Amber Van Hale is in her 10th year of teaching high school English for a virtual public charter school in Wisconsin, and she had 5 years experience teaching in brick and mortar schools prior to moving online. In our interview, we talk about how she communicates with her students and coworkers, some of the ways her school has managed to allow the students to connect with each other online and in person over time, and some of the logistical challenges that come with teaching virtually. We cover what her school provides and what she's had to purchase for herself, and she tells us about how she originally set up her work equipment in order to teach from a spare bedroom and some of the improvements she's made to her desk setup over the years. Amber also shares about how she lives with two feline roommates and the effort she makes to get out and form some in-person connections in her small-town community.
Amber loves libraries, books, and all things to do with reading and mentioned that she uses some Usborne Books and More books with her struggling readers; because she creates her own curriculum. They have some interesting nonfiction books that work well with her students, you can find them here*: www.ambersliteracycorner.com/
Please check out Amber's home office recommendations, the episode show notes, full transcript, and video on our podcast website at: www.yesiworkfromhome.com/podcast/episodes/3
If you'd like to be a guest on the Yes, I Work From Home Podcast, please go to www.yesiworkfromhome.com/podcast/guest and click on the first big green "guest interview" button to let us know more about you and your work-from-home life. We are on the lookout for people with interesting stories about how they're making their WFH life work, whether you're working for yourself or someone else. You can also recommend someone else who you think would be a great fit for this podcast using the second green button "guest recommendation."
Find out more about our host, April Malone, and Yes, I Work From Home at our website www.yesiworkfromhome.com/
If you work from home as an remote work/teleworking employee, freelancer, independent contractor, or entrepreneur, please join our work-from-home community on Facebook at: www.facebook.com/groups/yesiworkfromhomecommunity
*Some of the above links are affiliate links and help us or our guests earn a small commission on qualifying purchases without changing the price for you. Thank you for supporting our businesses in this way.
April Malone 0:10
Hello, hello. My name is April Malone; and I'm with Yes, I Work From Home; and this is the podcast. Today, I have with me a public school teacher from Wisconsin, Amber Van Hale. Amber, thank you for coming today.
Amber Van Hale 0:34
Thanks for having me, April.
April Malone 0:36
So, I like to go back to like our how we how-we-know-each-other story. So, I was a substitute teacher; and I was in the lunchroom grabbing my lunch and heading back up to the classroom to do my prep for the next hour; and, then, Amber found me. And what happened Amber? You tell the story.
Amber Van Hale 0:55
So my job--I had a delightful job of checking student IDs, because only seniors were allowed to leave the cafeteria. And so I stopped April and asked her for her student ID, because I thought she was actually a student; and she was not.
April Malone 1:13
And then we became friends over the moment. Actually, we should just go and tell the other story, it's our favorite. So Amber and I, we were both single women living in a small, small town and kind of new to the area, more or less, right?
Amber Van Hale 1:28
April Malone 1:29
It was your first year of teaching, I think.
Amber Van Hale 1:30
It was, yes.
April Malone 1:32
So we we hit it off well enough to like, go hang out. I think we were just going to do like a movie night one night, right? And, I don't know, was this like our first time actually officially hanging out or maybe like the second?
Amber Van Hale 1:45
I don't remember. We were at my apartment and heard scratching noises.
April Malone 1:53
And we were like "What is that?" I don't even remember what movie we were watching. I think we abandoned it, because--and we kept hearing scratching noises. How did we discover what it was?
Amber Van Hale 2:06
I don't know. That apartment had the craziest layout and had like a catwalk around the second floor, and so--
April Malone 2:14
Wasn't it like a renovated school that got turned into apartment buildings. You had like this two story apartment building with super high ceilings which was pretty amazing.
Amber Van Hale 2:24
It was cool, but strange.
April Malone 2:26
So, we got up on the catwalk.
Amber Van Hale 2:28
We got up on the catwalk and saw this little pile of stuff, and with our flashlights... and then realized that a number of bats had gotten in between the two panes of windows.
April Malone 2:39
And these windows weren't just any windows. They were huge. And they were old.
Amber Van Hale 2:44
April Malone 2:45
So we thought we would try to, like, open the window and release the bats to the outside; but we opened them the wrong way; and they came in.
Amber Van Hale 2:54
Yes they did.
April Malone 2:56
How many bats was it? Do you remember?
Amber Van Hale 2:58
I don't. Too many. Too many bats. Flying all over.
