We're (almost) there! Congratulations, my fellow educators for making it this far! Can't believe the first semester is (almost) over! Hopefully all of you are able to get a well-deserved break during the coming holidays! And most importantly, stay safe out there!
After distance teaching for a semester, there's quite a bit to reflect, especially lessons learned. I'm here to share with you what I learned. Perhaps you relate to some of these.
Back in September 2020, I had shared "7 Lessons learned from a Month of Distance Learning." This post is a continuation and a reflection of those same lessons and more. Even after a whole semester, I still stand by those 7 lessons. In fact, I stand with them stronger than before.
A month of distance teaching already got me to think of those lessons. The semester definitely reinforced them. Can't believe it has been a whole semester! I stare so much at so many screens every day I'm really surprised that I'm a multitasking master right now! Even though I hit my holiday break, it'll be a busy break for me as I gear up for next semester and plan out my side projects.
I am planning to launch a YouTube channel and a podcast in the first quarter of 2021. I would really appreciate it if you subscribe to my YouTube channel ahead of time so I can get some customization and backend features unlocked!
With that said, onto the lessons and reflections!
1. RELATIONSHIPS MATTER
This is a reinforcement of Lesson #7 from my previous post. Not that relationships didn't matter before. As an educator, I've always believe that relationships stand in the center of all learning. However, distance teaching demonstrated that it is more important than ever before. There's a physical disconnect between virtual spaces and that hampers relationship-building and social-emotional health.
I found myself spending around the first 5-10 minutes of each class just having random conversations with the class, usually stemming from conversation starters. Most of them are not related to the class. They range from food, music, anime, pop culture, etc. I collect student feedback every semester for reflection. Some students have voiced their appreciation for these off-topic conversations.
I've created a running list of questions/topics for conversation starters. Feel free to use it! You can find it here.
I also dedicate time after school and during our district's advisory/tutorial sessions to do (mandatory) one-on-one conferences with students so I get to have a personal conversation with them to know them a bit more.
Like Maya Angelou said, "At the end of the day people won't remember what you said or did, they will will remember who you made them feel." I'm a social science teacher. I barely remember what lessons and activities I did in my high school world history class. When I was a student teacher, I met up with my former teacher for drinks and told him how I'm struggling with thinking of an activity for the Enlightenment. He said, "Do an Enlightenment bingo. Remember?" I nodded like I recalled, but honestly, I don't know what he was talking about! I do remember how much he intimidates me yet still garners my respect. He still intimidates me! Imagine Bruce Lee as your teacher. That's what my world history teacher is like.
Students might not remember much from what is taught to them during this time, depending on whether our teaching methods are effective or not, but they'll probably remember how you made them feel during this time. Let's focus on making sure the students are okay and know that there is someone there for them if they need something.
2. GIVE GRACE
We're not made to function work this way. There are merits to online learning, but those who usually do online learning opted for it. Many students prefer the in-person experience. Students are unmotivated, overworked, and stressed.
I learned to just give grace whenever and wherever I can. I'll be honest. There are days where I'm just like "What's the point of all this? I'm teaching to blank screens." If I am questioning this, surely, my students are as well at a greater frequency. This can also explain why about 40%+ of the students in my district have a D or F in at least one class. Giving your students grace is also giving yourself some grace.
I've seen a lot of conversations about whether to accept late work or not and what deadlines look like. Some of you might disagree with my policy here. I found myself changing my policy in the middle of the semester. Previously, students were allowed to turn in missing work by the end of each grading period. I had extended it to the whole semester. Yes, some students took advantage of it and didn't bother to catch up on work until these last two weeks. In the end they did their work and their grades went up rather than fail. Some colleagues who argue, "Well this isn't preparing them for the real world. They need to learn responsibility. Everyone is going through something right now." My counterargument is, "This isn't normal. None of this is normal. Why are we normalizing this? Many of these children do not know how to cope. Heck. Many adults don't know how to cope!"
I found myself stressing less and many students did end up catching up on their work when I give them grace on work and they are grateful for it. I had a few students who started the year rough. They had a hard time adjusting to distance learning and they were failing my class early on. I gave grace on missing assignments and they started catching up. Seeing their grade go up motivated them to continue the work rather than give up. It also reduces their stress level so they can focus on the learning. Now almost all of them are finishing with an A or B.
Thanksgiving break and holidays, no work is assigned. They are a break for a reason. I never understand why teachers assigned work over BREAKS. If you want a break as much, you should also give students a break. I don't care if it's an AP or IB program. Breaks are breaks. We all need that brain break.
Giving grace to yourself also reduces your stress. I found many of the colleagues I have who complain they are stressed out are mainly the same people who are unwilling to adapt to our current circumstances and trying to treat everything as normal in the sense that school is physically closed and we simply moved to a virtual space, ignoring that there is a pandemic going on. This includes assigning whatever they can't teach as homework and having strict deadlines then complain that students aren't doing work. I have students who have to take care of other family members and they can't just focus on work all the time, especially when just one class assigns 1+ hour worth of homework each class. I teach high school. Students take 5-7 classes! It's a rough time. Perhaps it's a coping mechanism for some educators. I get it. I've used work as a coping mechanism before. But we just need to come to terms that all of this isn't normal. When you do this, you're not only hurting yourself, but your students as well.
