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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 students could type to one another what they were thinking. I’m sure there was some sort of program that would have done this as well, and that was more advanced, but it worked, and it worked effectively. My students were able to collaborate, which is all I wanted them to do. My philosophy is to keep it simple. That means if the student finds PowerPoint to be easier for her to use than Google Slides, let her pick the one that will best display her work.  

Interact with your students as much as possible – I have class discussions and talk to students face-to-face as well as Zoom or Google Meet will allow me to. Whenever we are having a class discussion, I ask that students turn on the video so that I can talk to them, not the trendy icon they are using or even worse, the letter of their name. I want to look students in the eye as best I can and have conversations with them, just as I would want to do in the classroom. Virtual learning can sometimes push students away. You have to find ways to show them you care, and this interaction with them is one of the best ways. As an added bonus, I am terrible at learning names. It usually takes me a few weeks to learn all of my students’ names, and many of the classes I was teaching were only a week-long, meaning I didn’t learn many names when teaching the class live. With Zoom and Google Meet, the student name is displayed right beneath their face, making it so much easier for me to associate them with their name. As much as possible, I want to call students by their names, so this helps me to do this and make that connection with them. 

Prepare, prepare, prepare (but be ready to make changes) – In recent years, I have not been the type of teacher who makes extensive lesson plans. When I was teaching a class on essay writing last year, I was given the lesson plans of the teacher who taught before me. It was 178 pages long, and this was for a 7-day class. This was exhausting to use and I ended up doing more work trying to teach her lesson plans than if I’d just made my own. The TED Talk class I am teaching right now was also taught before me. When the principal sent me over the lesson plans, I opened them, saw they were more than 50 pages, and quickly closed them. I decided to create my own plans. This does involve having things set up on the Google Classroom ahead of time so that students have easy access to it. This might be a video, a PowerPoint, a visual, or a link to an article. I found when I didn’t prepopulate these before class, I was wasting students’ time because they had to wait for me to post what they needed to get started. Because time management for a virtual class can be tricky to master, I find myself putting more in the Google Classroom than I will need. It is always best to over plan and not use some of it because it can be carried over to the next class, rather than under plan and not have anything for students to do. In the end, it is all about communicating clearly with your students what you want them to learn, how you want them to learn it, and what they will use to learn it. Having things ready ahead of time allows you to do this. 

I will say after teaching on-line for the last couple of months; I enjoy it. Sure, I would much rather be in the same classroom as my students, but it can be used to help students to get a great education. You do have to understand, though, that it starts with the teaching methods you decide to use. If you have a traditional classroom where you lecture to students, this is not going to go so well virtually. However, such interactive methods, including project-based learning and inquiry learning, do translate well and are what is best for kids anyway.

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