takeaways that resonated the most with you? 

Please leave a comment and share them with me. I read every response because now more than ever, we are better together. 

As always, we are here for you, so please reach out to any member of our FAmily if you need support. I hope you and your loved ones are staying safe and healthy, and I am excited to begin week 8 of online instruction today. 

Have a great week, everyone! 

Yours in community,

Graig Weiss
Foundation Academies

P.S. If you’d like to help support our students as they face the many unforeseen challenges of this crisis, please consider making a donation online today.

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Graig Weiss

Graig Weiss served as the Chief Executive Officer of Foundation Academies from 2014-2022. He began 5 years before as Middle School Principal. A 2003 Teach for America corps member, Mr. Weiss taught Math and Science in the Bronx and the Dominican Republic prior to becoming an administrator and was selected as Teacher of the Year in 2007. Prior to entering the education field, Mr. Weiss worked in the financial services sector with Cambridge Associates, LLC in Boston, MA. He holds a Bachelor of Arts and a Bachelor of Science in Finance and Accounting from the University of Pittsburgh, a Master of Science in Teaching from Fordham University, and a Master of Science in Educational Leadership from the University of Scranton.