Powering the Global Education Conversation: About edCircuit

What I’ve Learned Teaching Virtually

In March of this year, the entire teaching world found itself needing to pivot quite quickly due to COVID-19 shutting down our schools. This is how quickly it happened in my district. Teachers were told on a Wednesday that the last day with students would be the following Tuesday. Then things kept getting worse and we shuttered our doors by Friday instead. Teachers had just the weekend to figure out how to deliver their lessons without having their students in the room with them. Some did this well, some not so hot. Some of this depended on the infrastructure of the school system and whether the technology was there. Some districts simply called it a school year because students did not have the technology or their teachers lacked the know-how to make this happen. 

In looking at this chart by the Center on Reinventing Public Education, you can see that most districts started slow. But by the time May rolled around, schools had made improvements over the course of just a month and a half to now providing curriculum, instruction, and progress monitoring. This does not discount the fact that there are still 33% of the schools providing a formal curriculum but no instruction. That means there are still a lot of schools giving kids just the basics and not providing any instructions in those basics. 

With so many unknowns in August, there is a high likelihood that students are going to have to be taught on-line. The question becomes, can we get better at doing this? Like most administrators, I monitored what my teachers were doing and how they were using technology to work with students, but I didn’t have to do this myself. Sure, I sat in on what felt like 857,293 Zoom or Google Meet meetings, but only occasionally was I leading these sessions. It was mostly just sitting there and listening, although my daughter, who is taking her college classes on-line, showed me I could turn off my camera and catch a nap here or there. I did have to provide some professional development to districts via technology but recognized its limitations when one woman, who apparently didn’t have a college daughter to tell her about turning the camera off, proceeded to put her feet up at her computer desk and sleep for about 45 minutes of my presentation. I didn’t take offense to this. It informed me that I needed to come up with a better way to engage my audience. 

When the summer rolled around, I found myself teaching at two summer camps. One was a local camp that usually involved students attending residentially for a week, but instead, we used Google Meet to hold our classes. Another was teaching children from China through Zoom. Because of the 12-hour difference between China and where I live, this required me to teach from 7 to 9 in the morning. 

Now I needed to put my money where my mouth was. For the past few months, I expected the teachers I supervised and the teachers who taught my 7th grade daughter to provide students with not just an adequate education, but a great one. Now I had to figure out a way to do this myself. Not only that, but the classes I was teaching were also normally very interactive in nature, so I had to find a way to replicate that in a virtual setting. 

Here are five things I learned from teaching virtually:

Crappy teaching in the classroom is still crappy teaching on-line – If you are just putting worksheets on-line, how effective do you think that would have been if you were only doing that in the classroom? Interestingly enough, though, good teaching does not always equal good on-line learning. You have to get out of the fixed mindset of “I’m just going to take my physical classroom and make an electronic version of it.” Instead, you should adopt a growth mindset of “I’m going to have to make some adjustments to the manner in which I teach.” This might mean you have to take old ideas and adapt them into something new. For one of my classes, which involved a physical scavenger hunt, I had to adapt this to an on-line scavenger hunt, using the world wide web as our playing field. 

Technical problems are going to happen – when you are dealing with the internet and relying on connections that four other people in your household might be using as well, things are bound to go wrong. The very first on-line class that I taught, I was giving a presentation for a half-hour before I realized the connection had been broken, and I had been essentially talking to myself. When I want to show my students in China a YouTube video or to follow a link to an article, I have to keep in mind that they have to use what is called a VPN to get internet not limited by the government. One thing I did discover. If you can’t figure it out, your students probably can. For one of my classes, students had to take a photo of what they had done and attach it to the Google Classroom. I wasn’t quite sure how to do this when a student asked, so I asked if anyone in the class could explain it and many were happy to oblige. 

Bells and whistles do not equal good teaching – my inbox for my school email has been bombarded with new programs and innovative technology that can be used to drive student interest. Spoiler alert; if your lesson is not interesting or you don’t engage students in the first place, no amount of pomp and circumstance is going to make it any better. You need to think of technology as a tool and decide whether a certain one is the correct tool for a certain activity. When I put students into groups and asked them to collaborate, we simply used a shared Google doc where stude