By: Anna Marie Ridenour, teacher at Ohio Connections Academy
In my everyday life as a virtual school teacher, I often talk about things like academic accountability, internal motivation vs. external motivation, and the benefits of school choice. I can cite research that supports my methods of teaching and I can speak from experience the most effective ways I have found to use technology in my virtual classroom. But when I was starting 5th grade in 2003, I knew none of that. I didn’t know what educational theory was or even that it existed, and I couldn’t have explained what a “content standard” was to save my life. At that point in my life, I was more interested in reading my chapter books and playing with my dog than having a discussion on education, but one thing that I did know was that I did not want to go back to school in the Fall.
Many of us are aware that “learning” and “education” can sometimes be distinct entities. Just because I wasn’t excited about the upcoming school year does not mean I was not interested in learning at this point in my life; as I mentioned earlier, I loved to read and this included everything from National Geographic to fiction books. The reasons I did not want to return to my private Catholic grade school were many and complex, but were in no way a reflection of my teachers or the school itself. So I found myself in a position where I loved to learn but was less than enthusiastic about the process of education. This led my family to look into alternative schools, just to see what was out there and figure out if there was a better fit for my brother (who was going into 6th grade) and me.
I have a very distinct memory of going to an Ohio Connections Academy info session, where OCA people showed a PowerPoint that talked about curriculum, flexibility, and how this fledgling online school worked. As previously mentioned, I had no idea what any of these things were so I was more interested in the text books and manipulatives they had on display in the back of the room. Even then, promising me free books was almost guaranteed a positive response on my end, so I told my parents that I liked the school and wanted to try it, and they agreed.
2003/2004 was the first school year Connections Academy was available in Ohio and so the staff was very small and everyone involved was just trying to figure out the system. At this point, the school was much closer to a homeschooling curriculum than the interactive community of learning that OCA is now. I got my own computer, which I loved, but I also had to alternate accessing my lessons with my brother, since we were on dial-up and so only one of us could use our computer at a time. I can’t say I remember too much of that year, but my family liked the program and we stuck with it.
In 6th grade, I met an OCA teacher in person for the first time when my brother had to go to a testing site for standardized testing. This teacher was Christy Lamb, a high school English teacher who eventually taught me in her class and is now my supervisor as the Principal of the Freshman Academy, which was her genius brainchild to help build a community within our OCA high school program. Since the day I met her, she has continued inspire me with her optimism, dedication, and the kindness with which she treats every student, teacher, and parent she comes into contact with. Teachers like her are the reason we continued to stay with Connections Academy.
An important thing to realize about me is that I am a planner; I like for everything to have an expected time frame and I have a highly involved to do list system that includes a notebook, post-it notes, and an excessive amount of color coding. So in 8th grade, at the ripe old age of 13, I decided it was high time that I figured out what I was going to do with my life. I was incredibly lucky that this time in my life coincided with a very important milestone in the history of Ohio Connections Academy: the implementation of LiveLessons, which were online meetings that happened in real time where teachers presented content from the daily curriculum and supplemented it with activities where students could interact with the teacher and their peers. I LOVED LiveLessons. I attended every LiveLesson that I could and made friends with students from all over Ohio. It helped me become closer to my teachers because I was interacting with them on at least a weekly basis instead of just through webmails or the infrequent telephone call (at this point, we were no longer on dial-up so at least we could make calls and be on the Internet at the same time).
There was a third important factor at this critical point in my life and that was my Pre-Algebra teacher, Mindy Pyle. When talking about teachers who change your life, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what it is about them that made such an impact, and so I don’t know that I will be able to do justice to her incredible abilities of teaching more than just her content area. Mrs. Pyle’s patience, passion, and enthusiasm for teaching math made me realize that teaching math was what I wanted to do too, and I wanted to teach at OCA.
I wish I could write pages and pages about every single teacher I had at OCA and how they challenged me to appreciate the importance of studying each of their content areas and also to appreciate the value of my education as a whole. I took those lessons with me after I graduated in 2011 as valedictorian of my class when I attended Mount St. Joseph University, where I was successful in academics, made many wonderful friends, and continued to meet people who inspired me to be a better teacher, mathematician, and human being.
In June of 2015, I interviewed with Christy Lamb, whom I had met as a 6th grader over 10 years previously, for a position in her Freshman Academy as an Algebra teacher. When I got the phone call that I was being offered the job, I told her “well of course I’ll take it!” before she could even explain the details. Mindy Pyle also transitioned into being a 9th grade math teacher with me, and it has been amazing to be working as a team with the person whose influence started me on this path so many years ago. As of writing this, school has been in session for a week and I can honestly say I have loved every minute of it. No school is without its challenges, but I love the opportunities I have to get to know each of my students individually and to work alongside the same phenomenal group of teachers who continue to inspire me to be a better teacher every day.