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The Odd World of E-School Teachers

Trinity Wilbourn, who teaches online for Prince William County, takes a break with son Malachi, 2. She is one of 17 teachers who work for the county's Virtual High.
Trinity Wilbourn, who teaches online for Prince William County, takes a break with son Malachi, 2. She is one of 17 teachers who work for the county's Virtual High. (Tracy A. Woodward/Post)
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By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 25, 2008

For Trinity Wilbourn, teaching high school via the Internet offers a heartening and maddening prism into the teenage mind-set.

Sitting one day at her home office overlooking a golf course, the Prince William County teacher received a snarky comment in all capital letters from a devil-may-care summer school student. But the next moment, she marveled at another male student's frank e-mail: "[W]hen I first went to high school, I did not know who I was for awhile. . . . I tried being someone I could not be."

"I feel like, what kind of guy is going to say that out loud in his class?" Wilbourn said.

Educators who supplement or replace their day jobs with online teaching for local public schools are discovering that the perks of working at home come with hurdles: grappling with awkward or confusing lines of communication with their pupils; gauging student performance without seeing facial expressions; and struggling to withstand the urge to check e-mails from students during weekends.

Online courses, mostly in high schools, have proliferated in recent years despite debate about their effectiveness compared with face-to-face instruction. The number of times students enrolled in distance education courses connected with public schools (using Internet, two-way video or other technologies) rose from about 317,000 in 2002-03 to more than 506,000 in 2004-05, the National Center for Education Statistics reported in June. That's a 60 percent increase. In at least 66 percent of the cases, the report says, students earned credit with a passing grade.

Such students could be taking advanced courses unavailable at local schools, fulfilling graduation requirements or pursuing online schooling for other reasons. Prince William's Virtual High, for instance, is open to all students enrolled in a regular high school and rising ninth-graders; it also accepts some home-schooled students.

Competition for online teaching jobs, even those that are part-time, can be intense. Many school systems are willing to finance a limited number of courses and teachers. Fairfax and Arlington counties, for the most part, offer free online courses; Prince William and Loudoun counties charge fees in the hundreds of dollars. Teachers typically get paid stipends per pupil or course, funded by tuition or the operating budget.

"We don't have much turnover at all. People do randomly send in their résumé, but I am not able to offer much opportunity," said Gina Jones, administrative coordinator of Prince William's Virtual High, which has about 17 teachers, nearly half of whom work only at home and don't need regular classroom jobs.

Teachers who want full-time online jobs with benefits can work in some statewide programs, which can draw students from anywhere in the country or world. Virtual Virginia recently enrolled a student from Shanghai for Advanced Placement English. Jobs in the state-funded program, which has nearly 40 teachers and offers annual salaries of nearly $40,000, are highly coveted. "We'll have three openings next year, and I expect to get hundreds of applications," said program director Cathy Cheely. "People are intrigued and realize it's pure teaching -- you're not worrying about cafeteria duty."

A D.C. schools spokeswoman said the school system does not offer online courses. They are available throughout Maryland, through programs such as the state's Virtual School.

In Fairfax, where about 40 online teachers earn $9,000 a course, there are four openings a year, said Mike Kowalski, the school system's online program administrator. "We have a lot of people interested. Those who are qualified, that's another issue -- many haven't gone through training," he said. "The job is a lot of one-on-one time. If personal communication isn't your forte, this isn't your job."

The typical day for online teachers entails sitting down at a computer during "office hours" -- four hours a day in the summer, one to two in the fall and spring -- and answering student questions through e-mail, instant messages or phone calls. They grade assignments and call parents. They often proctor major tests in a school building.

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