THE BLOG
07/02/2014 03:52 pm ET Updated Sep 01, 2014

Protecting Students in Online Schools

Technology is radically transforming the ways we work and the ways we learn, nowhere more so than in the world of online education. But will the shape of the future be drawn solely by corporate leaders in the technology industry, or will parents, students and teachers have a voice in what tomorrow's digital classroom looks like?

As the online education sector grows, the public's stake in that question becomes ever more paramount. One way in which virtual teachers are seeking to ensure that the pursuit of profits does not come at the expense of students, parents and educators is by organizing to join the California Teachers Association. (Disclosure: CTA is a financial supporter of Capital & Main).

Below is the first in our series of posts written by teachers at the California Virtual Academies (CAVA), an affiliate of K12, a for-profit, publicly-traded curriculum and ed-tech firm, who are seeking to join the union to ensure that the future of online education is one that benefits everyone. The following is written by Cara Bryant, an engagement-support teacher, science instructor, and CAVA Union Organizing Committee member:

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I have worked for CAVA for eight years--since my oldest son was nine months old. This job was a blessing to my family since it meant I could be home with my baby, rather than leave him all day in order to return to the classroom. At the same time it allowed me to continue in my career, which was something I valued as a professional but was also necessary in order to meet our financial needs.

For several years I recommended CAVA to homeschooling friends and colleagues with young children. I was able to make connections with my students, and I was able to get to know them. I could have picked all of my students out of a class list without missing a single one. I loved my job and I felt great about what I was doing. It didn't bother me that I was paid less than I had been in the classroom because I felt the tradeoffs were worth it.

Then things began to change.

As I have spoken to people about this I have often used the frog in the pot of boiling water analogy. The changes happened gradually at first, but each year the workload increased while the salary remained the same.

When I started with CAVA I could work a full day and feel accomplished and caught up. Never done, of course, because a teacher's job is never really done, but there was a sense that I was making progress and I felt satisfied.

Suddenly I was finding myself working into the evening, working weekends and still feeling like I was barely keeping my head above water. Students would call and I would not know which section (or even which course) they were in unless they told me.

There were too many of them, and too many separate tasks, to focus on the personal connections anymore.

It became harder to recommend CAVA to colleagues and homeschoolers. I spoke to a lot of other teachers who were struggling too. I started to wonder if the benefits still outweighed the costs. Then one day this past fall, my four-year-old overheard me talking to another parent. The parent had asked me what I do for work. I told her I was a teacher. My four-year-old laughed and said, "Mom, you don't teach. DAD teaches!"

Of course he was right. He saw what I did all day, and it didn't involve very much quality interaction with students. I realized that the day had come when the benefits no longer outweighed the costs. I was working long days, every day, and still feeling like I needed evenings or weekends more often than not. I was ignoring or shushing my children all day.

I thought about how I would feel about this part of my life in five or 10 years, and I had a sense of dread that I would regret this job and my inability to be "present" with my family. Not to mention how it has impacted how I feel about myself as a teacher--I can no longer support my students in a way that makes me feel effective. I struggle to find a sense of balance, and since my work is at home I feel an obligation to always be doing "something."

I have eight years of my career invested in CAVA, and I work with wonderful colleagues and families for whom this program can be truly beneficial if we return to a student-focused program. I am an idealist by nature, so rather than give up I believe we can give our staff an opportunity to make changes that will benefit teachers and students alike. I believe we can do that by organizing the union.

Since beginning this process I have felt a sense of community I have never experienced at CAVA before. We have all worked very hard over the past several months talking to fellow CAVA staff and listening to their ideas and frustrations. It has been difficult to take even more time away from my family, but I do so with an eye on the future and the knowledge that we can make a difference. I am thrilled that so many of my colleagues agree with me and I am excited to work collaboratively with our administration to find common ground.