After 5 years of teaching in Watauga County, chance led me to a reading specialist position at Blowing Rock School, where I’ve happily taught children with “print challenges” for the past five years — my special area of expertise. Under our principal, Patrick Sukow, I’ve had the joy of spending my days setting young children on a positive path toward learning to read, so they can all sit at the same table with their peers.

Enter COVID! It is very fortunate that BRS happened to receive a grant funding the creation of "take-home reading bins," to be used by K, 1 and 2 families during holidays and summer months when school is not in session; these bins, refreshed regularly with new learning materials as children progress, were exactly what we needed when regular school operations were suspended and future operations in doubt. We have made great use of them.

In late summer 2020, as a new school year was beginning, the number of families wanting virtual instruction was such that it led county leadership to change my duties and place me in the "Watauga Virtual Academy," with Tamara Stamey as our principal. I was given a small group of kindergarteners to teach online two days a week; then Wednesdays to plan, meet and receive professional development; and then, a small first-grade class the last two days of the week. Mastering the tech equipment and juggling varying lessons and materials for each child has been a task; but at least I wasn't in charge of making this whole thing work countywide! 

How to keep virtual students connected with their neighborhood schools during COVID times was a tremendous challenge: I can’t begin to imagine how hard our principals and county office leadership worked and brainstormed over the lock-down months, and particularly over the summer, to plan what would happen depending on X and Y yet-unknown circumstances in fall. (And I thought my job was hard!) I have been more than impressed by their decisions and communications and admire their decision-making processes tremendously. All while trying to keep teachers, staff and all families safe during historic times. Quite a challenge.

WCS virtual teachers have had constant support this fall. There are weekly (remote) meetings hosted by our leadership, and for students, online programs in reading and math that adapt themselves to the child’s ability level were purchased and put in place. As teachers moving to brand new areas of instruction, all of us were led step-by-step in how to meet our new students’ needs and ability levels. From informal online "targeted to my grade-levels" support meetings, I could identify teachers more experienced than I am with K and 1 curricula, and find go-tos for quick answers to my questions.

Parents were so supportive — and patient — with my sometimes halting and uneven early sessions. As a colleague said, teachers had to become (a little bit) technology experts while also determining how to move their best teaching online during the initial weeks of the year. Not easy, but we did it! Not only were we supplied with and taught specific tools and curricula, our WVA principal thought far enough ahead to purchase specific learning material to send home to remote students. And my own Blowing Rock principal supported specific requests I made, as I grew to see other teaching tools my students needed.

In talking with teaching friends across the nation, I can’t name a school district anywhere that had its act together like ours did this year. At the Midwest school where I began my career almost 40 years ago, there is no weekly pick-up and drop-off of materials, which our own remote county figured out how to staff while also saving jobs. There are no online math and reading programs designed to permit students to proceed at their own pace; much of virtual teaching at other school districts and other states must by necessity be whole-group.  (As a reading specialist I know well that whole-group instruction sacrifices individual students' needs to the efficiency of one-size-fits-all. Though sometimes unavoidable, it comes at a cost.)  Aren't we lucky our county has achieved something better.

And here's another happy note: My students (both kindergarten and first-grade) are creating an online sense of community. We partied for Halloween this week and wore our costumes. Parents organized so that each of my students had a surprise bag of tricks and treats. Parents performed and read aloud to my classes — virtually of course.  (Everybody's learning how to do it!) Next week we’re sending home daffodil bulbs so the students can plant and see them peek up from the soil next March, as one of the “first signs of spring." 

Yes, we can deliver a good education online; but there were economic factors in who could elect to join the Virtual Academy. We have much to address in our county, state and nation, to strive for more equity and access for all students. But given current conditions, Watauga County has done well. I’m grateful to work in what Dr. Scott Elliott has characterized as the best place to work and learn in North Carolina. Where else would your administrators sign their emails with first names? These small things are not insignificant.

What I’m most proud of is how our county prioritized free meals for any person up to 18 years of age, at the same time that mental health has been prioritized for all. We've really needed those things this year. I grew up in Evanston, Ill. (a Chicago suburb), have lived in beautiful Harrisonburg, Va., and also the outskirts of Philly near Longwood Gardens — all good places — but I found my true home in Watauga County and the Blue Ridge Mountains. What a great place to live and teach.

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By Laurie Gill, Literacy Intervention Specialist & Virtual Academy K-1 Teacher, Blowing Rock School.

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