April Malone 3:03
It was like 14. And we got the landlord involved, and he came in; because we couldn't get the last ones out, and he got bit in the hand which was great. So, we were trying to save a bat in a plastic bag, like telling him to go be seen; but I don't know if he ever did.
Amber Van Hale 3:21
April Malone 3:23
So, that was back when we both lived in Austin, Minnesota. But, now, tell us where you are now.
Amber Van Hale 3:28
I live in West Central Wisconsin now, in a smaller town than Austin, actually.
April Malone 3:34
Wow. And, so, you're a public school teacher?
Amber Van Hale 3:39
April Malone 3:39
And just tell us. Tell us your story. How many years have you been teaching?
Amber Van Hale 3:44
I am starting my 15th year of teaching but my 10th year of teaching virtually for a virtual public charter school here in Wisconsin.
April Malone 3:55
Yes. And that's why you're on the Yes, I Work From Home Podcast.
Amber Van Hale 3:57
April Malone 3:58
So, you've been doing this for--did you just say 10 years?
Amber Van Hale 4:01
Yes, 10 years. This is the start of my 10th year.
April Malone 4:05
Alright, let's talk about how that happened. Because, were virtual schools a big deal 10 years ago?
Amber Van Hale 4:12
Um, our school was way, way, way smaller. I mean they existed, but not to the extent and popularity that they do now.
April Malone 4:24
How did you find that position?
Amber Van Hale 4:27
I had moved to Wisconsin from Minnesota, and was looking--I was looking for a teaching job and kind of was just applying for jobs in the area where I was living and happened upon this one on the job listing site and applied for it; and it was the job that I got. So, that's the job I have.
April Malone 4:52
How many years had that school been in existence before you were hired? Like, did they have some things established before you came in? Do they give you proper training?
Amber Van Hale 5:01
It was in, I think, the third year. So, it had been like two years prior to my starting, I think. It was still really small like, I was a halftime teacher when I started; and there was another full-time high school English teacher, and that was it. There were like one-and-a-half positions. So, everybody wore a lot of hats at that point; and, so, one of the teachers, who was like a founding teacher, like started when the school started, one of the math teachers, kind of became like my mentor, just because she knew what I needed to do to get started.
April Malone 5:42
What kind of equipment did they give you? They're like, "Okay, you're gonna be an online teacher, here's what you need"?
Amber Van Hale 5:47
I was given--ironically, as a part-time teacher, I wasn't going to be given anything, "Here, do this job, but we're not going to give you any equipment"; but, then, they kind of like changed their minds. And, so, like they gave me a laptop and like a voiceover IP phone and a printer.
April Malone 6:09
Mm hmm. Any office equipment? No?
Amber Van Hale 6:14
Um, no. Well, I guess, actually, they also gave me like a router to start out with.
April Malone 6:21
Amber Van Hale 6:22
So, that was nice because I was like "I don't have like really anything."
April Malone 6:27
So, did you have to cover your own internet bill? Or was there any kind of like--
Amber Van Hale 6:33
Throughout my time, there has been a stipend for it; and then the stipend went away, and then the stipend came back. But it is just a stipend; it's not enough to actually cover my entire internet bill.
April Malone 6:48
All right. So how did it go that first year?
Amber Van Hale 6:52
The first year was a little crazy. Even as a part time teacher, I was teaching five English classes and also doing some credit recovery work with a program that they were like piloting at the time. So trying to figure out how that all worked and all sorts of things.
April Malone 7:16
Now, this is a fully virtual school, we're not talking like a physical school that just has an online program. So let's talk about what kind of options do your kids have? I know you've told me a little bit, but I want to hear about some of the extracurricular things that they have.
Amber Van Hale 7:31
So we have a lot of what you would think of, like when you think of high school, you think okay, well, yes, there's classes, right. But we have a student council that meets virtually, sometimes, you know, in non-COVID years, plans face-to-face events. We have like a fall dance, we have prom. We have a National Honor Society that I'm like a co-advisor of. Again, in non-COVID, we have a face-to-face graduation ceremony where everyone comes to--we're actually a charter school--to our authorizing district high school; and we have the gym and all the graduationy things. So, kind of those, those milestone things you think of when you think of like, "Wow, high school wouldn't be high school without like, we don't have a football team." But the big things, we still have. We really look to, you know, have it be like a full experience for students. We also have other clubs as well; but like the student council and national honor society have been around the longest.
