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Education Trends, Equity Resources, Productivity Strategies, Podcast Articles   |   Apr 19, 2020

Some parts of teaching are BETTER with remote learning. Here’s how to leverage that.

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Some parts of teaching are BETTER with remote learning. Here’s how to leverage that.

By Angela Watson

I asked teachers on my Facebook page recently to share some of the positive outcomes they’ve seen with teaching remotely in crisis.

I wanted to know: Is there any aspect of your work with students that you’re liking better now? Any approaches that are working better for some kids than the usual ways of doing face-to-face instruction?

The replies were fascinating, and I’m going to share some overarching themes here with you. But I want to start with a response from a teacher named Mar, because what she said really touched me:

I’m really enjoying doing remote teaching. Of course, I miss my kiddos, but now I get to truly concentrate on content (which is my comfort zone anyway). When I’m helping a student, they have my full and undivided attention. I don’t have to worry about the 5 other kids with their hands up. I get to give much more meaningful feedback than I ever did in a normal class. I have so much time for grading. I have time to create engaging, content-based, meaningful lessons. It’s going to be hard to go back to the old ways when this is all over. This is my dream job. Does this make me a bad teacher?

First off, if you are feeling like that, you are definitely NOT a bad teacher for enjoying this new way of interacting with your students. Amid all of the new problems and the existing problems that have been made worse by the pandemic, there are also bright spots.

There are results we’re getting right now that we probably wouldn’t be getting if the school year had progressed as normal.

I also want to add that many students are happier now, too. Not all of our kids loved their teachers and miss them now. Not all of our kids found school to be a safe, loving place where they were seen and valued. Learning from home has been an improvement for them, and I’m not just talking about kids in affluent families. Many students whose home language and culture are devalued by the school system are thriving right now in ways that the school system is not designed to measure.

So let’s challenge the idea here that pandemic pedagogy is universally worse for kids and teachers, or universally more stressful and difficult. Some folks are having the opposite experience, and even those who prefer the face-to-face experience are still experiencing some positive outcomes.

Now I’m obviously thinking about what things we’re doing now that we might want to continue or adapt for next school year, but it’s a bit premature to plan for that, given that we have no idea yet what the fall will be like.

So here’s what I want you to do with this episode: look for things that you agree with here and benefits from remote teaching that you are also seeing. 

And, think about ways to document these benefits.

Consider it “virtual classroom-based action research.” Observe and document which practices are getting good results (or perhaps better results than face to face instruction) for your students. 

You don’t have to figure out now how to carry this over to the next school year, but having a record of what you’re seeing to prove the benefits of now versus the traditional ways of doing school may be helpful to you later in creating permanent change.

If that feels overwhelming, then just pick one thing.

What’s one thing you’re doing differently right now that’s working better for you and your students, which you might be able to use in future school years?

Keep evidence of that. Experiment with it, a lot, to learn what works and what doesn’t.

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With that, let me share some of the benefits other teachers have noticed to help get you thinking.

Keep in mind you will probably not observe ALL of these benefits. In fact, something that improved for one teacher may have gone the opposite direction for you!

That’s absolutely fine. We’re not in competition with one another here.

Just notice the things that ARE working well, or that maybe COULD be working well, and see where that observation leads you in your practice.

1. The ability to offer more virtual tutoring for kids who need help

A teacher named Maria said, “I have a virtual tutoring sign up for my kids via Google Forms. When a student is signed up, I send them an email with a Google Hangouts link. They click on it and we meet! Some never sign up, but some sign up every day. I would like to continue to offer maybe once weekly tutoring for those who want it. It is mostly just kids who want help with homework, but it is great for them to take the initiative if they are confused.”

Presumably, this is something many teachers don’t typically offer because of time constraints: It would have to be done unpaid on their evenings and weekends, and lesson planning and grading are already competing for that time.

But let’s stay in this mode of simply observing, documenting, and envisioning. Maybe this is something you finally have time to try. Document the outcomes you see, even if they’re subjective or related to “soft skills” or socio-emotional benefits.

Fine-tune the system now, and learn how to really get the most bang for your buck in terms of these virtual tutoring sessions. Experiment with different time slots, lengths of time, and instructional approaches.

