Many parents, administrators, and teachers have been quick to write off remote learning, hoping to get back to “normal” as soon as possible.
But that hasn’t been the experience of all teachers. For some, the experience of teaching remotely has been rewarding, engaging, and stimulating--for them and for their students.
“There’s a lot of talk out there that students can’t learn remotely. And it’s false.” --Mike, a six-year veteran teacher, working 100% remotely this year
With all of the flak that remote learning has gotten, I wondered: Have teachers received adequate training or been able to share and swap best practices for remote learning, to make it more successful? Or have teachers been rather isolated, told to jump in the lake but not given a life vest or swimming lessons?
For some teachers who were already tech-savvy and working fluidly in 1-1 classroom environments, the transition was fairly easy. For others, who leaned more on traditional in-person techniques, the switch to remote was jarring and hasn’t improved much.
I decided to reach out to two of my favorite teacher friends in the whole wide world who happen to be teaching 100% remotely this year. These two educators are folks I have worked with in different settings and at different points in my career--and they are both incredible at what they do. I reached out to them to see if they would impart some of their learning with me, so that I could pass it along to you, my teacher friends.
The following is what two of our awesome colleagues had to share.
One teacher I interviewed, I’ll call him Mike, is a middle school teacher. He has taught for six years now (including this one), and this year was the first time he’s ever taught in an entirely remote environment, aside from last spring when the pandemic hit. When I asked him what the highlight of his career has been, he replied: “transitioning to remote teaching.”
The other teacher I interviewed, let’s call her Jane, teaches high school. She has 17 years of experience, with 15 in the classroom, and she considers herself a jack-of-all-contents. The best part of teaching for her are the “communities of kids you connect with.” During our discussion, she recalled some past groups of students with whom she shared little inside jokes.
For both of these teachers, relationships are a huge part of why they teach.
That might sound like a strange statement, as some have branded remote learning as an isolating and socially stunting situation, but both of these teachers made it a priority to build strong relationships at the outset of the school year and have continued to work to keep that momentum going.
Mike likes to start off every class the same way: on a topic entirely unrelated to his content area. He provides the students with “Would you rathers” and gleans responses from each of his students in class that day before moving on. “Sometimes it takes 20 minutes,” he says, “but I feel it’s worth it, [even] with the time devoted to it.”
Jane does something quite similar--she begins class by asking students to rate how they are doing that day, on a scale of one to five. Then she follows up with a silly question, such as “If animals could talk, which one would be the rudest”? Or “”Which TV show have you binged-watched?” She makes sure to mentally note any students who respond with a one or two, and connects with them privately after class to make sure they’re okay.
To start the year, Mike made sure to familiarize students with the tools they’d be using to ease any jitters, and he also had each student present a little slideshow about themselves so that students could feel that they knew who else was with them in the ‘room.’ Jane set the tone with a few basic expectations, with the main one being super simple: “Don’t be a dick.” Of course, she didn’t say it quite that way, but students have not violated this cardinal rule. She also had students get to know each other, to get comfortable with each other by first sharing more about herself than she ever has before. “I definitely took more time to give kids my bio: Where am I from? What was my road to teaching? My things I like to do, pictures of my cat and my husband. They want to know these things.” Then she had them each share about themselves, via FlipGrid, responding to a short set of questions, providing their names, hobbies, pets, pronouns. The culmination of the activity was when students viewed each other’s short videos, leaving supportive comments for each other, to make connections within the group.
Early on in the year, both Mike and Jane arrived at the same decision: they would ask for cameras on, but wouldn’t enforce it. As Jane notes, “I didn’t fight the camera battle...it was something that I realized--I’ve only got one screen [and] I can’t see them [all], anyway.” Mike feels the same way: “I ask that they’re on, but I don’t police it. I know that cameras can make [students] self-conscious.” He adds, “Some of them don’t want others to see their [home] environment, and I don’t want that to be a barrier.” He also mentioned that some students got way too caught up in their appearance and were constantly doing their hair. “I will ask them, and I will remind them, but I will not [force them],” he says.
“A huge problem in our profession is that many teachers are perfectionists and control freaks.” --Jane, 17-year veteran teacher, currently on remote assignment
Engagement--or the continued criticism of the lack thereof with remote learning--has been a positive this year for both Jane and Mike. Jane says, “In some ways, I get more participation from students in remote learning than I did in-person. Is everyone participating? No, but they wouldn’t, anyway.” It seems many people forget that while a student who attends in person may be physically present, that doesn’t mean the student is mentally present. Mike has seen an interesting pattern: “It’s weird, but the typical bell curve you see is almost inverted--there’s hardly anyone in the middle.” He talked about how it can be incredibly hard to get students who are “ghosting” him to re-engage. “I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve called on a student who’s ‘there’ who doesn’t respond,” he says. However, when he tried out something new one day, a jigsaw in groups with students partnered up together in breakout rooms to create a Jamboard as a team, the engagement was through the roof: “I had 95% engagement,” he says.
