Meet an Online Teacher: Tonya Dingus

At K12, we appreciate all that our teachers do and recognize the enormous impact they have on students and families. We’re happy to continue our new series of blog posts to introduce readers to some amazing and experienced teachers around the country.

Welcome to our second installment of Meet an Online Teacher! This month I’m happy to introduce you to Tennessee Virtual Academy Lead Teacher, Tonya Dingus. Tonya has been a teacher for 15 years, with many of those years spent teaching online. She has experience in just about every kind of school, from brick and mortar public, to charter, private and virtual schools. Earlier this year, Tonya was recognized for her outstanding leadership and dedication to education as a finalist for the 2012 K12 Distinguished Leadership Award. In our interview, Tonya shared with us her passion for engaging students, valuable advice for families new to online schooling, and her thoughts on the changing field of education.

Please share with us a bit about your background, what brought you to online teaching and K12, and your current role.

This is my 15th year of teaching and my 6th year with K12. I was very excited to read about the openings of virtual schools around the country, and when Georgia Cyber Academy started in 2007, I was excited about the opportunity to be a part of it. When TNVA opened last year, I knew that I could take my expertise in virtual education from GCA to a brand new school. It is such an honor to be involved in 21st Century Learning.

What aspects of your job do you most enjoy?

I absolutely love challenging myself and the teachers here at TNVA in creating meaningful Class Connect sessions that really engage students in helping them to critically think and apply knowledge.  I research strategies and attend workshops for fun! Differentiation is so very important, and when we look at every child as an individual, really the sky is the limit in what we can do for them, and help students achieve. My favorite time is when a learning coach or teacher talks to me about a student’s successes.  The light bulb moment for a student is always the best part! I have heard so many teachers and students alike share how their lives have been changed through our program.

What is your favorite subject to teach and why?

Reading is my favorite subject to teach. I have been a reader all of my life. I have a couple of family members who struggled with reading growing up, and I wanted to dig into why. I believe that is what drove me to become a teacher, and literacy became the focus of my master’s degree. I believe that literacy leads students to success in all other areas, and I love to teach cross curricular for that reason. The K12 History is excellent, interesting, and great to tie into literacy concepts.

Reading is so important. What is your favorite book to teach with? Do you have a personal favorite book?

I love Dr. Seuss, Oh The Places You’ll Go to teach with. I think it is silly but makes a very good point on perseverance. I don’t know that I have a favorite author or personal favorite book. I really believe there are so many talented authors out there, that it would be just impossible for me to choose one!

As a veteran of online education, what advice would you give to students and Learning Coaches just beginning their first year of online learning?

My first piece of advice is to give yourself some time to really understand the whole program. Really dig into the online school, and work with your teacher in how the class connect sessions tie into the OLS and state/national standards. Take baby steps and don’t try to do everything at once. Dig into your student’s learning styles and really build upon that. Our curriculum is very in depth, and you will be amazed at all it encompasses, and at how much students will learn! There are so many strategies that can be used to really individualize and tailor learning to each student, and when we find the path that works for each student, the results are astounding!

In your free time, what activities or hobbies do you enjoy?

I enjoy reading of course. I like fiction, but I also enjoy reading articles on education! I also enjoy swimming. I grew up on the shores of Lake Michigan, so time spent on the beach with a good book is still my favorite thing to do. I also enjoy exploring new places, museums, out of the way and different stores, historical sites, and restaurants that really cannot be found anywhere else.

Since you are not in a classroom with them every day, how do you establish relationships with students and their families?

As a virtual teacher, the first thing I did was to just sit and have a conversation with my learning coaches and then my students. I asked personal things like hobbies, activities, etc. Then I dug into learning styles, organization of the online school, and academics. It was my personal way of showing that I cared for families first, and then we could focus on student needs. I felt even closer to my virtual students and their families than I did to some of my brick and mortar students. It is all in communication.

How do you think the needs of students in online schools differ from those in brick and mortar?

First of all, our students really have to dig into technology, and learn how to utilize the tools that are presented to them and apply that knowledge. Our students have the benefit of really digging in at their own pace and having a differentiated program just for them which, often times, is more difficult in a standard brick and mortar classroom. Our students are not distracted by classroom noise or the everyday interference and transitions that our brick and mortar students experience. Our students have the opportunity to socialize through outings, academic workshops, and other activities, but when they are focused on a lesson, they can really focus in on exactly what they need to be doing.

What rewarding moments or experiences with students have stuck with you?

To me, academic achievement and student success is the biggest reward in what we do. I have heard so many success stories, but one sticks out in my mind. I had a student who really struggled academically and specifically disliked writing of any kind. Through much work with both him and his learning coach, we started molding everything the student did to fishing because that was his favorite thing to do. Math problems were about fish, and for his poetry unit, he sent me a beautiful poem all about fish. I cried when I read it. It was absolutely beautiful. His mom cried when he picked up a local newspaper and started reading it to her, and he applied knowledge to it from his history lesson that he had done a couple of months before. That student exceeded standards on the state test, but more than that, he developed a love of learning; his way.

What is your favorite memory from your own school experience?

I was an extremely shy student, and in high school, I could not even play my clarinet in front of even the teacher because of my shyness. I decided for whatever reason that I wanted to join the drama club and drama class even though I was so very shy. Performance day came, and it went off without a hitch. I was able to perform in front of a live audience even though I could barely speak a word in class. My band teacher talked about it in class the next day. He was amazed at my performance, and he didn’t understand how a girl who could barely speak to friends or play her clarinet in front of others could possibly get up there and perform that way, and to tell you the truth, I don’t think I knew either! I just did it, and I will never forget it as I conquered a big fear that day.

What challenges do you see in education today?

Our students will become adults that need to be productive in a global economy. They will really need to think differently than we have thought ever before. They will need training on systems that have not even been created yet, and it is our job to teach them how to function best in this world they face. It is important for us as teachers to always stay up to date in our strategies, technologies, and even presentation so that our students are taught in a way that will help them process the concepts they will face in the future.

Thank you to Tonya for sitting down with us! Be sure to join us next month as we meet another fabulous K12 teacher.  Let us know if you have a question you would like to ask one of our teachers.

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