This blog post is more than suggestions for how to teach long-distance, which is fast becoming everyone’s forte! It’s about things every teacher needs to know before, during, and after they’ve started helping their students with distance learning.
1. Make a Plan
Many of us know how our daily classroom routine rolls. If you’re a veteran teacher, your weekly lesson plans may be a few notes for the week. If you’re a veteran cyber teacher or distance educator, you know the ins and outs of online distance education. However, if you are new to this teaching format, you’ll likely need to return to your days of early teaching and make some detailed plans, at least for a few weeks. As your familiarity and comfort-level grows, the amount of heavy planning can decrease and give you a little breathing room.
2. Devote Space
Suddenly, many people are teaching from home, where kids, pets, spouses, and all manner of disruptions provide an extra layer of challenge to distance learning. It’s the same for your students. Even though you’re all in this together, as the teacher, you’re trying to show a calm and collected front. It grounds the students and it gives you stability, too. In order to help you be the most effective teacher you can be, give yourself a home office, even if that office is three feet of space on the dining room table and has to get packed away each night.
- Consider putting some things in a temporary location to create more space for your “home office.”
- Experiment with colorful sheets, tapestries, or even beach towels to use as a backdrop if you don’t want your students to be distracted by your location. Some platforms let you plug in a virtual background!
- Isolate yourself from distractions, if possible. Some of us may be fortunate enough have family members or older kids who can watch your younger children for a few hours. If you know you need to be nearby, but perhaps you want a bit of privacy to help you focus, you might want to place a folding screen or even a trifold board to help block out distracting sights and let you concentrate on your students.
3. Give Yourself a Pass
During the pandemic, it has been said, “You are not working from home, you are at home trying to work.” For some people who have been devoted to telework for years and who chose such a career, this statement may not be true. They have been able to compartmentalize home and work, even though they occur under the same roof. For many who were suddenly tossed into this way of teaching, that may be not the case.
Give yourself a pass. Things are not going to be perfect or go according to plan each day. That’s okay. When you signed on to teach, you never said you would be perfect, you said you would make a difference. Every day you show up in an uncertain world gives your students something real and grounding to hang on to. Try your best. Be there for your students. Somedays, you’ll need to take class time to talk about life and then focus on education. Tell them there are ways to stay in touch. Somedays, the lesson may fall to the wayside, and that’s okay. Your students are trying to learn from home, with all the implied distractions and uncertainties such an environment brings. For all the ways in which we give them a pass, we should give ourselves a pass as well.
4. Establish a Routine: Start and End STRONG!
Although we know we have to give ourselves an occasional pass, most students (and humans in general) benefit from structure and routine. Going hand in hand with making a plan for your teaching, establishing an online routine with your students is beneficial to give extra solidarity to your distance learners. Here are some thoughts to think about as you start and end your distance learning routine.
Consider Your Old Routine
Was there always a joke of the day? Was morning weather discussed? Did you start off with a cool fact or mad math minute? Find a way to make that the same, if it was working out. If your old routine was starting to lose your students, use this opportunity to implement something new!
Something Totally Fresh
Perhaps the first part of your class routine was physical, like a quick game of over-the-door basketball or signing in on the board. Perhaps at the end of their day, there were secret handshakes with each kiddo. Maybe it was a quick whispered conversation when each child got to tell you something they wanted to share with you, but not the rest of the class. Those key moments are important and set the tone, but they may not be translatable into distance learning. Find something fresh! Want to stay physical before sitting to learn? Try ten table push-ups, led by a different kid each day, that everyone is doing on their screens. Begin with a word of the day, a weather report, or having kids share one thing with the group. (If you do have a previous routine where kids can share with you confidentially, you can still set up a way for them to get in touch via email.)
Kids mights feel like their lives are spinning out go control. Perhaps you’ve felt that yourself lately! When other things are chaotic, exercising choice restores some of that control. Create a student-generated list for things they’d like to do in their virtual classroom. Opening and closing routines are probably the easiest places for them to contribute. Students can vote on them or you can rotate between viable choices. Students will appreciate having some say in how their virtual classroom is run.
5. Class Routine: Keep it Going!
Establishing a routine is important, as we’ve said. Those opening and closing touches help students feel at home, even if they are at home, and not in school with you! Now, help them feel like their learning can continue with as much normalcy as possible.
State a goal or objective for the class.
