The Odd World of E-School Teachers
Distance From Students Alters Exchange of Ideas

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.

At her three-bedroom home in Manassas Park, Wilbourn, 28, a part-time English teacher, sat cozily at her desk, on a fake-fur-covered seat, as she spent the day e-mailing summer school students and grading their work. She chatted with her interloping toddlers and her husband, Michael, a regular teacher. The faint tappings on her Apple keyboard were joined every so often by the thwacking of golf balls at General's Ridge Golf Course.

On her computer, she saw a comment on a class discussion board that slightly peeved her. Her fingers hovered over the keyboard, poised to reply to a student's comment. "This is good," she said. "I can edit my thoughts."

Wilbourn, who is paid $300 a student per course, figures her family does decently. She reasons that her husband is a full-time teacher; that she does not pay for a car or high gas prices; that she can work two other jobs as an online college teacher and an independent distributor for Shaklee, a nutritional and cleaning products company; and that she can watch her kids instead of sending them to a pricey day care.

"My husband and I don't want to be working 9-to-5. We are doing a somewhat entrepreneurial model," she said, glancing up at her desk wall, on which are posted aphorisms and a self-described "Trini-tree" pyramid chart of Shaklee distributors.

Sometimes, Wilbourn must be stern, but diplomatic, in e-mail.

To a student who wrote on a class discussion board that his parents "HAVE NO POWER OVER ME," Wilbourn replied: "It seems to me as long as they are putting a roof over your head and paying for your food and your clothes and your various electronic equipment they do have some power over you."

Protracted e-mail conversations about grades and homework can be tricky, said Amy Bianco, 40, a Prince William online math teacher, who started in the field several years ago because it allowed her to spend more time with family.

One day, while watching her children and husband, a middle school teacher, tussle in the pool, Bianco sat at the living room table, shaking her head at her laptop. A summer school student e-mailed asking to submit an assignment late because the deadline coincided with a tutoring appointment.

"What do I say to this kid?" she asked. "You've got to be careful with these kids because you give them an inch, they'll take a mile."

She typed out a diplomatic response. Then a couple of students instant-messaged her, asking why they had what appeared to be zeroes on an assignment. "Hi Sarah, I have not graded the [module] 5 discussion forum yet:)," she wrote, slightly irked. Then: "Hi Joseph, I haven't graded them yet!"

Bianco wondered why Joseph had not been turning in assignments. She checked the course's online records to see how often he was logging on and saw that he hadn't completed his orientation assignments. "Before I make a phone call home, I want to get his side," she said. "But the worst part is that I can't see him and I can't look him in the eyes. Here, he has a chance to ignore my e-mails or [instant messages]."

She wrote: "Joseph, I was looking over our grades and I noticed that you are missing the module 1 and 3 activities. Is there a reason they were not submitted? Mrs. B."

The response, it's safe to say, was imperfect: "ok i wasnt sure cus i tried the best i could on it cus i just don fully understand exactaly what there asin most of the time so i jus do the best i can with what i no so ya."

Bianco laughed and chalked up the poor writing to different generational expectations. "Joseph, When you are having trouble understanding the material, please contact us and ASK questions!" she wrote. "This is what I am here for!"

She crunched her knuckles and continued typing her message.

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