As the 2020/2021 academic year looms, the uncertain COVID-19 forecast challenges school districts to structure pandemic classrooms that allow for the probability of remote learning, at least intermittently. Last Spring, when COVID-19 hit, schools across the nation went from on-site to digital overnight, with teachers leading the charge to keep students learning and connected.
“The hardest part of the Spring was the loss of simple human connection.”
– High School Teacher
The challenges teachers faced shine a light on their heroics.
We are talking both online and offline. They jumped right onto digital, and these teachers taught millions of children about everything from phonics to philosophy – and everything in between. They did this as the families of their students did the best they could to cope with the weight of the catastrophic economic and other fallout from the pandemic.
Under intense pressure, and without a tech pandemic roadmap for teaching, teachers invented one.
They did this while managing their own children’s classwork. They did this while managing their own children’s anxieties. They became self-taught on how to migrate the total of their complete lesson plans and experience to tech platforms that had been designed for conference calls.
They used these platforms to talk to fourth graders about academic work, to hear more about their student’s various pets – and generally managed to stay connected. Teachers of high school students gave video lectures and made themselves available for office hours with flexibility.
A great deal of work and planning went into creating slides and posts the children absorbed. And while the curriculum was, in certain ways, different than originally envisioned, students did learn online. And the things they learned are important and will serve them.
The takeaway — if the best practices can be culled and effectively implemented, remote learning can be made to work. No one is suggesting that anything replaces in-person learning, but digital technologies can be used to deliver academic content in a circumstance such as a public health emergency. Remote learning launched last year from an emergency setting – hardly a fair way to assess potential, especially if tech education partners can now be brought on deck. There are tremendous growth opportunities here if we are willing to seize them.
Give InKind spoke with veteran teachers about the challenges they faced last spring – and how we can translate these lessons learned into concrete steps to make things easier. These are their observations.
- Outdated Technology: If teachers are to rely upon technology as a critical mode of information delivery, their personal computers must be up-to-date. We spoke with a teacher who mentioned that the computer she was using lacked sufficient internet access or the ability to share screens with students. Not all devices host functionality like polling, or whiteboards, or virtual backgrounds, all of which create a better student/teacher dynamic.
- Insufficient Numbers of Devices: School districts make devices available to students who do not have them. However, they tend to provide one per household, as opposed to one per student. In normal times, one device can often be successfully shared in a household. However, when school is online each student needs a device. Parents may need tech support about things like installing Zoom on a Chromebook. These things frustrate an already fraught learning environment.
- Communication with Parents is Challenging: Different districts have varied policies about providing individual student school email addresses. In distance learning, this requires teachers to email parents, rather than their students, directly. This creates a barrier to communication. One teacher observed that high school students could use this as an opportunity to hone their professional/formal e-mail skills.
- Students need earphones: It is incredibly distracting for a student to try to focus on a lesson with ambient noise from a sibling, a lesson another sibling is engaged in, or a parent conference call. All in a small space. Every household needs multiple earphones to plug into devices for shared learning spaces (I am here to say that few things are more irritating to me than hearing someone else’s digital conversations.)
- Access to internet/broadband: Students who cannot log on won’t be able to keep up. It is essential to make sure that students have access to means by which they can boost their internet access.
The Unexpected Things Teachers Learned About Their Students While Teaching Remotely
Some teachers observed that in teaching remotely, they were given a view into the home lives of their students in a way they would not have been in a physical classroom.
One teacher reported that in a conference with certain students, she could tell who was hungry. She was able to work behind the scenes (yup, go the extra mile) to see that a box of food “magically" appeared on a front stoop (because, as she reminds, food is love). Another teacher told me that in calls he placed home to see why a student had not logged on, he learned that this student was the child of essential workers and had taken over daily household operations for his parents and younger siblings.
Teachers used USPS to send words of encouragement to kids who were working hard. Recognizing the lack of human contact, they tried to overcome it. One sent postcards/letters with single pieces of candy that included “punny" encouragement taped on the card — “You’ve done Good and Plenty," or “You’ve done great even though we’ve hit a sour patch." Other teachers mailed stickers. I know I don’t need to spell it out, but teachers paid for these envelopes, stamps, candy, stickers, etc.
While I am at it, I will note that teachers also purchased and provided earphones and food. The list goes on.
Teachers need community partners as they work through a pandemic to ensure that children receive the kinds of services and learning from which they benefit. This is a good time for school PTSO’s to ask teachers how parents can be effective partners in their child’s learning.
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