Sarah Weston is the first online teacher in Utah to receive an Educator of the Year award. She teaches math courses at the Open High School of Utah, a full-service online high school, where she also develops and creates dynamic, engaging courses online. Because the curriculum is housed and delivered on the computer, the majority of Sarah’s time is spent providing one-on-one tutoring for each student, giving them the individualized instruction they need, when they need it.
There was something slightly discomforting about teaching math in the old traditional way for Sarah Weston, the self-proclaimed Sarah Show. “Multiple choice just killed me. Teaching math in mulitple choice just gave me heartburn,” says Weston, as she describes how she researched ways to implement a blended learning environment for her Math students at the Open High School in Utah.
For a teacher who comes at you like a fresh breeze, it’s understandable. She’s a whirlwind of energy, and being that personal, up front and performance artist teacher seemed to be under threat when she was asked to facilitate online math courses at the school.
But after winning Educator of the Year and seeing rapid increases in performance for students and teachers, Weston is ready to say that something has worked. Time as a variable, individualized instruction and flexible delivery methods equals a new revolution in learning for Utah students.
“You don’t see this kind of growth in regular classrooms,” says Weston. “Because people are not forced to move that quickly in traditional school. It really stimulates growth when they are given something flexible and forced to move quickly.”
Once a traditional bricks and mortar teacher, Weston was wary about teaching online.
“My biggest strength as a teacher was me, in person. I called it The Sarah Show. You really have to be entertaining in Math to get kids to learn. Math is so boring to people.”
“I thought it was my personality and my in person experience that could do that. I was so worried about how that would transfer online. I thought I would fall flat on my face. How could they be interested if I was not there to teach them?”
She didn’t have to worry. She figured out that she could teach her math courses using video. The solution proved to be highly effective in more ways than she thought possible. Because the students were able to view the video before they met her, they were able to establish familiarity with her before classes began. Kids that didn’t quite master the instruction the first time, were able to go back and review the video, giving Weston even more time to teach individually, something she didn’t have the luxury to do in a traditional classroom. Her mentality changed: “I got to know my students better online than I did with bricks and mortar. They were grouped by name, they were them. They were not grouped by periods.”
“I was working with them as individuals, not as groups of 35 to 40 kids,” says Weston.
It was clear to Weston, and it’s probably clear to many other teachers facilitating an online learning environment, something that teachers and experts have taken to call blended learning, a method that has been in use in corporate training environments and higher ed for years. Something fundamentally noteworthy has changed in K12. It could be that the online experiences that kids are having all the time are starting to “trickle up” into the teaching and administrative strategies used in bricks and mortar. Weston, for one, sees not too big of a difference between the socialization that is traditional to school and the social effect that technology catalyzes in the young with their mobile phones and other devices.
Kids, she says, are used to a time-shifting day. They have more media to interact with and other activities to get involved in, so learning in one standardized method is just not going to be as effective as something that caters to their lifestyle.
“They are picking and choosing to fit their own dynamic and lifestyle. That’s why I think online is going to continue to grow and become an integral part of K12,” says Weston.