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Exclusive Q&A: E-Teacher of the Year

National Online Teacher of the Year Kristin Kipp toured the nation's capital today, shadowing federal director of education technology Karen Cator on her daily duties and getting a taste of federal education policy.

Kipp is an English teacher for the 21st-Century Virtual Academy in the 84,000 student Jefferson County (Colo.) school system, an online school that has full-time offerings for grades 9-12 and part-time offerings for grades 7-12. The school, which opened in the fall of 2009, serves a population of students who have turned to online school as an option, often because they might otherwise be at risk of dropping out.

Kipp, who also previously taught for seven years in a regular classroom, won the online teaching award in March. She was selected from five finalists who were chosen for their outstanding online teaching and their advocacy work for the trade, said Southern Regional Education Board Director of Educational Technology Myk Garn, whose organization co-sponsors the award along with the International Association for K-12 Online Learning.

Kipp sat down with the Digital Education blog to reflect on her career, which includes seven years as a face-to-face instructor and three as an online teacher, the award, and the benefits and challenges of entering online education. We bring you her insights below in this exclusive Q&A.

Digital Education blog: You spent seven years in a face-to-face classroom. So how did you end up teaching online?

Kristin Kipp: I initially started out teaching part-time online. I was actually an instructional coach, meaning I taught teachers, and I was really missing the connection with kids. So I started teaching online to sort of fill that void. At the time, I was afraid that it wouldn't be the same, that I wouldn't have that kid connection teaching online.

DE: There weren't other places you could find that connection? What was so unique about this opportunity?

KK: I was missing the kid connection, but I also love the technology. I love the bells and whistles of it all. And I got into this program where I got to work with a huge population of at-risk kids.

Our full-time online kids tend to be high-risk kids. They tend to be pregnant, or they need to work full-time because their families need money, or anything along those lines. I think that's where I got the passion for it. I started out because it was fun, and then I started working with those kids and went, "Wow, this is amazing work I get to do," because these kids wouldn't graduate high school if this program didn't exist.

DE: So there was an "Ah-ha!" moment?

KK: I have a student that I work with that, during her freshman year of high school, she considered dropping out because she missed so much school because she had kidney stones. She was gone all the time. And then her dad passed away from esophageal cancer. During her sophomore year of high school, she couldn't connect with anybody. Nobody understood what she was going through. She was missing so much school. She just considered saying, "Just forget it, I'm done." We opened the 21st-Century Virtual Academy during her junior year, and she came to us as sort of a last ditch, thinking, "Maybe I can do this." Maybe this will work. This is a kid that's Ivy league material, that would've dropped out if we weren't there to be able to sort of step into that gap and fill the void for her. Connecting with her during her junior year and realizing what she was going through, that's the moment when I really went, "Wow, this is good stuff that we're doing—this is amazing."

DE: How did your face-to-face experience help you become the online teacher you are today?

KK: I think because I started teaching face-to-face, I got to know my subject and how to teach it really well face-to-face. Then you add that extra element. "How do I do it online? How do I transfer the same skills, the things that I know really work into teaching English, teaching reading and writing?"

DD: Was it a difficult transition?

KK: Online teaching is not easier. It does not take less time than face-to-face teaching. And I think a lot of teachers are surprised that the learning curve is vertical when you do start to teach online. Because you're learning so many systems, all at one time, and you're trying to figure out, "How do I make this system communicate with kids, and how do I develop a community of learners in an online setting?" And it can be overwhelming. You feel like you sort of hit a brick wall and go, "What did I get myself into?" But then as you develop familiarity with the systems, it's not about the systems anymore. They just become the way you do business. And once you get past that learning curve, then you can get into the real meat of what's fun about it, and how you are connecting with kids. I can tell you, I know my students better than I ever knew them when I taught face-to-face. Hands down.

DE: How about teachers? Do you feel isolated away from other faculty, or do you have colleagues you can lean on?

KK: What's been fun about our program is that we, of course, started off small with five or six teachers. You mention it being isolating. I haven't had that experience at all, because we, from the beginning, said, "We're all going to be available by instant messenger all day, and if at any point, anybody needs anything, we're down the hall," figuratively speaking. I think we relied on each other a lot to go, "This isn't working, do you have some other ideas?" With one colleague, we call it the water cooler phone call. When things are just going nuts, we IM and say, "Do you have time for a water cooler chat?" We give each other a call and say, "OK, this isn't working, can you help me figure this out?" I think just that community of other teachers has been helpful.

DE: What does winning this award mean to you?

KK: I work for a very small program that I think does amazing things. I got involved with the award because we need the publicity and we need the marketing to be able to say we are doing something really amazing. And I think having the award, it's really pushing me. It's still such a new field. I'm constantly learning and trying to figure out what really is the best practice for how we do this. I'm definitely still pushing myself to think, there are better ways to do that. It's exciting to continue to explore that.

DE: What to you hope people learn from visiting with you during your trip to Washington? What do you hope to learn from them?

KK: I hope that they grasp that there are students all over the country who need an alternative educational approach, or need online learning for whatever reason. What I hope I will gain from them is just an understanding of what's happening at the national level and how's that going to impact our schools, and how can we help it impact our schools.

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