I've been distance teaching for nearly a month now. Many of us started at around the same time. Others are barely starting. I'd like to take a moment to share with you the lessons I learned so far. It can be summed up in 7 lessons.
I have been actively distance teaching since late March. I say "actively" because I realized many educators last spring may have posted on Google Classroom and called it a day. Some didn't post any assignments. Others might have ran a Zoom class once a week or every few weeks. What I mean by "actively" was that I was running Zoom classes every day, constantly posting assignments and lessons on Google Classroom, and checking in with students weekly. I even played Minecraft with a few students and made some lessons out of it. The key difference between then and now is that there is student accountability and attendance is mandatory. Last spring, my district made distance learning optional for students. A grade floor was established. This gave students very little incentive to attend class and/or complete assignments. I averaged anywhere from 1/3 to 1/2 of my students showing up and just a handful completing assignments. However, the things I did then helped me transition much easier this fall since I tested and used a lot of the technologies that I'm using now. I have had nearly 0 Zoom bombs since I was always tweaking my Zoom settings. You can check out my Zoom settings guide here.
I can probably say that the lessons I learned through all this can be all summed up as "this is crisis teaching." I think once you realize that, distance teaching/learning will be a lot easier to cope. It's a mindset shift and understanding that you'd to come to terms with. Of course, it's easier said than done from what I've seen from colleagues and other educators.
Quick Tip. If you are teaching online, get a second monitor! It's such a godsend! You can have one screen show what you want to share while the other screen you can expand and look at video participant screen using a grid view, which lets you see your students while you teach.
Let's get back to the lessons.
1. THIS IS CRISIS TEACHING
If you're distance teaching or doing some kind of hybrid, then you HAVE to understand this is NOT normal. No one in our history has taught through a pandemic of this scale before. We don't know what we're getting into or doing. Administrators don't know what they're doing. None of us really know what we're doing. Don't treat it as normal. Students and families are affected by this pandemic, whether they have lost jobs and/or have family members and friends affected by COVID19. Don't expect them to be able to perform the same way as the regular classroom. Some students may have to take on extra duties, such as taking care of younger siblings while parents/guardians are working. If Jimmy's mom had contracted COVID19 and had to be isolated, now Jimmy has to take care of siblings. Jimmy doing homework is probably at the bottom of his priority.
If you're teaching in person, it's also not normal with the social distancing rules and all that. I wish you, your student, and your community safety and good health. Maintain social distance and practice good hygiene.
2. LET GO OF YOUR USUAL CLASSROOM EXPECTATIONS
This is pretty much a reminder for #1. This is crisis teaching. Don't hold students to the same standards as you would in the physical classroom. IT IS NOT THE SAME! There is so much going on with everyone's lives there are times where school might not be the highest priority. Internet connection might not be good for some of us; information can be lost during those moments. Understand that. Also, it's less stress on yourself too. Just let it go.
3. BE FLEXIBLE AND UNDERSTANDING
You've probably noticed a trend by now that all the lessons are very similar to each other. And I'm getting to the point that I know I am repeating myself. It's simply because I can't stress enough how this is crisis teaching and NOT normal. Seriously, just freaking let go and realize this isn't normal. Don't try to replicate your physical classroom into a virtual classroom because you can't. As I mentioned above, no one knows what they're really doing. We're in uncharted territories right now. Administrators are just as clueless as we are.
Sometimes students just have bad days or something happened at home that they either can't attend class or missed an assignment. We're already living in a COVID19 world. Don't create any more unnecessary stress for your student AND yourself.
I've had students with connection issues and can't connect/attend class on time. Or they drop out of class because of a weak connection. I lose about 5-10 minutes every class because of this.
4. DON'T CONVERT WHAT YOU CAN'T TEACH INTO HOMEWORK
This is probably one of the lessons that I feel many haven't understood and this upsets me like no other. Students have shared with me how some classes have been assigning a lot of homework. Have we forgotten we are in the middle of a pandemic?! We didn't go to distance learning because we want to; it's because it's the safest option to protect as many lives as possible. The way my district set up our schedule is we lost at least an hour of instructional time each week compared to previous years. Some colleagues have took that as, "Well. I have less time to cover content, so let me make up for lost time with more homework."
Do not supplement what you can't cover in class as homework. This is not a rigor or grit debate. Or this shouldn't be given the times we're in.
Again, this is crisis teaching. I'm going to do my best to teach what I can. I'd be lucky if I can cover 50-75% of my usual curriculum.