April Malone 8:43
And those are the ones that you're most involved with as well?
Amber Van Hale 8:45
I'm not as involved as much with the student council but National Honor Society. Yep. I've been doing that for--I think this is the ninth year that I have been doing that.
April Malone 8:55
So you're home 95% of the time, and then you travel every once in a while for these big events in normal years?
Amber Van Hale 9:05
I would say I'm home maybe like 90% of the time? Since we are a public school, we are required to have our students participate in the state standardized testing which means that all of our students come to locations that we kind of set up around the state. So, we try to have it so that the students don't have to drive more than an hour. Wisconsin is a big state; and, so, we have "testing sites," I'll put that in air quotes there, that we set up. But, basically, what it is, we set up a computer lab or multiple computer labs, with computers and like a big Proctor Caching machine and all sorts of things, in libraries and community colleges and whatever kind of larger buildings we can find in the various communities that we go to. And, then, the families come for one day or sometimes more than one day to do that. And, so, the teachers have to go and proctor all of those tests. And then, also, when students don't show up, we have to sometimes even go to the student's community and like test them individually, at like the public library.
April Malone 10:22
Now, you have the students only drive no more than one hour, but do you have to drive all over the state of Wisconsin; or did the teachers kind of split it up into districts?
Amber Van Hale 10:32
Actually, we have a woman who--her entire job is to be our testing coordinator. And, so, she is amazing at her job and really works to kind of keep us also within an hour; because, like, our classes don't stop.
April Malone 10:51
Amber Van Hale 10:52
It's not--because like I may be testing in a city an hour away; but all my students who live in, say, Milwaukee, they are not testing that day. So, they are still having school. So we have to kind of keep going along. So, as much as possible, they try to keep us kind of within an hour and a half distance. But, sometimes, like, because, you know, I don't have a family, I don't have--I'm willing to travel, just because, you know, I don't have to worry about who's going to take care of my kids or whatever to do testing as well.
April Malone 11:30
So, I understand you're living alone. Can you talk a little bit about what it's like to work from home while you're the only person in the home?
Amber Van Hale 11:41
Actually, it's nice to be the only person in the home. I do have two cats. So, sometimes they have to--they become a little bit of a hassle. But it's nice. Like, I have a three-bedroom apartment; and, when I got my apartment, I was looking for that so I could have like a room kind of dedicated to be like my office space; and it's kind of kind of my craft room, too. But having a room that's not my bedroom to be working in and just being able to not have to worry about, like, is somebody going to come in behind me or whatever, you know, be popping up. I know some of my colleagues have other situations where they have to be dealing with that.
April Malone 12:28
Yeah, I'm all about positioning so that like if there are family members that they're not going to--I have a little girl. She's not always fully dressed; and, so, it's very convenient to have the door to my side so that I can block her before she comes onto camera. I teach English online as an ESL teacher like for China; and a lot of times you'll see these families just walking around. In summer, it's very hot. They don't always have air conditioning; and, so, like, not everyone is fully clad. And sometimes you'll see like parents like army crawling across the floor, thinking that the teacher can't see them; but maybe we can. So have you--have you had many experiences like that, just as a teacher, like, trying to help your students understand the privacy for their family or anything like that?
Amber Van Hale 13:23
So, the platform that our school is currently using doesn't have the best video; and, so, oftentimes, teachers don't even go on video for the entire class; because it slows down the whole thing and then everybody's garbled and delayed and everything. So, I will go on camera if I really want to make a point; and my students know that, like "Listen to me!"
April Malone 13:49
Amber Van Hale 13:49
But, most of the time, students aren't on camera. We do, like, before class starts, we'll just be chatting and, you know, just talking or whatever. Even a lot of our students don't even use their microphones. It's kind of strange.
April Malone 14:02
Oh wow, so a lot of chatting,
Amber Van Hale 14:04
A lot of chatting, but, occasionally, a kid will say like, "Oh, can I show something on camera?" And, we did have a student one time who like went on, he's like, "Oh, I'm sorry, I'm not wearing a shirt." I was like, "Oh, dude, buddy, you know, like, clothes are not optional when you're in school." So, sometimes we do have to have those conversations; but, so far, it's nothing, not ever really been anything too awkward.
April Malone 14:31
Good. Yeah, one of the companies that I've worked for doesn't have--when we have adult clients, there's like up to six people in one class, and none of them are ever on camera; and you get really good at listening. It's kind of like being on a conference call. It's that kind of what your situation is the most of the time?