Explain how you’re going to move through the steps and what programs you will use. For older students, you may only need to say this once and then repeat as needed. For younger students, this can be overwhelming. You may wish to begin by explaining the first step and informing them that more steps will come, but you’ll reveal them as you go. “Today, were going to study amphibians. We’ll start with a video. When it’s done, I’ll tell you what happens next.” Now students know more will be coming, but they also have a specific part of the routine to focus on.
Put your plan in writing.
Whether it’s a post on Google Classroom or a sticky note on the wall behind you, list the big-ticket items you hope to achieve in bullet points. If there are many small things you hope to do, group them into no more than three or four items so as not to overwhelm the students.
How will grades be calculated?
Some families have limited resources, in spite of your best efforts to bring them everything they need. Perhaps twins in the same grade need to share a device and need to alternate classes. Perhaps rural areas experience frequent Internet lags and disruptions. Explain what will count and what will be excused when you calculate a grade. What will be excused? Do you care more about assignments completed independently or about participating in virtual classes? Do you have to follow a school policy, or can you make your own guidelines? Whatever you do, communicate this to your students so that your distance learners understand the criteria for success.
What about talking in class?
In a classroom, it’s usually possible to have students raise their hands as a visible signal for you to call on them. In a virtual classroom, you may only have a few students visible on your screen at once and if they’re not talking, others may not appear on the screen. Or, you may have a small class and all of them are visible at once- and if they all talk at once, it can be a cacophony! Establish a plan for how you’d like students to “buzz in”. If you’re able to mute the whole class and unmute students individually, communicate how you’ll do so and explain how they look on your screen.
Keep the fun.
Part of the joy of social learning includes all the “fun” parts of school! Wacky Wednesdays, Silly Sock Days, assemblies, and field trips. Establish a plan of fun to keep distance learners motivated. Include some fun things that maybe students can only do at home. Consider “Bring your pet to class” days, “School in the Yard/On the Porch” days, and virtual snack times. You may want to include a few virtual field trips or AR activities. You can still keep Wacky Wednesdays from home, but these extra tidbits of fun may encourage students who are feeling bored and missing school.
Communication is essential no matter where you are. Technology removed a lot of hurdles for home-to-school communication in the form of emails, electronic home and school newsletters, and apps that remind parents and students of important matters. In distance learning, suddenly ALL communication is virtual-slash-digital. However, communication with parents and students will still need to be constant. Many parents are juggling their own jobs from home as well as helping multiple students in multiple schools with their online assignments. Weekly updates of which assignments are due and which kids are missing them will be helpful. A weekly summary of what was covered or whats coming up may also be helpful. Another thing that many parents may find helpful is a link or print out with which apps will be used, where to find them, and tips to navigate them. It may seem like a bit more work, but it will also cut down on the number of frantic individual emails from parents.
7. Tech Go-Tos
You may be the go-to girl or guy on your teaching team when it comes to navigating technology, so perhaps you’ll be self-reliant. For many of us, technology is a fickle friend. We are using new apps, new programs, webcasting, and recording. With new challenges comes new successes and new problems. To make distance learning easier, identify people on your teaching team, within your school, family, or community who can help you troubleshoot, offer tips, and who have experience using the programs you want to try. Locate helplines and websites that can help you. Pass on resources to parents where applicable.
8. Back Up Assignments
Having a back-up plan and thinking on our feet is second nature to teachers. We have learned that teaching equals flexibility. However, it was easier in our own classrooms when everyone was together and we knew exactly what the situation looked like for each student. We knew what resources we had on hand. The world of distance learning still requires flexibility, but it’s a bit different. One thing that remains the same is the need for flexility and contingency plans!
You don’t have to be elaborate, but be prepared. Create a list of simple, easy lessons for students to complete in case the unexpected happens. You might be able to cancel a class once or twice, but you know how much your students need you to make distance learning a success.
So, if you plan to show a video or present a virtual slideshow, have a back-up plan. Sometimes a video gets removed from a site or refuses to play. Sometimes the technology won’t properly present the slideshow. Having an idea of what you’ll do instead will cut lag time for learning and give you some peace of mind.
Here are some quick, easy ideas to keep in your back pocket in case a lesson doesn’t go to plan:
For all subjects:
- A scavenger hunt! To review genres of literature, have children scour the house for books, magazines, and movies that are sci-fi, nonfiction, mystery, etc.
- Twenty Questions- Make your object topic specific and have your students ask only yes or no questions. Once you’ve cracked it, you can hopefully have things up and running! If not, pick the winner to come up with another object, person, or item that you’re learning about and make him/her the new quiz master.