5. TECHNOLOGY WILL FAIL
Let's face it. This has probably happened while we were at school. We created this perfect lesson using education technology since administration keeps pushing for tech integration. The Internet at school goes out. Now we're screwed. If this has happened at school, it will obviously happen at home. More so, with SO many people connecting to the Internet now.
I live in California and we have been ravaged with heatwaves and rolling blackouts lately. My Internet has gone out twice and I had one blackout. I've had students without power for 2+ days. A few received evacuation orders. I've been randomly dropped out of Zoom a few times. My computer restarted once for no reason. Most of us do not have top-tier technology access at home. Even if we do, they will still fail.
I connect to the Internet via WiFi. I do not use a cable connection, which is more reliable. My router is too far from computer and most laptops these days do not even have an Ethernet port that allows for a cable connection. It relies solely on WiFi connection. Sometimes routers will malfunction and you may need to restart it. The same goes for our students. Internet is expensive these days. The most basic Internet plan in my area is $65/month. Imagine having to share that bandwidth with siblings and other family members who may be working at home. If you're teaching synchronously (teaching in real time), students or your own Internet connection may lag and your audio and/or video may suffer.
If it fails, it fails. The world isn't over. Forgive yourself. Forgive your students. Move on.
6. DON'T ASK STUDENTS TO TURN ON THEIR CAMERAS
There's two major reasons for this. The first one goes back to the previous lesson. Some students share their bandwidth with multiple people. I have one student who shares the Internet with 9 other people. Turning on the video will take up more bandwidth, which can hurt connection quality. This can lead to audio loss and even dropped connections in some cases. A few of my students do not have webcams for their computers. This is somewhat a privileged debate.
The second reason can be summed up fairly well with the image below from www.torreytrust.com.
Some students are uncomfortable with sharing their living space or they might not have a quiet place, free of distractions. Some don't feel safe. One of my students went over to their friend's house to attend class because it was too noisy at their home. Many educators don't want students to know about their private lives. The same should be applied to them. Since videos shouldn't be asked to be on for students, the same thing goes for dress code or where they attend class. As long as they are dressing appropriately, who cares if they are wearing pajamas or not? I've had plenty of students who wear pajamas and slippers to school. Personally, I've been wearing sweatpants when I teach, but I do wear a presentable t-shirt or shirt. It's comfortable!
I was in a recent discussion with other educators about whether we should make it mandatory for students to be at a desk or not attend class while sitting or laying in bed. The discussion reeked of privilege. Not everyone can afford desks or have a desk of their own, or the dining table has limited space. I don't think I had a desk of my own until around 6th grade. If you can watch a movie or read a book in bed, you can attend class in bed. Sometimes that space might be the only where they can attend class quietly.
Also, don't force students so speak. There are many ways you can get students to participate, like the chat. Reasons being similar to why you shouldn't ask them to turn on their video. Some of them are sharing the same space as their siblings or their dogs are barking. Unlike the classroom, the home can have many more distractions. I do encourage students to speak, but I don't force them. The few that do speak I've heard their distractions - dogs barking or another sibling talking in the background.
7. FOCUS ON THE RELATIONSHIPS AND SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL HEALTH OF STUDENTS
I surveyed my students recently. A fair amount of them are struggling and miss the physical classroom. Others feel indifferent, but do lean towards struggling with keeping up with everything. A few says they are fine with distance teaching; they are usually the type who are fine with working alone.
This is what students have shared with me for what they want to see in their classes and teachers. Below are the recurring ones I've seen:
Noticed how pretty much all of them are social and emotional needs? None said, "Please give (or overwhelm) me with as much content knowledge as you can." The closest was, "Teachers should teach the subject well." That really goes hand-in-hand with being organized.
A student told me the other day that one of their classes gave them a panic attack and another shared they lost interest because they felt the teacher was being rude and they just tuned out. Now it's even easier than ever to tune out. Mute. Done. Another student haven't been attending class because they've been having severe panic attacks. Another is suffering from depression. I've personally had moments where I really need to disconnect because this is too much.
Relationships matter. And it matters even more now than ever.
Humanize education. Simple as that. Sure, you can ignore all those things and most students will still do their work. But at what cost? At the detriment of their social-emotional health? Think about it.
Everyone is going through some kind of struggle now in a COVID19 world. Don't add more to yours and others. Try to stay positive. Negativity just brings everybody down. Help uplift others and inspire your students.
That's that for me. I'll share soon what edtech tools I've found really useful for students during distance learning.
Good luck all of you! Hope you have a great year!
I'm Jayson, a high school social science teacher with a strong passion for social justice and public education issues.