He’s Happy Teaching in a Virtual Reality

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Now this is a classroom.

Spencer Kahly is sitting comfortably in the converted porch of his home on B Drive North in Battle Creek. His floor heater hums contentedly and he’s wearing a comfy shirt and green Crocs.

“Sometimes,” he said, “I comb my hair.”

On his desk is a laptop that can, with the click of a mouse, put him in touch with all of his students, who can be anywhere in Michigan from near the Ohio state line to the Upper Peninsula.

For nearly 20 years, Kahly has been a teacher, first as a substitute. He says, “I don’t know if there’s a school in the county I haven’t taught in.” Later he taught for six years at Wattles Park Elementary School and then another 10 at Pennfield Middle School.

But for Kahly, 40, this is the teaching he wants to do in the place he wants to do it and for the reasons he needs to do it.

For just over a year now, he has taught middle school language arts for the Michigan Great Lakes Virtual Academy, a Manistee-based program in which the instructors can be found all over the state, as can the students.

The program is K-12 and has the same requirements for kids who attend regular school.

Kahly said they’re required to complete the standard 1,098 hours for a school year and they take national and state standardized tests.

“But kids are able to go at their own pace,” he said. “In the classroom, everybody has to learn the same lesson on the same day. That doesn’t work here.”

The virtual academy has grown to more than 2,000 students. In seventh grade alone, which Kahly teaches along with two other instructors, there are 280 students around the state.

Virtual schools cater to those students for whom regular school simply doesn’t work — for whatever reason.

Kahly said there are students in the virtual academy who are the children of professional athletes, artists and actors. Some have problems at home that make going to school difficult. Some can’t leave their homes for psychological reasons. Some can’t mingle well in a school setting.

“Some students are frustrated with what public schools do,” Kahly said. “I thought it would be people who were angry with schools, but that’s not the case. But it does require a lot of self-direction. One student trades on the stock market.”

And in the middle of it, based in his study at home and armed with all the digital tools he needs, is Kahly.

Kahly works with both small and large groups and they talk by computer through email and instant messages and with the interactive program Blackboard Collaborative, which allows for virtual face-to-face meetings by video chat.

He doesn’t hand out grades in the usual sense but does have to make sure every student has completed the assessment and followed the rubric. If they aren’t proficient on the end-of-unit assessments, Kahly steps in with suggestions and, if needed, warnings.

Of course, these are still seventh-graders and when they lose focus or misbehave, he said he has to step in there as well.

“I’ll say, ‘You guys know I can see everything you write, right?’ or I’ll say, ‘Knock it off or I’ll shut down the chat,’ ” he said.

It’s a different way of doing the job he’s always done, but for Kahly it’s proving to be a better way to do it.

“In brick-and-mortar schools, you have very little contact with the kids individually,” he said. “But I have time here to make connections. I’ll spend 45 minutes on the phone with parents.”

His new job also has helped Kahly physically.

Diagnosed with generalized epilepsy in 2008, he suffered his first grand mal seizure and passed out in September 2008.

He had another in November 2009, another in 2011 and three in 2013.

“I don’t know when a seizure is going to happen,” said Kahly, who is on two forms of medication and can’t drive for six months after each seizure.

It was in 2013 that he began to think it was the stress of classroom teaching that was triggering the seizures. That’s when he looked into teaching at the virtual school.

And since then, he hasn’t suffered any more attacks.

“I think it’s relieved a lot of the stress he had in a brick-and-mortar school,” said his wife, Jennifer, who home-schools their three kids, Landon, 10; Wyatt, 8, and Ava, 5. “He has more confidence in himself because if he had another seizure, he could still go to work and provide for his family.”

“Now I could teach a lesson from a hospital room if I had to,” he said.

Kahly teases his virtual students that they can’t get snow days like other students but also tells them that while other students are in class during the day, they can be out doing what they like.

“This is middle school and some of them don’t want to do the work,” he said. “A lot of my job is getting them to do what’s required.”

Chuck Carlson is editor of Connections.

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