DUNMORE, Pa. — Like many educators, Penn State Scranton Information Sciences and Technology (IST) Lecturer and Program Co-Coordinator Fred Aebli found himself struggling to adapt to the demands of online teaching at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But, he persevered, through good, old-fashioned ingenuity and the support of his fellow teachers. Those things eventually served as the inspiration for “Teacher’s Pep Rally,” the weekly podcast Aebli hosts with three K-12 teachers from the Atlanta, Georgia, area.
Since last year, Aebli and his co-hosts — Erin King, Pete Bush and Leticia Jones — have completed close to 40 episodes of the podcast. Meeting on Zoom, the group records a new episode every Thursday evening, then releases the edited version Mondays via Spotify, iTunes and SoundCloud.
“Teacher’s Pep Rally” is light and conversational yet highly educational, with the hosts and their guests — mostly teachers, but also other professionals whose lives have been altered by the pandemic — sharing anecdotes and tips on making the most of remote teaching, as well as work and life in general. And, befitting the podcast’s name, the hosts aim to encourage and uplift their audience.
Their message is gaining traction — since its inception, “Teacher’s Pep Rally” has been downloaded more than 2,000 times, according to Aebli.
For Aebli, the podcast has been a huge bright spot in an otherwise very challenging year, professionally and personally. His mother passed away due to complications from COVID-19, while he himself is experiencing long-term symptoms from his own bout with the virus.
“The podcast has been a terrific experience,” Aebli said. “We’re trying to be positive, and I think we’re achieving it, by giving good advice and spotlighting a lot of people who are doing amazing things in such a dark time. What we’re doing is lifting back the veil and showing parents that we’re having these conversations about teaching during this time.”
The idea for “Teacher’s Pep Rally” came out of the regular, early pandemic conversations Aebli had with King, whom he befriended while attending a conference in Orlando a few years ago.
“Teacher’s Pep Rally” is light and conversational yet highly educational, with the hosts and their guests — mostly teachers, but also other professionals whose lives have been altered by the pandemic — sharing anecdotes and tips on making the most of remote teaching, as well as work and life in general.
Quickly, they realized other teachers, whether K-12 or higher education, could benefit from the hard-won wisdom they were sharing with each other.
“We thought, ‘Why don’t we create a podcast? Let’s talk to other teachers and see what they’re doing successfully in the classroom in this new online world,’” recalled Aebli, an avid podcast listener. “A lot of teachers weren’t comfortable with online teaching, but we realized there were many others like ourselves who quickly skilled up. They started to thrive in this new environment by using new tools and methods to engage their students.”
From there, they got Bush and Jones on board.
King comes up with the week’s theme and questions, which gives the podcast a strong foundation while also allowing the hosts plenty of room for tangents and spontaneous banter.
“The way we do the podcast, it’s a conversation,” said Aebli, who also oversees the podcast’s web and social media presence.
King said Aebli has been nothing short of an ideal collaborator.
“Fred is the type of guy that will drop everything if a friend, student or colleague says they need help on something. That is the honest truth,” King said. “I know that when we record with a guest for ‘Teacher's Pep Rally’ that Fred will be all in on the conversation and ready to ask for more insight or great understanding, not just for our audience but because he is a teacher who models learning.”
“Collaborating with Fred also means that you are in for some good laughs,” King added. “And who doesn't need laughter in their life, especially nowadays?”
After the group records the podcast on Zoom (the videos can be found on YouTube), Bush edits the audio file. From there, the podcast aggregator Libsyn automatically sends it to its streaming platforms for its Monday release.
As far as getting guests, it hasn’t been the least bit difficult, said Aebli, noting there’s currently enough booked to fill up the rest of the year.
Guests have included a diverse collection of K-12 and college educators from all parts of the country “who are doing amazing things,” Aebli said. That list includes a doctoral student at Johns Hopkins University who is developing an app measuring student wellness, and Aebli’s professor friend at East Tennessee State University, whose reluctant yet ultimately successful conversion to remote teaching included using Plexiglas from his front door to make his own lightboard to use in his garage-turned-classroom.
Meanwhile, Aebli and co. have also welcomed guests who aren’t in education but still have valuable insights to share, among them a vice president for Marriott.
Aebli has spent a good deal of time on the podcast discussing his own remote teaching innovations, from his use of multiple cameras to incorporating more of his personality and interests into his instruction, such as his diehard Disney and “Star Wars” fandom.
Aebli credited Penn State Scranton Chancellor Marwan Wafa, Director of Academic Affairs H. Durell Johnson, and the College of IST for being so supportive of faculty flexibility and creativity during this unprecedented period.
“Everyone has been super supportive that we meet the needs of students, and I’ve been given the green light to make my classroom what I want it to be,” said Aebli, who in the fall plans to add a podcast-making project to his IST 110 course. “The possibilities are there if you’re willing to try it. A lot of teachers are recognizing their authentic selves in the classroom and they’re letting that aspect out more and more. They’re becoming versions of themselves that they never thought they would be.”
Resiliency is also a key theme of the podcast, and Aebli noted that remote teaching has made educators realize the need to further emphasize wellness and mindfulness in the classroom, both for students and themselves.
“Wellness is not a one-day event; it’s a life philosophy. You can’t just turn it on and off,” Aebli said. “We learned in the last year that teachers are resilient, but they also have to give time to themselves. And when you look at students, we’re there to serve them. Teaching in the same delivery style we learned in 1986 doesn’t work in 2021. You have to be constantly tweaking your systems and figuring out what’s working and not working. We have to realize that we’re all in this together, and it’s OK not to be OK.”
Aebli knows this as well as anyone. Just months after losing his mother to COVID-19, he contracted the virus around Christmastime.
A COVID-19 “long-hauler,” Aebli has yet to regain his sense of taste and smell, and he’s been plagued by ocular migraines that have affected his vision. Not surprisingly, the effects have taken a toll, and he recently started attending a COVID-19 survivors support group run by Geisinger.
“I think we’re going to be talking about these ripple effects of COVID for years to come. It’s just going to be a part of our society,” Aebli said. “But I think these stories need to be told, and it’s been good for me to share my story. I share with other people so that they know they’re not alone.”
Looking forward, Aebli is planning to reach out to former students to book as guests. All told, it’s been a wonderful experience, he said.
“We’re going to continue to do the podcast for as long as we can. And if it continues to help people, that’s great,” Aebli said. “What I do know is that it’s been a cathartic, healing thing for all four of us. And I’ve made a lot of new friends in the process.”
For more information on “Teacher’s Pep Rally Podcast,” visit https://teacherpeprally.com.