- Pre-load some math-based riddles or puzzles that kids can access at any time. Play math games or pre-assign math practice activities on various websites, such as Khan Academy.
- Consider uploading an independent study packet about famous scientists, animals, landforms, or whatever topic your students are studying. There are some great science websites that you can access for free and even set up class rosters with specific assignments. You may also want to make, purchase, or find a free web quest about a topic that you’re teaching that students know to go to whenever they have lag time in class.
- Consider uploading an independent study packet about famous historical figures that coincide with topics you’re teaching. State, country, city, and landmark projects can be assigned early on and worked on when students have time. Creating a dramatic monologue, skit, or slideshow about a topic you’re covering or one of personal interest to your individual students is another great use of time that is productive, even if it wasn’t what you planned to do for that day!
- Where do we being? There are thousands of writing and reading projects that you can share with students! Perhaps have a variety in your digital grab bag of things students can do, everything from reading a new book and writing a poem about the main character to making an e-zine on a nonfiction topic or hobby! Create a virtual task board or a shared folder full of templates, ideas, rubrics for easy access.
9. Expect the Unexpected
We know that technology isn’t perfect, but the truth it, it’s come so far. We deal with fewer lags, freezes, and glitches than we did ten years ago. But, those technological difficulties still occur on occasion. Make a plan with your students that details what to do in case technology fails on your end or their end. Send these guidelines out as soon as you have them. Email them to parents and students and post them on your website or Google Classroom, etc. Remind students of the plan quickly during each class or a few times a week, depending on how well your students retain information.
Some examples and options:
If I (the teacher) lose my internet connection or our Google Meet or Zoom, etc. suddenly glitches:
- Go to your email and check for a new meeting invite or code. If you don’t see anything from me in that time, continue to work on any classwork or assignments you need to and email me with any questions.
- Practice your skills on one of our class’s pre-approved websites like RazKids or Khan Academy.
- Go to our class website, Google Classroom, Schoology Classroom, etc. and watch one of the pre-recorded lessons.
- Know that I will get in touch as soon as I can with instructions.
If YOU (the student) lose your internet or there are computer glitches:
- If you lose your microphone or audio, it’s okay to stay and watch the class even if you can’t contribute. You may still be able to see or hear important information. I’ll understand, and I’ll help you via email or direct you to a resource that can help you.
- Talk to your parents if necessary to try to solve the problem. If you can solve it yourself, resolve and comeback to our virtual class.
- Try joining on another device if one is available.
- Know to check at ____ location when your computer is working again to get information about missed work.
- Know that I will email you a summary of what you missed.
Having a plan in place may seem obvious to you, but this is likely still a learning curve for students. Just like routines in a classroom help your learners, knowing what to expect, even in the unexpected, will help make distance learning go more smoothly.
10. Take Care of the Care-Taker
Oh, mindfulness and self-care tips again? Yes, because these things really, honestly do matter. They matter even more now when we are cut off from a higher degree of contact with loved ones and support systems. They matter more because anxiety and uncertainty have increased, and not just for you, but your students, too. Every time you connect with them and bring normalcy to distance learning, you are their shield from worry and stress, even if its only for thirty minutes a day. Don’t you think it’s draining you? Think again. Teachers are special- we don’t know when we’re running on empty sometimes, and we never want to run out of love and support to give. The best way to prevent that unthinkable event is to take daily time for self-care to keep your tank full and your emotional batteries charged.
For some of us, teaching away from a physical classroom, maybe even from the oasis of our own home, may give us more free-time and more relaxation. If you lost an hour of commuting time and the stress of jammed highways, perhaps finding ten minutes for a cup of tea before online teaching is your new daily boost. However, some of us lost the sources we used to rejuvenate during a time of widespread closures and social distancing. People who relied on gyms, spas, massages, or retail therapy might be struggling without their preferred way to unwind.
Whatever the case, it is vital that teachers find a way to keep themselves in good emotional and mental shape. Consider exercising at home or in local open spaces, or yoga, workouts and virtual hikes through a streaming service. If you prefer a low-energy option, take time for a long soak in the tub, a daily time to read, thirty minutes with a favorite television show or podcast, or daily meditation. These things are not “self-indulgent,” they are self-care. Remember the rules about the oxygen masks in airplanes? Put on your own before you help someone else. You need to take care of yourself so you can look after all the students who rely on you.
In conclusion, some of these top ten items may be second nature to you, others may be new. Just like distance learning, we’re blending the tried and trusted with the new and innovative. We hope you take what you need from this post- and that you take care of yourself!
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