Teaching from a Distance

in a Time of School Closings

Teaching from a Distance

in a Time of School Closings

Teaching from a Distance

in a Time of School Closings

Rachel Swafford-Cook

Tennessee Teacher

The morning of March 12, 2020 went as most other March mornings go in my classroom. We’d begun ramping up the end of year test review with a breakout game; everyone was counting down the days to Spring Break; I was kicking myself for not sending a digital permission slip instead of the 130 pieces of paper I’d been collecting all week; my assistant coach and I were watching the weather to decide whether or not to cancel our practice that afternoon. At noon that day, our school director sent a short email canceling after school activities and field studies and instructing teachers to start preparing for “off site learning”. Little did we know the roller coaster we’d just stepped onto.

 

Upon receiving that email, I sent a quick text to my husband: “Don’t freak out, they’re about to cancel schools, go get whatever we need from the store, just act normal.” It felt like the teacher version of insider trading. Shortly thereafter, I received a text from the director: “I’m getting you a sub for tomorrow so you can plan Google Classroom PD for Monday.” Over the next 24 hours, the directions and the mood among my colleagues shifted rapidly.

 

“Come up with one assignment that kids can do at home next week.”

 

“The superintendent is recommending moving Spring Break up two weeks so we don’t lose too many instructional days.”

 

“Help so-and-so set up Google Classroom.”

 

“What about so-and-so who doesn’t have internet at home?”

 

“Make sure all the parents take this survey so we know who has internet at home.”

 

“Virtual School starts next Tuesday.”

 

“I need more time to completely change my lesson plans for next week.”

 

“Professional Development is online Monday.”

 

“We signed everyone up for Zoom.”

 

And just like that, we slipped over the rollercoaster’s first hill and on into unfamiliar territory of virtual school. Except, we weren’t a virtual school. We still aren’t a virtual school. We didn’t sign up for this. Our students and their families didn’t sign up for this. GSuite and Zoom and all the myriad online platforms didn’t sign up for this. Teachers who work for virtual schools spend weeks carefully curating the online experience for their students yet here we, and essentially all teachers all over the United States, were staring this beast in the face with one day to prepare our students for what was to come.


My classes were already set up in Google Classroom, my students already knew how to work all the extra websites I’d be using and the expectations for work quality they’d need to meet. Our classroom culture was established so they feel comfortable emailing me questions or holding a quick video call to help them navigate their virtual school experience. We were ready to keep learning.


If that last paragraph seems to build toward some epic catastrophe, rest assured, my students – three weeks into virtual school and “Spring-Break-ing-at-Home” at the time of this writing- are doing just fine. Sure, there have been a few broken links, an “extended” free trial that didn’t get extended before my students tried to log on, and a couple of empty Google Docs turned in on “accident”. Overwhelmingly, though, the kids are alright.


This new land of virtual school thrust me head first into the fire that awaits me next school year: a hybrid position split evenly between classroom teaching and teacher support. I cannot pretend to be an expert in virtual school, but I can share some wisdom from the front lines. My days now are full of emails from students, colleagues, administration, and parents with questions ranging from “is this an example of irony?” to “how will this affect GPAs?” and “how do I pick the right apps and websites for my students?”

 

What’s been working?

 

  • Teacher autonomy with guidance and support – Teachers are professionals with expertise in teaching, learning, and their content. Teachers are humans with fears and stress and families and so many ways of coping with their lives. Allowing teachers the autonomy to decide what steps are best for their classes while simultaneously providing support such as pre-vetted lessons, units or programs and a set of school-wide guidelines for the amount and timing of assignments is a balancing act, but one I highly recommend embarking upon if at all possible.

     

     

  • One learning management system for the school – Our school uses Google Classroom, but I’m not here to plug any specific LMS, hopefully this was established in all schools/districts prior to the switch to virtual school. Other examples are Schoology, Canvas, and SeeSaw. Students and their parents appreciate having a single centralized spot for all assignments, links, and other materials. Imagine the LMS as the student’s backpack or locker and then don’t give them six or seven different backpacks to check at home during the school closure.

     

     

  • Supporting parents – Think about your colleague that just learned to navigate online learning as a teacher. Now imagine that colleague working at home trying to support their middle school aged child through this program. Now imagine them having just lost a job or worried about a sick relative and trying to support their child through this program. Is it really as “self-explanatory” as you thought? Probably not. Parent support can be as simple as a five minute screencast video that shows them the highlights of navigating your school’s LMS or something more involved like a webinar or one-on-one support. Even the most involved parents in your school have probably never tried to do much in your LMS and now they’re your co-teacher.

     

     

  • A small dose of fun now and again – Most students are not natural online learners.  They struggle to stay focused.  They struggle with comprehension.  They struggle with motivation.   Back in the day, before COVID-19, I could research a field trip near me and take them out of the building for a learning opportunity in the real world.  Thank goodness that in the virtual world, ALL field trips are near me!  With a small amount of poking around online or a jump to teacherspayteachers.com, I can edutain my students for a while and reward them for sticking with me.

     

     

What’s been left behind (or needs to be very soon)?

 

  • The status quo – Before the school closure was announced, our students were expected to meet a certain level of work that’s mostly unrealistic in their new virtual setting. There is a reason most families do not choose to homeschool or to attend a virtual school under normal circumstances. It’s not the right setting for most kids because of all the “other stuff” that happens in a school. We cannot expect students to immediately thrive in this stripped down experience. This may mean you’re assigning less work than normal or accepting late work or allowing extra attempts at showing mastery of a certain content. Whatever it may be, it’s not normal and that’s perfectly fine.

     

     

  • The expectation to be everything to everyone – Teacher parades, lunch deliveries, book mobiles, video call classrooms and office hours, take-home-packets, and so much more than “just” sending a couple of virtual assignments a week have fallen onto the plates of so many teachers. I won’t tell anyone not to do these things if they want or need to, but we need to stop pressuring our colleagues to perform duties with which they risk the safety of themselves or someone with whom they may come in contact.

     

     

  • Required video feeds on video calls with students – I’ve talked with several teachers who don’t feel comfortable with students making little comments about the decorations on their kitchen wall. I personally ended a video call with a lingering student because my own kids were about to eat lunch at the table where I was working. We simply can’t expect kids and teens to feel comfortable with this, especially those for whom home is not a calm, comfortable place to be. We’re opening our most vulnerable kids up to bullying and shame.

 

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