Changing Paradigms: Part II Challenges and rewards of distance learning

Dickinson Middle School (Kayla Henson / The Dickinson Press)

Teaching students virtually is something in which many of southwestern North Dakota's teachers have little experience. It's been difficult, but it's had some unexpected benefits, too.

In Part II of this three-part series, we talk with area teachers about some of the challenges and rewards of distance learning.

South Heart

When Holly Holinka began teaching 41 years ago, the internet didn't even exist yet. Now, all of her classes are online.

"When I learned to teach, I learned how to mimeograph papers and teach with chalk," she said. "Overhead projectors weren’t even available then ... You type your work that you want to distribute to the students on a carbon paper, and then you put the carbon paper on this mimeograph machine and it would duplicate copies."

Reel-to-reel film was a cutting age technology.


When the pandemic forced schools to close, it was hard on her.

“I think I went through some of the stages of grief,” Holinka laughed. “First, you’re sort of in denial - do I really have to do this?’” Maybe some bargaining - ‘Maybe it’s only just for a little while and then everything will go back to normal.’ I think there’s times when there’s a little bit of depression. I feel badly because I miss my students; I miss my colleagues. Now I’m pretty sure I’m at acceptance level of grief.”

It's not just the change in teaching style that's played with her emotions.

"I miss the students terribly, just the day-to-day contact with them," Holinka said. "That’s a really huge challenge for me, especially; I feel like I’m teaching from some other continent ... I think we need to be concerned about those basic needs of those families during this time. Those are kind of those intangible things you think about - are our kids okay? How are families doing? We know that we’ve had families that have been impacted by job layoffs, and I worry about them as well."

From a logistical standpoint, the school itself has had some challenges.

"I have students that live basically in the Badlands and getting them that capability to communicate with us has been a challenge on many different fronts ... "Lots of people have cell phones or maybe even smart phones, but not everybody has a device that they can use for distance learning," Holinka said. "Our school hasn’t been a one-to-one school like some districts are, so that meant distributing what the school has to those families."


Sarah Crossingham teaches social studies and health at Dickinson Middle School. One of the hardest parts of distance learning for her is worrying about the kids she can't get in contact with.

"We call them the kids who have gone dark," she said. "That's always my first worry. Are they doing okay? Are they eating? Do they have food? I just want to make sure that they're okay. I guess my concern is that they aren't getting their academics, but my biggest concern is are they safe and are they healthy? Are they getting what they need?"


Now that she's working from home, another challenge for Crossingham has been finding a balance between working and spending time with family.

"Dr. Lewton posted a hilarious video on our Dickinson Middle School web page about finding that balance between working and spending time with your family," she said. "I think that's a challenge that not only us teachers are having, but also students and family members are having ... I caught myself, when it first started, I was up until 11 o'clock every single night checking emails or giving feedback to students or creating the lessons."

Some of Crossingham's students have thrived under the different circumstances.

"I've actually had students that in classes, they are engaged, but sometimes they don't turn in work or sometimes they aren't as motivated. I've had students that it's the complete opposite now, being online," she said. "They're getting their work done every single day, they're answering questions; they're getting it done pretty effectively and fairly quickly to their standards. There are some students who are struggling with this interface, but there are also some students that are really thriving. They get to work at their own pace. They get to personalize their learning a little bit. They can kind of take ownership of what they're doing."

Crossingham said the change in delivery style has actually helped establish professional development every day.

"I feel like our communication is on-spot. I feel like we are getting a lot of communication from our administrators, that they're very honest and open and we're holding professional developments every single day called Coffee Hour, with Meagan Schlecht, our tech director", she said.


Robin Rivinius is a first grade teacher at Richardton-Taylor. Although she using video programs like Zoom, it can be hard to create a classroom atmosphere.

"Every family has different schedules," she said. "Some parents are still working. Some are working at night. Some are working during the day. To find the right amount of content that’s going to be reasonable and feasible and also providing those interactive learning opportunities at a time that’s going to work for everyone (can be difficult). When we have live meetings, I always record them so that if a family can’t make it, they can watch it later."


Even with the difficulties, distance learning has helped her have more interaction with parents.

"The job I had before this, I worked with infants and toddlers, helping their parents know how to help their children learn. I’ve kind of missed that interaction with families, and I’ve got numerous opportunities to interact with families now," Rivinius said.

She said it's given parents more involvement with their kids' learning, too.

"They’re definitely more involved with what their kids are doing at school, and I feel like the students have more opportunity for one-on-one interaction with their parents too that they might not have been able to prioritize or have that opportunity before," Rivinius said.

Lindsey Gullickson teaches fourth-graders at the school.

"I think the biggest challenge has been that it happened so suddenly for everyone, so it's been a huge change in routine, not just for myself and the other teachers that I work with, but the parents and the students. The challenges of navigating the systems that we're using," she said.

Distance learning has drastically changed Gullickson's work schedule.

"I pretty much work from 6 a.m. until I go to bed simply because of the flexibility that we have to have with those essential working parents. They still go to work and don't get home until 6 o'clock, so they're not able to help those students until later in the evening," she said.


When the pandemic is over and kids go back to school, Gullickson said she thinks education will be different.

"I think that there is more of an appreciation for teachers from the parents' side, and there is certainly more of an appreciation from me as an educator to my parents who are going through this with me," she said. "There is no way that this would be possible without them helping at home ... Another positive coming from it is just for the students to be able to access some of these things that we normally don't use on a daily basis when we're in the school building. I think that there are great learning tools out there ... that we are now able to get our students onto."

Kayla Henson is a former Dickinson Press reporter.
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