Amber Van Hale 14:47
Yeah, like some students will use, you know, use their microphones. You do a lot of reading, you do a lot of--like, you've got to be up on your texting kind of lingo. Because, like as much as you want--as much as we tell the kids, "Like--
April Malone 15:01
"Use complete sentences?"
Amber Van Hale 15:03
Please attempt to just write out the words--like complete sentences, yes, that would be amazing!
April Malone 15:08
This is English class!
Amber Van Hale 15:08
But, you know, if you could just, like, type the word, that would be great too. And kind of reading like phonetic spelling--I work with a lot of struggling readers and writers; and, so, like, they're trying; but, sometimes, you kind of got to try to say it in your head. "Oh, yeah, that's what you meant." Okay.
April Malone 15:27
Got it. Yeah. Awesome. So you have two cats. Do your students know your animals?
Amber Van Hale 15:33
Oh, yes. Yes.
April Malone 15:37
And let's talk about social life a little bit. You said you're living alone, and you've got your cats. Do you get out very often? I know--in non-COVID years, what is that like for you, in a small, small, small town?
Amber Van Hale 15:53
So, I've kind of, like, curated, I guess, like this social life me that like works for me. I'm not a hugely social person. So, like I, in non-COVID, would go to breakfast Saturday morning. I would go out to breakfast and then go to breakfast at pretty much the same time to the same restaurant every week. And so, you know, I get my pancakes; and it was to the point where, like, oh, yeah, you know, like, they're bringing me my Diet Coke before I even sit down. And so like, you know, kind of getting to know the servers, getting to know the people there. And it's kind of strange, but it's like, yeah, you know, you have like this kind of conversation going; and so like, just, I would eat out like a couple times a week in different places and, you know, kind of getting to know the employees at the restaurants. I love my library. So I know all the library people and kind of just chatting with them. And then, I was active in my church as well. So, like Bible studies and that kind of thing. But yeah.
April Malone 17:10
My mom is in a super small town, and that's part of her routine. You are intentional about building relationships with the people that you see as you go and run your errands. So, she knows everyone at the bank and the grocery store; and you go to the same gas station, and they all know you. I think that's one way that people can build community is just being intentional about having that routine. What about online? Are you connected with your teachers or other friends online?
Amber Van Hale 17:35
So Facebook, sadly--I probably spend way too much time there. And then, like, during the day, you have--so we certainly--we have email, but that's more like official kinds of things. And then we do also have instant messaging, an instant messaging program that we use, and that's more just like, "Oh, what is happening? What is going on?" Or just kind of that internal scream that you just have no matter what your job is--you just have those days, right? And, so, no, certainly used for like schooly kinds of things as well but just getting to know each other, conversation, friendship. And our school leadership, actually, like our principal and associate principal are actually very good at not only recognizing like, "Hey, wow, you know, a family said this great thing about you," but also, you know, "Oh, this great thing is happening with this person" or, you know, whatever it might be, kind of sharing life things that are happening that are good.
April Malone 18:46
Like milestones. Is it acknowledged like via email, or how do you guys do that?
Amber Van Hale 18:58
Every other week, we have like high school staff meetings. And, so, those usually kind of start out with, you know, celebrations of various kinds.
April Malone 19:15
Right, good. Let's talk about when you first started. We talked a little bit about your equipment. How did you choose how you're going to set up your desk? Like did they give you any advice about how to do it to be comfortable since it was going to be like long term with a laptop?
Amber Van Hale 19:32
So I vaguely recall there was like a 15-minute module in my, you know, new employee training, to, like, how to not multitask. They were all they were like, "Don't multitask and here's how to, you know, set up your desk or whatever." But my initial setup was I literally had a laptop and a chair from my parents, like our kitchen table growing up on my desk that I had in college, that's one of those buy-in-a-box and assemble, easily assemble at home, right? And, so, I realized after a while that that wasn't working; because I was having like huge pain in my neck and whatever and then like, went to go see a chiropractor. They're like, "Hi, maybe you shouldn't hunch over your computer all the time. And, so, at that point, I got like an external mouse; and I got an external keyboard, and it's the wireless kind so that I could lift it up a little bit. Eventually, my dad built me this super cool stand that has a little shelf for me to put my laptop on so I can sit on my chair and like look at the screen as opposed to look way down at the screen. And, then, a few years ago, I just went crazy and actually bought a real office chair instead of the kitchen chair from like 1970.