One of the major challenges this year for both teachers has been students who are hesitant to speak up--either during whole class time or during breakout rooms. Jane notes, “they hate breakout rooms with a fiery passion.” But some of their students have warmed to breakout rooms, and Mike likes to use them for individual students, where they each get their own ‘room.’ Students like this approach, Mike says, because “they can call me in when they have questions without anyone else knowing.”
Allowing students to remain anonymous in some ways leads to better participation, in both teachers’ experiences. All of their students are big fans of PearDeck, a tool that both teachers use regularly in their live lessons. “I’ve taught freshmen through seniors and everyone loves PearDeck--everyone can guess with no fear of anyone knowing who guessed what,” Jane says.
Other programs that both teachers use frequently are EdPuzzle and Jamboard. In Mike’s view, Jamboard is great for collaborative thinking “because they can just jot their ideas down.” For Jane, it took her a little while to warm up to EdPuzzle--she had attended a training a few years back, but it seemed more complicated, so she had left it alone. This year, she’s changed her mind: “it does take some time, but it’s worth it.” Her tip for learning new programs to use with students: “Just open it up and start goofing around with it. You click around and you figure it out.”
Both teachers noted that they have not received any substantive training to help with remote learning this year. So Mike decided to go it alone and find his own PD. “Over the summer, I attended an online development, sponsored by PearDeck.” He found the experience to be valuable, as he uses the program on a nearly daily basis. Jane thinks PD from the district could help--if it’s useful. “People are stuck doing something a certain way,” she says, “and there’s not a lot of support to help them do it better.” It doesn’t help that teachers who teach remotely are often deeper in isolation from their peers--or at least, one would think.
Something that has been helpful for Mike, to make sure that working remotely doesn’t overtake his personal life, has been leaning on colleagues who share ideas and lessons. He says, “I rely so much more on my colleagues in terms of planning materials [this year. Last year,] I used to stay super late until I’d get stuff done.” To make sure he keeps a good work-life balance, he adheres to a strict rule: “Once four o’clock hits, I’m just done.”
Jane has also made some key discoveries about how to keep her work from seeping into her personal life. “It took me a long, long time to get away from grading everything,” she says. She began using an exit ticket through Google Forms at the end of each class period as closure, which also gives students immediate feedback on their progress. “Kids really like it because it’s a little five-point quiz...If you get everything right, you get to pat yourself on the back.” She also notes, “if you craft your exit ticket well, they get the feedback they need.” She also admitted that sometimes she will give 100% across the board on a minor assignment--she thinks it’s important to “give yourself permission” to do that every once in a while, to save time. “When I ask kids what they like [about our class],” Jane says, “they say they like the exit tickets--no one says they liked the detailed feedback!”
Another way that Jane has simplified the process for herself and for students is to give each student just one document per day--nothing else--to keep it simple and streamlined. It’s all there: “all the links, all the everything--and then they turn it in [at the end of class].”
Something that works great for Mike is something every in-person teacher wishes for: the mute button. “Behavior management is a million times better,” he says. Jane agrees that her time has become much more efficient, with far less policing of off-task behaviors than in years past. “[Remote learning] is a lot more efficient,” she says, “not a lot of wasting time. I can get through what I normally would get through in 90 minutes [when in-person] in 60 minutes [now that she’s remote].” That allows students extra processing time and extra time to linger and ask questions during the last few minutes of class. And those who are done? They can leave, rather than having to stick around. “It’s amazing what you can do when you don’t have to get people to stop talking,” Jane says.
Both teachers were emphatic that remote learning can, and does, work. In Jane’s situation, it has allowed her more freedom to decide how she uses her time. “One of the things that people value most is if they have autonomy,” she says. “If they have autonomy, their happiness at work increases exponentially.” She is beside herself when it comes to teachers who say they can’t wait to return to ‘normal.’ “I see a lot of times on Facebook, ‘I can’t wait to get back to normal.’ And I’m like, no guys!” Teaching remotely, Jane gets a lot of flexibility in how she structures her days, and it doesn’t mean that she’s working less--she just gets to decide more about when she works. “It’s been great for me,” she says, “but it’s also great for students.” Mike is adamant about remote learning’s power for many students: “I have seen [that] for some kids, this is the best environment, by far. It’s not for all kids, and some kids are struggling this year,” he admits. “But the idea that kids can’t learn remotely is not true.”
If you would like to share your best practices for remote learning, to possibly be featured in a follow-up post, please reach out at: teachersaysemail.gmail.com
Cindy Shapiro is long-time teacher living in Colorado. She is the founder of Teacher Says, a budding podcast and website designed with the idea in mind of listening to and raising up teachers' voices. She has two school-aged children. Her book, For the Love of (Remote) Teaching is available on Amazon for Kindle.