Maybe next school year you’ll be able to identify something else you’re doing to help struggling students that’s not as effective, reduce or even remove that from your schedule, and build in virtual tutoring instead.

2. Better accommodations for students with IEPs

This is one in which most teachers feel like crisis distance learning is WORSE for their students, so if you’re floundering in this area, please don’t feel alone! Let me share some stories that might give you hope and inspiration.

Marilyn said, “Online instruction allows my students near-instant access to read aloud technology that they often don’t ask for in the classroom. They are also able to adjust color and size in a way not possible with standard handouts. The gen ed teachers are commenting on how much the kids have grown in the last two weeks. I’m like, these accommodations have been there, but the kids don’t always like to talk in large groups and they need the extra time to process that the virtual setting is giving them.”

In terms of specifics, she said, “Our district is using the Microsoft teams platform. Individual teachers can load assignments into it as Google Docs, which with a right-click allows most devices to turn on the read-aloud (not all — still working on that). Other kids are turning on immersive readers in Word and my students with dyslexia can use the dictate function to record their thoughts. We also use Imagine Math and Reading where students designated with IEPs can click the language button and get speak options. And for our younger students, we’re using starfall.com, which provides full access to video learning as support for their handouts.”

Now here’s what I’m extrapolating from this, in terms of benefits to students in SPED programs. It’s not necessarily the case that these resources and accommodations weren’t available before the pandemic. Most were. But sometimes SPED students are reluctant to utilize those accommodations in front of their peers in the classroom or have to take turns using a limited number of devices, or the classroom is too busy and noisy for them to be able to concentrate.

Let me lead into another benefit that a number of teachers are noting, which is that…

3. Students are less distractive and disruptive to one another’s learning

Kristen says, “I have one student who I can never get to do his ELA program on the iPad in class because he is so distracted. But he’s rocking it at home. It might be all the breaks. Being forced to learn this technology will open up many more options for me next year!”

I love that reflection — not only are there fewer distractions for this student when not in a room with 30 other kids, but the student is also given more breaks, which is presumably leading to better concentration.

This would be an excellent area to conduct action research and document the changes you see in students so you know what to attribute the positive outcome to — it might not be what we assume! Then you can look for ways to carry it over to the next school year.

Rebecca points out the reduced disruptions as well, saying, “My attention can be on everyone now, instead of one or two kids with big behavior needs and no support. It is such a relief”.

And Natalya, along with many other teachers, are singing the praises of the mute button on Zoom. Obviously, we’re laughing about being instantly able to create a silent classroom virtually and how awesome that is.

But on a serious note, the constant chatter and interruptions aren’t just annoying for teachers. Kids who need quiet in order to concentrate dislike the distractions of the classroom, too. Many students will do far better quality work when they aren’t physically surrounded by their peers.

This makes me wonder how virtual learning might be a better approach next year for projects and tasks that require deep thinking and creativity…

That leads us to another benefit, which is that…

4. Quiet and shy kids are more likely to ask questions and participate

Clarissa says, “Kids who might not ask questions in class are messaging me with their questions.” And, Angela says, “I’ve noticed my quiet students are starting to shine. They are participating in Zoom. They are asking questions. They are offering ideas.”

Vanessa says, “I’m doing a Google Forms check in with each of my kids at the beginning and end of each day, and asking socio-emotional questions as well as just random informational ones, like something nice they’ve done for a family member, what they did for exercise during their midday break, etc. It’s really nice getting individual answers from each student, instead of a few of the more vocal students tending to dominate.”

There’s no doubt that some students are more comfortable participating from behind a screen rather than face-to-face. We’ve known that as educators for some time. My mind is spinning with ways we can leverage that, now that we’re seeing it on such a larger scale.

A similar benefit here is…

5. Better participation and work completion levels

Rebecca says, “I’ve had students that haven’t turned in work all semester now participating online! And I teach at a 1:1 school and actively use our LMS. It is blowing my mind. I haven’t changed my curriculum at all. It’s still posted in our LMS & submitted back there. The only difference is now it’s ‘homework’ because I am anti-homework and give them plenty of class time to do everything.”