April Malone 21:01
Do you still have the pain?
Amber Van Hale 21:03
I don't. I try to be pretty conscious about, like, how I'm sitting and stuff. Sometimes I realize that like, I'm leaning forward; and I can tell if I start doing that. I'm like, "Okay, well, you can't wreck yourself doing this job.'
April Malone 21:20
Is that something that other teachers talk about? Like, I feel like a lot of people have to discover that on their own, that they needed to be a little bit more ergonomic. That's one of the reasons I want to have this community is to, like, bring awareness to that. Like, almost every single person talks about their chair and how terrible it was. And, after so many months of having to go to the chiropractor or massage therapist, then all of a sudden, are like, "You know what? Maybe I need a better chair."
Amber Van Hale 21:46
It's not something that we really talk about, like the big thing is like, how many monitors you have. That's like the, I don't know, you know, the peer pressure or whatever. Like, I got three! Look at me! But it's not really, like, how are they arranged? Are they good? Are they appropriate distance or height or anything like that? It's more just a number.
April Malone 22:09
You mentioned that you love the library. Are you part of any book clubs or anything like that?
Amber Van Hale 22:13
Um, I am not part of a library book club. I have some friends that I met at like a summer institute a few years ago that we occasionally discuss, like, we get together on Zoom; and we talk, because they're kind of all over the country. But, originally, we were talking about books. Now with just the insanity of everyone trying to teach online, when the rest of them are brick and mortar teachers, we're like, yeah, maybe we just meet and support one another just in talking and stuff. I am in the Friends of the Library, which does lots of just activities, not necessarily book clubs.
April Malone 23:33
What do you guys doing this year when you don't have all of your regular extracurricular activities in person? What will you do this year?
Amber Van Hale 23:53
April Malone 23:54
Amber Van Hale 23:56
We are having like--Not really sure how this is going to work, but we're having like a virtual picnic instead of like our fall school picnic this year. And we have people at our school called advisors, and they are going to be holding more like social kinds of things once a month. Our National Honor Society actually hosts something called High School Hangout, which we've always done. But the students, the National Honor Society, students, kind of make trivia rooms or game rooms and then host it for their fellow students. So we're still trying to have like social opportunities. Last year, we had to have a virtual graduation which was very different; but we tried to incorporate as many elements as we have in our face-to-face graduation as we could. I mean, as a virtual school teacher, you get very good at looking at "Okay, here's what either I used to do in brick and mortar or here's what brick and mortar school teachers do; and how can I adapt that to work in the virtual environment; because most things aren't set up to be virtual, they need to be tweaked.
April Malone 25:28
And you were just talking about your brick and mortar friends who are teaching for the first time, virtually. Are you finding a lot of brick and mortar teachers are going to those of you who are kind of more experienced with being online, coming to you for advice; or is everyone just kind of winging it and figuring it out for themselves?
Amber Van Hale 25:47
I think it kind of depends upon like the situation and the subject. Like my friends, one teaches elementary music, one's a culinary arts teacher; so, that's like "How are you doing that online?" And one is a chemistry teacher. So, we've been talking about like, "Okay, what kinds of things can you do online?" Like how do I read a book to my students? I have a friend from Bible study, who is teaching second grade; and she is in our local school district here. She is one of the second/third grade teachers, like they did crazy things to like set it up so, like families that chose the virtual only option, she is teaching that. So, we had like an hour-long conversation before school started just about, she's like, "How do you even do this?" So again, it's like, teachers realizing that they do have the--they do have a lot of the resources to do it, it's just using those resources in a different way. So my second grade teacher friend said, "Oh, yeah, we have all kinds of like digital things that I usually put up on the smartboard in class." I'm like, "Well, there you go. You know, put it on your screen. You can do that. So, sometimes, it's just a matter of like me asking questions and kind of like thinking through like, what what do you already have? You don't have to reinvent the wheel unnecessarily.
April Malone 27:18
Do you feel like when you are an online teacher that you have maybe kind of like, developed a little bit more street credibility, street cred this year, like as far as like being recognized as a teacher?
Amber Van Hale 27:34
I think--yeah, a little bit. It's still really--it's still different. I will say, yes, but it's still different; because we are a fully virtual, like all the time, online school. Not a well, it's an option for you this year or we're a hybrid or whatever. So, we have a lot of systems in place that aren't in place in like a brick and mortar trying to do virtual. And, certainly, not to denigrate any brick and mortar teacher who is like attempting the virtual or hybrid; because, quite honestly, I have heard of teachers having to like teach online and the classroom at the same time.
