• Sufia Alam

How art teacher 'Bob Rosses' it with students during a pandemic

Updated: May 26

This week, we will be highlighting our 2020 heroes, featuring teachers from around the world.

Join us as we share how they made the classroom work for them either virtually or in person during an era of required lockdowns and quarantines.

Birmingham, AL: Emily White has always wanted to be an art teacher.

In ninth grade when her Spanish teacher asked her what her plans after high school might be, she responded with, “I’m going to go to Montevallo (University), get my art degree and I’m going to be an art teacher.”

That’s exactly what she did.

However, Emily spent her first semester of teaching in front of a camera recording her version of "Bob Ross tutorials".

What she had imagined as her first year teaching K-5 grade students turned into an online platform where paint and drawing lessons were held on the other end of a computer screen.

Emily teaches at a Title I school, where the student population contains large concentrations of low-income students who receive supplemental funds to assist in meeting student's educational goals.

Many of Emily’s students are part of families who have been affected by the economic impact of COVID-19.

“A lot of these kids have to deal with stuff that is really heavy and they shouldn’t have to deal with at their age,” Emily explains. “Because some of them are taking care of their other siblings as well. Sometimes they’re left home alone (by their parents) and are watching their brother or sister while they’re trying to do their classes.”

It makes sense why Emily’s decided to never pressure a student to have their camera or mic open during class.

She learned early on some kids may turn it off intentionally because they don’t want you to see their bedroom or what’s going on in the background.

“Live Zoom classes are very intimate,” Emily says. “You get a peek inside people’s personal lives. You really should take that into account when you’re doing these classes. You’re coming home into their home, their space.”

That is also why her students only need a paper, pencil and anything to color with for her classes.

“I tell them, I got my stuff from a grocery store,” she says. “You can get your stuff from the dollar store.It doesn’t matter, you just use whatever you have. And I still get kids who tell me they don’t have access to blank paper, or crayons or anything at home. If you have notebook paper, use notebook paper.”

Thankfully, all students attending Birmingham City Schools are guaranteed to have a laptop which keeps students from logging into their Zoom classes on their phones. BCS came to the decision to put a laptop in every student’s hand once the school board decided that remote learning would become a permanent fixture of the 2020/2021 school year.

If students don’t have a stable internet, they also receive a portable wifi box to take with them to their homes.

Emily works from home, with her classroom this semester being a spare room in her house and her commute being a simple walk up her stairs.

It’s also important that this philosophy of empathy and understanding is extended to the parents.

“Teachers have a certain load on them, but parents have a completely different set of responsibilities,” Emily explains. “At such a young age, parents have to be heavily involved, from helping them get their zoom codes, turning in assignments, navigating through different websites. Everything.”

Attending live sessions classes or watching a pre-recorded lesson at a later time are the two options given to students for every class. Because of student privacy laws, you’ll find Emily pre-recording each lesson, and then teaching it the same lesson live.

One education debate that has taken place worldwide is identifying the the perfect balance between synchronous and asynchronous learning while also being realistic

A student is involved in synchronous learning when there is a real-time interaction between students and teachers.

During COVID era, this means when students are interacting with their teacher even through a screen as long as it is live. All the modules, pre-recorded lectures and PowerPoints are classified as methods of asynchronous learning.

While both have positive and negative sides to them, Emily has observed just how much interacting with children impacts both them and her.”

“They really love seeing your face,” Emily says. “They love getting to know your personality. If they watch you through the video that's one thing, but kids thrive on the interaction between student and teacher… It’s so much worth it to have them talk to you, for them to hold up their drawing and show you what they made.”

While this is not the first year of teaching Emily imagined, when asked if there have been upsides to teaching Zoom, Emily chuckles and says, “when you’re online, you can mute them.”


This week we will be highlighting our 2020 heroes, featuring teachers from around the world. Join us as we share how they made the classroom work for them either virtually or in-person during an era of required lockdowns and quarantine.

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