Providence High Teacher Earns Distance Learning Award

Annie Matthews of Providence High School won Cal State Northridge’s Outstanding Pandemic Teacher Award. As an English teacher and technology integration specialist, she helped her colleagues and students better prepare for distance learning before the closure of school in March.

The closure of California school campuses back in March due to the coronavirus sent teachers in a whirlwind with distance learning.
It was uncharted territory for most schools and instructors, but not for Providence High School.
“We’re the only high school in the nation that is governed by a health system, so we had good information really early,” said English teacher and technology integration specialist Annie Matthews. “I think the experts and relationships we have with the system made us realize possibly earlier than other schools that this was going to happen.”
Matthews was ready for the challenges brought on by COVID-19 and was recently recognized for her efforts by Cal State Northridge, which awarded her the Outstanding Pandemic Teacher Award.
“We are so proud of Annie and excited that one of our own is receiving this award,” said Providence Head of School Scott McLarty. “Her inspiring commitment to students and their learning during the uncertainty of the pandemic, along with her remarkable ability to support and encourage her colleagues makes her so deserving of this honor.”
The CSUN Michael D. Eisner College of Education awarded 20 teachers for effective online instruction and advocating for students. Matthews, 45, received an email from CSUN professor Brian Foley regarding the nomination. She mentioned it to Providence Dean of Studies Kerry Martin, who gave Matthews a sly smile.
“So she was the one who nominated me,” Matthews said. “It feels good to have all my planning pay off, and a lot of that credit goes to the people I work for. It was their forward thinking and interest in the input of their people. Providence is good at getting a consensus and tapping into the strengths of the individuals and talent they have on staff.”
Matthews’ history at the Burbank private school began long before she was hired 13 years ago. She transferred to Providence High as a sophomore after living in Northern California and graduated in 1993. Matthews is currently one of many alumni working at the school.
“It’s a great place to work,” said Matthews, who earned bachelor’s degree in English from Mount Saint Mary’s and a master’s in learning technologies from Pepperdine. “I’ve really seen us grow and evolve and up our game. It’s become such a great place to work and to be a creative and innovative teacher.”
Teaching was Matthews’s calling at a young age. She always enjoyed school, and it seemed natural for her to pursue that career.
“I think I always knew I wanted to be a teacher, but what you find out very quickly is not every kid likes school as much as I used to,” she said. “So it’s kind of an adjustment and you have to meet students where they are and feed them as individuals. I think that’s something that gets tough when you have to suddenly flip to an online environment. It’s really easy to get to know your kids and have a personal relationship with them when you’re in a classroom every day.”
It was a challenge for many teachers to quickly adjust to distance learning, a model that Matthews felt was important to establish at the school.
Three years ago, Providence adopted Schoology, a learning management system that allows users to create, manage and share academic content.
“We had no intention of becoming an online school or even necessarily offering classes,” Matthews said. “But we started to look at the college landscape, and online classes are something every student has to do to some degree.”
So Providence had online learning days, providing students with lessons of self-motivation and time management. It also gave teachers an opportunity to collaborate and learn how to implement part of their curriculum online. Instructors would receive feedback and evaluate responses to improve the online learning experience.
“We had a pretty solid plan at the school,” Matthews said. “We kind of saw what was coming, I think, and had practiced and planned what we hoped was a more balanced sort of [distance learning] schedule for the students.”
Teachers would meet with their students live in a video chat using Microsoft Team at least once a week. They wanted to establish a sense of structure so that students would not feel like their teachers suddenly disappeared. They were also encouraged to send a message the same way they could drop by the classroom.
Matthews credits Providence administrators for their forward thinking and openness to technology in the classroom.
“We have a great culture of that, of taking risks and being creative and putting our students first,” she said. “I think that’s the part Providence did very well. We said our kids are more important than any sort of academic rigor, so we really prioritized to make sure our kids are OK and making our academics more conducive to their mental health.”
The mental health of students during the pandemic was a concern for Matthews and she understands the negatives of technology as well. The students were reading “Fahrenheit 451” — a novel about a dystopian society that burns books to control the public’s ideas and emotions — and Matthews assigned a digital detox, which meant they could not use cellphones for a day.
“I thought it was more important [in that time] because we’re all so reliant on technology,” she said. “We need to make sure we’re not slipping into an addictive habit. That’s really a tough thing for teenagers. I thought, wow, we’re in quarantine and sending addicts to be home with their drug of choice with no limitations on it. What was really encouraging for me was that students embraced it and saw the value of the detox.”
The trial separation proved to be a success for Matthews, who received insightful responses from her students.
“Having students get it and get something out of that is better than any award,” she said.
Though the honor from CSUN validates her efforts the past three years, Matthews recognizes that the school’s distance learning can and will improve. McLarty announced on Thursday that Providence will go with distance learning this fall. She evaluated surveys and developed focus groups with parents to hear about their experiences.
“It was absolutely a challenge for us, but we really are conscientious to listen to students and families,” Matthews said. “Based on that, I’ve actually designed a three-week summer course where faculty are learning together about balanced online lesson planning.
“We are Pioneers. That’s our mascot, and we make sure we are responding to the times and investigating how we do it better and more authentically.”

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