April Malone 28:28
That is exactly what our school is doing this year.
Amber Van Hale 28:30
And I'm like, that is ridiculous, okay? I'm just, I'm gonna put it out there; because you teach--I've done both, not at the same time; but you teach totally differently. If you are teaching online, you may teach the same "lesson;' but it's completely different the way you set it up and the way you structure it, if you're going to teach it online, versus if you're going to teach it to a classroom full of students. And, if you're trying to do both at the same time, I quite honestly, I cannot wrap my head around how you do that. So anybody who's trying to do that right now--more power to them!
April Malone 29:11
--and monitor the children and make sure that they're being appropriate and social distancing and also being clean, and--I know one way that they're trying to make it a little easier is to at least break up the small groups according to online versus in person; but, still, then, you'd have to think about levels; and that gets a little tricky. So, sometimes, you might have your higher readers and your struggling readers not all in the same, you know, space, right? It's tricky. I have a lot of respect for anyone who is making it happen and keeping, you know, a happy face the whole time. And then you got parents. So, I got messages about two of my children this week. One of them was turning off her camera, and we didn't know; and, with our platform, we are expected to keep our cameras on most of the time. And, then, the other one, he would leave. Like, he would log in. We would always check to make sure "Oh, you're in your class on time." And then he would, like, log off. And we wouldn't know. Because a lot of times we make him wear his headset, so we don't have to listen to the teacher, like blaring through the house. We want him to have a headset so that we're like all not having to listen to his lesson, but then we didn't know when he would be logging out. And she told me "Yeah, he's kind of like leaving for five minutes in the middle of class; and it's kind of critical that he's there." Thank you for letting me know. Thank you. We just didn't know.
Amber Van Hale 30:35
Yes, that is--that is the biggest struggle that I have. Well, the biggest struggle is getting them to login in the first place. The second biggest struggle is getting them to engage, getting students to engage in the class. So, just because their name is there doesn't necessarily mean that the students themselves are there. Like, I've had kids leave. Like, we will be in a one-on-one session; and I had a student one time leave to--it was like, go feed his dog or something? I don't even know. And I was like, "Hello, are you there? Can you hear me?" doing all my little things that I do to, like, get him to respond; and there was nothing. And he finally came back, and he was like, "Oh, sorry, I had to feed my dog." I'm like, "Who did you think was going to like--it's just you and me in the session, like nobody was gonna pick up your slack or whatever." So, it's frustrating at times.
April Malone 31:39
Let's talk about the technology. You mentioned that the platform that you use isn't really great with video. Is it the same platform that you started with 10 years ago, or have they changed it along the way?
Amber Van Hale 31:49
It is the same platform. It has gone through one significant upgrade, and the school is currently piloting a brand new platform that they're still kind of building. So, we were supposed to start with it; but, then, there were some glitches. And when we have so many students coming brand new to our school, we decided that also having glitches would not be a good, like, start off to the school year. And, so, we're sticking with the old one for a while until they're sure that the new one is a little more trouble-free.
April Malone 32:30
Amber Van Hale 32:30
April Malone 32:31
So there are a lot of learning management systems out there, but they're deciding to build one of their own?
Amber Van Hale 32:37
No. So, we have--we use Desire2Learn as our LMS or learning management system. So that's where our classrooms are held, the classes are in there. You know, there's Canvas, there's Schoology, there's Google classroom, there's so many. They all basically do the same thing, it's just a matter of they look a little different, whatever. And, then, we have used a different platform. That doesn't have a synchronous online classroom setting.
April Malone 33:15
Amber Van Hale 33:16
So, we have used Blackboard Collaborate for the whole time. And we are now, like, transitioning to--it's a newer platform that--it wasn't like, they didn't build it specifically for us; but they're taking input, because there are going to be so many users and, like, what do the teachers want, and that kind of thing. Because software developers thinking about like, "Oh, well, you know, you wouldn't want kids to be able to move things on the board." And then the elementary teachers are saying, "Oh, but we would; because we would like to do matching things or, you know, blending words or whatever we're going to do, we would like them to be." So there's kind of a lot of back and forth like that, which is cool that they're taking the advice of the people who will actually be using the platform, but it's just taken a little longer to get it up and going.
