When Steve Unterholzner welcomes back his students at Sierra High School he’s going to be doing so from an empty classroom.
But there isn’t anywhere else that Unterholzner – who has taught science for more than 30 years – believes that he would be more effective than in the place where his students learn about the natural world.
It won’t be an easy feat to accomplish.
As a chemistry and computer science teacher, Unterholzner’s lessons are often hands-on and without the ability to have students learn by doing, even more work needs to be done by the teacher to make sure that the content is absorbed.
“Learning chemistry alone is hard enough – it’s even harder when you don’t have immediate access to the teacher to help explain things,” Unterholzner said. “It’s going to be difficult that students have the ability to learn how to do chemistry and see for themselves how the science works.
Last year Unterholzner was forced to teach from home while work was done on his classroom once school resumed online.
Not having access to the materials that he stores in his classroom made things difficult for him, he said, and for his students – aided only in the fact that he had the opportunity to form relationships with those students for the majority of the year that was able to carry over onto the digital platform that the district used.
Going back to start this school year that starts with distance learning on Aug. 6, Unterholzner said that starting fresh without actually having had his students step into his classroom will present a completely new challenge and will be one that he hopes to defeat by being there with the materials that he has compiled in his decades as an educator.
And having that classroom at his disposal, he said, made a difference when it came to creating a sense of normalcy for his students last year even if they couldn’t physically be there.
“I think that a lot of the kids last year might have had some problems adjusting to the whole pandemic situation last year and lot of students didn’t have the tools to adjust emotionally with everything that we were going through,” Unterholzner said. “And for the first part of it where I was teaching from a spare bedroom in my house, you could really see that.
“Once I was able to get back into my classroom and create an environment that they were familiar with, you could sense that it was like an anchor point – it grounded them and what we were trying to do.”
This summer Unterholzner has been teaching an online science class at Cal Poly and said that the experience has really driven the point home that he needs to be prepared every single day to overcome the challenges that distance provides when it comes to education.
There is no way, he said, that he could come in play it by ear and hope that everything is going to work out and students are going to respond – being successful when you can’t interact in person requires having everything mapped out well in advance.
“When you’re teaching an online class, you can’t just wing it and hope that it works – there’s a lot of preparation that is required,” he said. “And teaching a college class where students are more accustomed to that format, I had to be really, really prepared for them – able to anticipate the different ways that a class conversation could go and adapt to it.
“And even when you are prepared you don’t really know what to expect – it’s a whole new set of challenges.”
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