You may have seen the recent social media post that encouraged parents to describe what their kids were doing but call them their coworkers. The responses were humorous—kids must not have gotten the memo on appropriate “workplace” behavior. In my case, my “coworker” is making it hard to type since he insists on sitting on my lap as I type this, and don’t even get me started on my “coworkers” who are refusing to wear pants today! Our workplaces—or, for our students and kids, their classrooms—have become very different, very quickly, from what we were all used to.
Maybe your kitchen table seems like an endless pile of worksheets or has even morphed into your office desk. Maybe you find yourself struggling to balance the timing of your own videoconferencing calls with your kid’s online class schedule. Whatever your particular situation, there are many new challenges facing all of us. Let’s talk about how we can utilize some empathy, grace, and online learning skills to make this not-so-normal, “new” normal as learning-friendly as possible.
…when it comes to our students, those worries may be heightened in this COVID-19 world where we can’t see them face to face to know how they’re really doingRemember those days we thought were crazy? Days packed with back-to-back classes, department meetings during planning periods, parent-teacher conferences, after-school sports, and extra-curriculars? I know I am not alone in wishing those days back. Our new normal consists of new stresses, challenges, and worries—and when it comes to our students, those worries may be heightened in this COVID-19 world where we can’t see them face to face to know how they’re really doing. Our students get much more from our schools and classrooms than just an education. They may now be missing their prom, their best friend, or the lunch provided at school. They may be spending a large part of their day alone, with parents who are stressed about careers/finances/health, in charge of childcare for younger siblings, or in situations out of their control. Let’s remember this when we are creating the expectations for online learning.
Don’t forget: you’re the expert, not the technology
First, in case you still need to hear this: To be a good teacher, you do not have to be a technology expert. If you need to go back and read that again, do it. If you need to jot that down and post it above your computer—truly, be my guest. Just please don’t forget it. With the utmost respect for what technology can do to engage students and create amazing learning environments, don’t lose sight of the fact that technology is just the tool you use for teaching. You remain the expert.
Just because you didn’t know how to embed a video or that it’s a good idea to mute all of your students upon joining live sessions, that is in no way, shape, or form a reflection of your teaching ability. Your connection with your students—your knowing what intrinsically motivates them to learn—is what makes you a great teacher. Understanding how to explain concepts to them so they get it is what makes you a great teacher. Knowing how to use Google Classroom or any of the other technologies that are being used are helpful skills, but they will never replace a great teacher. Today’s technology helps you to keep the connection going during this time, but please—I’ll say it again: Don’t judge your teaching ability on the success of your first go at creating online lessons.
Your connection with your students—your knowing what intrinsically motivates them to learn—is what makes you a great teacher.
Building successful online lessons takes practice, education, professional development, and a whole lot of planning—most of which you were not afforded in this situation. So, first and foremost, be easy on yourself and your colleagues, and for those administrators, don’t forget to be easy on your staff. Turning into online teachers overnight who know how to build engaging online lessons along with the technology to power them is a lofty goal. The fact that you then need to turn around and train students (and parents!) how to use that technology adds to that challenge. You are now answering questions from students on the topics you teach as well as on the technology you use to teach them. Just as we don’t expect second graders to master multiplication in their first week of school, your mastery of online teaching skills will need time and practice.
So how do we make successful online lessons? My first piece of advice is to immerse yourself in the lesson as if you were the student and then apply a lot of empathy. When designing online lessons, take a moment to imagine what your students are going to experience. Walk in their shoes for a mile. Will they have issues logging on, figuring out where their assignments are posted, or even knowing where to go to ask questions? Identify any areas in the lesson where they might get “hung up.” Glitches like broken links can derail a lesson quickly.
What kinds of devices are your students using? If you’re fortunate to have devices provided by your school, you know how your lessons will appear for all of your students. However, a lot of teachers have no idea how students are accessing their lessons or even if their students can reliably get online. Students completing assignments on a phone (which may be a shared device) or with spotty internet are going to have different challenges. Try to identify and overcome any hurdles your students will face before assigning the work to them. Be mindful of these challenges, and apply as much patience, empathy, and grace as you can during this period.
It’s a marathon, not a sprint
Other online learning rules of thumb are less is more and make considerate due dates. Students are going to take longer to complete work due to technical issues, challenges of learning mostly on their own, stress, or additional responsibilities they have taken on to help at home. Allow your students (and yourself) plenty of grace. It’s hard to motivate someone who feels like a failure. Not understanding learning management systems or how to get online, let alone class material, may have your students feeling different levels of failure. Just as your online teaching may not be as engaging as what you had planned for the classroom, they, too, may be struggling to perform. We were all thrown into this mess together. When you’re having a rough lesson with your students, it might help to remind them that you recognize this is tough and that you’re all going to try again tomorrow. Don’t let the frustration carry over—give them (and yourself) encouragement to go get ’em the next day!
You can’t, and shouldn’t, try to replicate everything you did in your classroom. You are not making things easier for your students by using traditional teaching methods designed for a logical, linear, brick-and-mortar classroom. Remember, instead of aiming to cover content in your lessons, you should be aiming to light a fire of interest and see where it spreads. Pull, don’t push, information, and allow your students to do the same. For instance, give your students greater access to curated classroom materials so they can digest bits of information in a more manageable way that works for them when they need help with a specific task or assignment or need to answer their own questions. The goal should be to use technology to enhance thinking and learning, not simply to deliver materials. Keeping this approach in mind might help when you are reflecting on the technology you are using and what is and isn’t working in your teaching.
Our not-so-normal, new normal has pushed us in different directions, but my hope is that we all end up back together, stronger and with more grit than we knew we had. Our world has become united in this fight because we are all in this together. As I end this, I want to leave you with engaging materials that you can use immediately in your online instruction. BBC World Service in conjunction with Executive Producer Angelina Jolie, Microsoft Education, and BBC Learning have created a joint production called My World, to help illuminate the importance of media literacy to children/schools in every region of the world. Aligned to ISTE Tech Standards, My World consists of 10 50-minute videos geared at kids ages 11–14—and my favorite part is that, because they were produced for use in education, they come with teacher integration materials. The latest episode of My World was fully dedicated to the coronavirus.
Stay well. Stay kind. And don’t forget that no one is getting an award for being the best to survive a pandemic. The award is surviving itself and finding any small way we can to thrive during these times.