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Tips For Navigating This Distance Learning Thing From Your Colleagues In The Trenches

Well, it's been a bit since I posted anything here at Teacherly and the reason for that is that believe it or not, I have never taught through a pandemic before! So the last few weeks have left me reeling and feeling a bit of a loss at how I could possibly support teachers and administrators in something so mind-bogglingly overwhelming. We are asking folks to pivot from in-person learning to distance learning at the snap of a finger. This is obviously unprecedented and the lack of any experience and knowledge about how to navigate pandemic distance learning left me feeling unequipped to offer any answers.

Then I realized that this is exactly what my teachers are feeling as well. None of us knows what they heck we are doing. This became evident when over the past few weeks, I started getting flooded with questions from teachers in the trenches about how to convert in-person curriculum to online learning, how much work is too much, how to reach students that aren't logging in, how to organize a "school day," how to teach while also supporting their own kids with school and on and on. And while I definitely can't offer answers from my own realm of experience, I realized that the best way to answer these questions from folks in the trenches is to get tips from other folks in the trenches. So I reached out and asked teachers: "What is working right now?" Here are the tips those teachers offered:

Get your face and/or your voice in front of your students.

Even if you are the most camera-shy person on the planet--this is important right now. Many of your students miss the stability and the predictability of a school day and many of them really miss their teachers (even if some of them would never admit it). It is important to give your students the ability to see and/or hear you, especially a calm, happy you (even if you are feeling anything but calm and happy). This provides an important touchstone for your students and helps to normalize this whole, totally not-normal time for them, at least a tiny bit.

There are a ton of ways to get your face and voice in front of your students. Leave video messages in your LMS or on your website. Screencast or video record a lesson and make sure your face, or at least your voice, is in the video. Set up a Flipgrid so you can leave video messages to each other. If you use any social media for your classroom or school, consider doing live videos (storytimes, music performances, live art demonstrations, etc., are hugely popular right now). Set up times to meet with students using a platform like Zoom or Google Hangouts. There are countless apps and websites that allow you to leave video chats or record yourself and send your smiling face to your students. Let them know you are okay, you are thinking of them and you are there. These little touchpoints don't even need to be academic. This is an important time to support our students' SEL and letting them see and/or hear you is a great way to do that.

Set up an office and create boundaries around your work hours.

Make a space in your home where you can permanently keep your "office." Set reasonable work hours and stick to them. So that means: get up, shower, get dressed, make coffee, "go to your office," and then when your workday is over--shut it all down and walk away. I know this is far easier said than done. I have been working from home with twins for the last 4 years and there is no such thing as a regular workday in my world. But I do stop answering emails and phone calls after a certain time. And I put on pants (most days.) Those boundaries will help protect your mental health.

Hold virtual office hours

Set up office hours via Zoom, Google Hangouts, phone, email, etc. Designate certain days and times of day for virtual office hours and then make sure your channels are open during that time. Log in to Zoom or Hangouts, have your email open, your phone turned on and invite students to use that time to "drop by" and ask questions, get clarification or merely check-in. Giving students designated times not only gives students concrete hours for contact, but it also protects your own mental health because you are not answering emails at 10 pm.

Make virtual appointments to work one-on-one with students

You can do this any way that works for you and the student: Zoom, Google Hangouts, phone (texts/calls), etc. Some students will not reach out unless they have a specific time to do so. Giving them an appointed time makes the one-on-one help official and students are more likely to show up.

Consider holding synchronous classes

For most teachers, asynchronous teaching is the only way to survive this. This means teachers are putting curriculum online and students are logging in and working at their own pace. And this is working and is definitely the way to go. But if you can swing it, try to set up a real-time class now and then. This means scheduling a lesson for your class via Zoom or Hangouts at a certain time and asking all students to log in and join you live. You may only get a couple of students the first time. Or you may get a whole mess of students you don't even know trying to crash your virtual class because they miss their friends and want to socialize (this is a real thing that happens! So make sure to set up your class with a waiting room). Either way, whoever shows up is going to benefit greatly from being able to talk to you and their peers in real-time and this can be a powerful way to teach a lesson long distance. And this is one of those ways to get your face in front of your students!

Provide clear step-by-step instructions and checklists

Outline the work and differentiate clearly between must-do and supplemental activities. I know I personally can't work without a checklist. I know a lot of folks who can't. Your students are probably seriously overwhelmed. If they have family members helping them, they need guidance too. Give them a checklist. This is huge.

Find a way to provide paper and pencil options

Distance learning purely through technology is absolutely not equitable. Work with your admin or your team to find ways to get paper and pencil alternatives to students who need them. I have seen some creative means for this out there, including material pick-up and completed-work drop-off stations at school, but also in different places in the community. There are all sorts of protocols folks are putting in place to protect safety and social distancing. There is no handbook for this. Every school is figuring this out as they go. If you don't already have a plan for this in place, talk to your team and figure out how to meet those needs.

Remember less is more right now. Deep not wide.

You don't have to convert every single lesson you intended to teach from your in-person curriculum into online lessons at a 1:1 ratio. Give your students opportunities to go deep with their thinking. This can be done with a few short lessons. They will not spend nearly as much time on their work at home as they do with you in your class. That is just fact right now. So consider giving them a few deep, critical thinking opportunities and cut out some of the things that don't convert well to the online environment.

Consider cross-curricular partnerships to help ease the workload of both you and students.

This is not the time to reinvent the wheel and develop whole new curriculum, to be sure, but if you can partner up with a colleague, you might consider it. This can really ease the load on yourself and on your students, who will be able to combine two or even three subject areas into one class.

Set reasonable deadlines.

Check-in with students who are missing work at deadline dates. Deadlines help!

Work with families who offer you alternative ideas.

I know several teachers who have heard from families who would like to modify or replace certain lessons or activities. I know that this can feel overwhelming for teachers with hundreds of students but this is the same as differentiating and being responsive in your classroom in a normal world. And it can be done. For example, one teacher I support has a student who is really struggling with doing her work on an iPad and the family is struggling with massive meltdowns that are causing huge amounts of additional stress in an already stressful situation. So the family prints out all of the activities, and the student completes them with paper and pencil, rather than on the iPad. The family then sends the teacher pictures of the completed work. Now is the time to exercise tons of flexibility and understanding. If the modifications still meet the learning targets, consider meeting your students and their families in the middle.

Give yourself grace.

I am sure you have heard this one a million times in the past month but really, every single teacher I talked to said this is their number one tip. I am learning to give myself grace at this time as well and I know it is hard but please remember, this is not normal. Distance learning and distance teaching are skill sets that take time, lots and lots of time to develop. We are asking folks to pivot and become distance learning experts in a ridiculously short amount of time. It is absolutely necessary to give yourself lots and lots of grace.

Have you found other ways to make this distance learning thing work for you and your students? I would love to hear them!

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