I already told myself that if I am able to get through 50-75% of my curriculum this year I would've done a decent job during this pandemic. Cut everyone some slack. This is a pandemic.
3. SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL HEALTH SUPPORT IS VITAL AND NEEDED
This one is pretty self-explanatory. It kind of contradicts the previous lesson a little bit. I have received so many notices from the school that I have students who are depressed and utterly stressed out. I had two students who went on home hospital and at least two who were on watch. We need more mental health support. That just goes back to Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Homework and school will have to take a lower priority until we make sure students are alright. Who knows what the long-term effects are for this generation?
From conversations with other educators and a bit from personal experience, I noticed there is a lack of support from some administration. That level of support will vary. The complaints I hear tend to be related to how administration focus on the students and check in if they're okay, but they never really ask if the educators are okay. They ask us to give grace to students, but not us. Who is giving educators grace? We are seemingly blamed for everything. What happened to the overwhelming support educators got in Spring 2020? Suddenly the narrative is that we are lazy and don't want to go back to school. Schools as a physical structure might be closed, but school is still in session and educators are working harder than before. It's basically year one for all of us again.
A few times a month I get an email, notifying me that someone in a student's family passed away and that we should give grace and support the students. Luckily my district is 100% virtual or else students will pick up real quick why so many of their classmates are absent. We never signed up this kind of trauma. We speak of student trauma and social-emotional health, but no one but educators themselves ask if we're okay. A lot of us educators are not okay. I know so many educators who have been and are planning to call quits. This is not what we signed up for. It breaks my heart.
Please give grace to all of us, not just students. Students and educators alike need more social-emotional health support.
4. ALWAYS QUESTIONING IF STUDENTS ARE LEARNING
I am always questioning my practice. Are students learning? Or are they just passing? I remember when I was a student teacher I had a student named Hendrix and what he told me has left a profound mark on me. He was always sleeping in class and I was at my wit's end to get him to do work. However, I noticed when he did participate he actually knew the content material and he was even more interested in Japanese history. I asked him one day why he is so unmotivated when he actually knows the material. He said, "I don't feel like I am learning at school. I feel like I go to school just to pass and not to learn." It hit me hard. His whole generation is plagued with high-stakes testing because of No Child Left Behind. In summary, over-testing does not equate learning. What is truly learning? How do we assess that?
Bringing that story back to distance teaching, what defines learning? Many students have voiced their concerns that there's too much homework. This goes into next lesson of Zoom fatigue. I am not a believer that doing more homework means more learning. A question I asked students at the end of the semester in a class survey was, "Did you feel like you learned something from this class this semester?" Every teacher has their own method to adapt and teach during distance learning. Lectures? Khan Academy? Videos? Worksheets? Peardeck? Jamboard? Flipgrid? Etc. A few students shared with me in that in some classes they don't feel like they're learning. All they're doing is watching videos and slides. Wouldn't some argue that as learning?
During a conference with a student, one of my sophomores shared something that was eye opening. They said they felt they learned more in my class than others. I pressed on and asked why they felt that way. This was their response, "When you have a lot of work, you stop caring about how you get the answer so you focus on just finishing them on time. I don't look back when I'm done, but your work is enough that makes me look back at what I did. So in some classes, I feel I just memorize things rather than take the time to learn it." Holy crap. What an eye-opener!
So what constitutes as learning? Do you feel your students are learning? Or are they just simply "completing work?" How do we assess that? Some things to reflect here.
4. ZOOM FATIGUE IS SO REAL
I probably spend 10+ hours in front of the computer, looking at at least 2 different computer screens, from 8:30AM to 4PM every week day, and more at night as I lesson plan. Screen fatigue is real for people in other industries, but there is just something about ACTIVELY engaging with a screen and people virtually that makes it more draining than...let's say...binging Netflix all day.
There are days where as soon as I'm done I find myself lying on the floor for about an hour or so, doing absolutely nothing.
That's just me. Students are fatigued the hell out. They spend half the time attending classes online and spend the other half in front of a computer doing work. Where's the downtime to not be in front of a computer screen?
This goes back to giving grace. If you don't really need to assign work, don't assign it. I only assign work once a week.
Thank you everyone for your hard work in making it thus far. With a vaccine out, hopefully we will restore some normalcy by the middle of 2021 and beyond.
In the meantime, please stay safe and healthy. Get some well-deserved rest as we prepare for the second half. Stay strong and we'll overcome all of this together!
If you haven't yet, please subscribe to my YouTube channel ahead of time so I can get some customization and backend features unlocked! I'll have more details about the podcast and channel coming soon!
I'm Jayson, a high school social science teacher with a strong passion for social justice and public education issues.