April Malone 34:12
My favorite is when you can turn those elements on and off, because sometimes you have kids who can, like, respectfully use the whiteboard, or whatever you might call it; and then you got the kid who is just going, like, hog wild all over it and is really disruptive. Or, I have this one that, you can type onto the whiteboard, which is wonderful; because the other one you can only draw. And you can type like whole paragraphs; and, like, every single word that they're saying, I'm typing; and everything I say, I'm typing, and we're making the corrections as we go along. And they can take their little mouse and just delete the whole thing. And they're supposed to be able to have these slides to review later. Great times.
Amber Van Hale 34:54
April Malone 34:56
Let's change gears just a little bit and talk a little bit more about like your equipment. What has made your life a little easier, and what are you hoping to improve in your, maybe, like your just home office situation, going forward this year. You've grown--you've grown a lot in the last 10 years like as far as like building your ergonomic setup, but what about other equipment? Do you have anything that you just love? You had to buy your own keyboard and your own mouse? Would you recommend them? What else what else makes your life a little easier when you're working from home?
Amber Van Hale 35:34
So, I love my external keyboard. I also love that it is solar powered, because--so, it's a Logitech K750 keyboard.
April Malone 35:49
Amber Van Hale 35:51
I like it, because--I would always have--it has nice like touch which is always a thing for me with keyboards. I had a different one, and it like made a huge clacking noise like every time you press the key; and it was hard to put--like no; and this one also has like the keypad on it which, as a teacher, like entering grades and that kind of thing is super duper helpful.
April Malone 36:14
Amber Van Hale 36:16
And then I just have--my mouse died last year after like my 10 years and grad school and so many things, it just gave up. So I just bought another one just like it. So, those two things are really huge to me. I cannot, for the life of me, use like the trackpad on the laptop to like do anything other than like browse the internet. And I guess the other really big thing that I have that I love is this like Verilux floor lamp that just has really good light, because it gets dark; and I don't like to have my overhead light on all the time. I don't know. I've got a lamp behind me that I like to have, but I don't like overhead lights really. So, having good lamps and good light is also important.
April Malone 37:22
Do you usually sit in your office, or do you ever like go do your grading on a couch or your kitchen table like just to get out of the space?
Amber Van Hale 37:31
I almost always just leave everything here, because I hardwire like my internet. I plug my computer in. Like everything is so wired that, most of the time, if I'm going to be at home, I do, you know, stay here in my office; and because it's like all set up, like it's the right height. It's the keyboard. It's the everything.
April Malone 37:57
So, like, when you leave this room, do you feel like you can put your work away then?
Amber Van Hale 38:03
Most of the time, yes. That's another reason really why, when I moved here, I really wanted to make sure that I had a space for my computer and that kind of thing. I've really work hard at like, this school year--like, I set a deadline, I'm like, "At this time, you will turn your computer off." Otherwise, it's always here. It's not like I can leave, shut my classroom door, walk, get in my car, and drive home. Right? There's always something more that I could be doing or a kid I could be emailing or a lesson I could be creating or whatever. So, I've tried to say, you know, at this time, you just shut it down. You're done. Whatever you get done it'll be there tomorrow. Like, not having the computer in the bedroom is nice, too.
April Malone 38:53
Yeah, a lot of teachers, I think--I mean, I've known people that work until 11 o'clock at night. Even when I was substitute teaching that one year, I did almost a whole semester for a teacher who was out; and I would find myself staying at the school until like 11 o'clock at night. Is it easier for you to just be like, "nope."
Amber Van Hale 39:15
I have been that. My first year of teaching, I swear, I was at the school building like 11 hours a day. Oddly enough, even though I'm like, in my 10th year of doing this, I have the great privilege to be able to create the curriculum that I am teaching.
April Malone 39:33
Oh, right. So, it's not just handed to you?
Amber Van Hale 39:36
It's not just handed to me. So, I again, spent a lot of time at the library looking for books and on the library website and just like scouring everywhere, trying to find things that are appropriate for the students that I teach. And so--I can't just reuse, like, oh yeah, I taught this class last year, so, here, I'm going to redo it. So I'm constantly creating new lessons. Eventually, we're trying to build like a four-year cycle; so, one more year, then I'll have all four years done. So, at least I'll have something to go from. But, trying to like just--Time management is a huge thing.
April Malone 40:17
Everyone says that. I'm with you. Have you ever taught anywhere away from your home?
