By Christy Perry Tuohey
How does a teacher move hundreds of miles away from her school yet continue to teach there? That would be a long commute by car or an expensive investment in airplane tickets at best. But Norwich, New York’s Holy Family School found a way to keep its well-liked Spanish teacher on its faculty and in the classroom even after she relocated to another state.
Erica Needham-Errico taught at Holy Family for five years, until her husband landed a job in New Jersey in December 2015. The opportunity brought the couple closer to family. Still, it was a difficult choice. “I was very upset about it, because I loved teaching at Holy Family, and I loved what I was doing,” she said.
The school’s technology coordinator Ann French said the feeling was mutual. “She moved away, and we didn’t want to lose her, so we asked her if she would possibly do an online meeting with the kids,” French explained.
Holy Family principal Lydia Brenner worked with Needham-Errico to figure out a way that she could continue to teach there using a virtual digital classroom program.
“She asked, ‘Would you be willing to do that working from home?’” Needham-Errico remembered. “I said, ‘Well, let’s try it.’”
French’s sister, a college professor, told her about a program called Zoom that she had used to teach distance learning classes. Zoom is a video and web conferencing service that allows people in different locations to see and hear each other and interact in real time. Unlike the online video phone service Skype, Zoom allows users to share computer or tablet screens, documents, games and books.
Needham-Errico teaches four or five classes a day at Holy Family to kindergartners through sixth graders. She can see and talk to her students through her home computer, and they, in turn, see and hear her via a Smart Board — a large interactive whiteboard — in the school’s library. The students use iPads in the classroom and can also walk up and touch the Smart Board to play language games.
“It is basically like they’re watching TV, and I am on the screen,” Needham-Errico said. “They hear everything, just as if I were there in person. It works really, really well.”
French said that, despite the distance, Needham-Errico keeps the students’ attention. Although French stays in the library while Spanish classes are being taught, Needham-Errico is in control of the classes and keeps a watchful eye on behavior. “They know that I can see them and I can hear them, so they know if they’re misbehaving I’m going to call them out on it right away,” Needham-Errico said.
Upper grade-level Spanish students have textbooks on their iPads, and Needham-Errico has the same books on her computer. If she needs to show the students digital book pages, she can share her screen with the class. If she needs to write notes for them, they can see her typing those out, too. Using Google Classroom and Google Docs, the students can look up their assignments, click on them, complete and submit them during class. Needham-Errico can then grade those immediately and offer feedback through students’ own personal Google email accounts.
“She’s so good,” said French. “She keeps the kids engaged, and they’re active and they participate in the class, so it’s really a very neat thing to witness and see.”
In addition to her Holy Family classes, Needham-Errico also teaches virtual Spanish classes at St. Margaret’s School in Mattydale. The set-up there is similar to that of the Holy Family digital classroom. An aide is in the room while Needham-Errico teaches, but content and discipline are 100 percent up to her. She appears on the Smart Board in that classroom and can show book pages, write notes and receive assignments in real time.
“I was a little nervous when this first started because I wasn’t sure if the interaction would be the same since I wasn’t there,” Needham-Errico said. “But it’s really amazing to me how it has really become such a success and how it is very similar to me just being in the classroom. We still have interactions and relationships.”
Christy Perry Tuohey is an author and freelance writer in Syracuse, New York.