Amber Van Hale 40:25
I occasionally have taught from my parents' house, which was kind of cool. Like that's one cool thing is like I don't necessarily have to be in my house, even in the state.
April Malone 40:37
Are they close to you, or is it a bit of a drive?
Amber Van Hale 40:40
They're about three and a half hours away.
April Malone 40:42
Amber Van Hale 40:42
So, sometimes, I'll take an afternoon off to like drive there and then have like a long weekend but still like teach on Friday or whatever. So, drive up on Thursday and then stay Friday if we've got like a three-day weekend or something already. I have, also, on all those testing adventure's, because it is Wisconsin, and testing takes place in like February and March, the weather gets a little sketchy sometimes. And so like you always take your computer wherever. If you're going somewhere for work, you always take your computer.
April Malone 41:15
Just in case.
Amber Van Hale 41:16
Because you never know. And I have taught from hotel rooms. It's not my favorite, because I don't have all my things; but it is possible to do.
April Malone 41:27
Mm hmm. I've done that also. My car broke down and thank God I had my computer with me; because you just make it work, and you just use whatever's in the room to make it work.
Amber Van Hale 41:35
April Malone 41:37
Moving lamps around if you can. So what about your public school teaching income? Have you ever felt like you've needed to supplement that?
Amber Van Hale 42:08
Yes, sadly. So, I also work as an Usborne Books and More consultant. Which is like, yes, it's selling books and direct sales and that kind of thing; but I also--I love it, because it's books; and I teach English; so, I love books. I love all the bookie things; and, so, it's a good fit. I feel like I can be passionate about it.
April Malone 42:41
Right. I'm actually familiar with that product. Our school has an Usborne Book Fair, yes, book fair that comes every year and is like a fundraiser for the school to get more books.
Amber Van Hale 42:52
April Malone 42:53
The teachers just love them, love them. And, then, do you find that some of those are useful for your students?
Amber Van Hale 43:02
Yes. So, again, even though I teach high school, I do--like they have great nonfiction which is super helpful; because it's difficult to find, like, good stuff that is--I teach really struggling readers and writers and so, finding stuff that doesn't look babyish, but that is at a level they can read. And, so, I find that Usborne is very helpful with that.
April Malone 43:30
Mm hmm. So before we go, do you have any tips or tricks or advice for people who are just getting started working from home or who are kind of thrown into this, especially the teachers this year, just as far as like, making it a little easier for themselves?
Amber Van Hale 43:51
The biggest thing that I have really doesn't have anything to do with like setting up your computer, your space, or anything like that; but it's really about, like, no matter how you're teaching--I mean, like, if you're a teacher, no matter how you're teaching, you're a teacher. And so, like, for me, building relationships with my students and having my students get to know me--like my students know I have two cats. Sometimes I show my cats on camera. I am silly. Sometimes I sound like a game show host when I'm in my class, like, "Hey, what do you think?" And I share--like I have purposely shared, for example, with my students that I hate spiders. Okay, and they know this. And they kind of tease me about it and, like, in like a nice and a teasing way. I don't know. But, so, there's things that we have that we can talk about and share and just like really get to know them, kind of see what's going on; because, at the end of the day, like, I need my students to log into my class and participate in my class. They're not going to do that if I'm boring or if they don't like me. So, not that everybody has to like me; but I try really, really hard to at least let them know that I'm a person and not like a robot on the other side of the screen which I know, especially this year, for a lot of teachers starting out virtual and not having had the chance to build that community in their classroom unlike, like last spring, when it kind of just came on them. I think that's like, honestly, the biggest, hugest thing. Everything else, you can figure out. But we have to have our students want to be students and want to engage with us.
April Malone 45:48
What about when they won't? Do you have to communicate with the parents?
Amber Van Hale 45:54
I send a lot of emails. I text. The other day I had a kid in the class, and I called his mom; and she was like, "Oh, I think he's there." I'm like, "He's not." So I talked to him on the phone just right then. Yeah, I mean, there's that follow up sometimes. The kids are not impressed with me when I do that. But, again, I'm like, "This is school. So you have to. It's school."
April Malone 46:23
All right. Thank you so much, Amber. It's been fun catching up with you again, I know that you've got a long winter ahead of you here. So good luck, and thank you for sharing your story with us.
Amber Van Hale 46:54
Well, thank you for having me. It was fun.
April Malone 46:57
Yes. All right. We'll see you next time. Have a good one.