Obviously many teachers are seeing lower participation levels for a wide variety of reasons, as well. But this is still interesting to think about.

Why might work completion be better right now for some kids, in some schools?

I’ll hypothesize that some of them want to interact with their friends, and Zoom meetings are a rare opportunity to see all their classmates. Some may crave normalcy and structure right now.

All of them have fewer fun things competing for their attention.

But what Rebecca mentioned about kids not having to do 6 hours of classwork AND homework got me thinking, as well. Her students are not getting more or less work right now.

What they’re getting are more autonomy and breaks.

They don’t have to get up so early to go to school, sit through 6 hours of classes, and then come home and do more work, on top of everything else they’re juggling. They have more choice over when to work, can go to the bathroom freely, eat when they’re hungry, and so on.

That’s something to consider for sure.

6. Fewer classroom time-wasters, fluff, and waiting around for other students

I think about this one a lot particularly for the elementary level, where going to the bathroom and getting a drink can take 15 minutes of the school day because the whole class has to make a trip at once. Going to the bathroom and getting a drink at home takes a fraction of that amount of time.

Instead of kids sitting for 5 minutes in class for everyone to pass in their papers and get out materials for the next activity: you can tell the class to take a 5-minute break, and then meet back up again. They can stand, stretch, take care of their basic needs, and not feel like they’re sitting and waiting for everyone else.

Think about all the additional time we’ve gotten back: waiting for the class to line up quietly, bringing in the recess equipment, getting out supplies, cleaning up materials, and so on. Either those elements of the day are cut out, or can happen without the teacher being required to manage the whole process.

And the lack of time wasters can be true for the instructional time, as well. A teacher named Dem says, “My kids love that we are getting to the point of the topic without all required extras of the classroom. It’s like, here’s the lesson, here’s the essential learning, here is the higher learning assignment.”

After all, a lesson that might take 30 minutes to teach face to face but only be a 10 minute recorded video or screencast, if there are no interruptions. Kids can watch the lesson quickly, and use the remainder of their virtual class time in ways that are valuable to them.

Another benefit is that teachers are having…

7. More intentional opportunities to check for understanding 

Jean says, “I have come to realize how important it is to do understanding checks and how many kids aren’t really getting it during a lecture. I do not like this manner of teaching but it is making me a better teacher.”

I think that makes total sense. When you’re standing in front of the classroom, it’s easy to focus on what you need to say rather than whether kids are really understanding. There’s pressure to keep everyone on task and get through the lesson and to cover all the material before time is up. This leaves many teachers only checking for understanding at the end.

But time progresses differently in virtual teaching. There’s less classroom management happening, and more time to check in with kids. You can stop more, and give more practice work without worrying about losing kids’ attention and momentum of the lesson.

This is going to look different according to how you’re doing emergency distance learning right now, and according to your subject matter, student demographics, your teaching style, and many other factors.

But it’s an interesting aspect to experiment with, isn’t it? How many times have you marched all the way through a lesson without realizing your kids aren’t understanding? How often are you assuming that because they’re not asking questions, they get it? Teaching in this new way can shed light on all kinds of important realizations.

Some teachers are also reporting that they are able to give…

8. Better, faster feedback on student work

For some teachers, this might be because they’re not responsible for live instruction 6 hours a day anymore, which leaves more time for individual conferences and helping students reflect on their work. Kelly says, “I’m giving so much more immediate feedback on their writing because I CAN.”

For other teachers, better and faster feedback may be due to the tech tools they’re using, which can simplify the process considerably. Given the amount of time teachers typically spend on grading and assessment, this is an area to watch for sure.

And still, for other teachers, the better feedback might be due to…

9. More effective (and uninterrupted) differentiation

You might be used to teaching reading groups or tier 3 intervention groups, for example, with 4-8 kids while also trying to ensure another 2 dozen kids are on-task for independent work. This is extremely challenging in almost every classroom.

So, being able to meet via Microsoft Teams or video conferencing with just the kids in the small group while the rest are offline is a huge relief to many teachers.

Similarly, being able to meet with one child virtually (rather than having the entire class there while you’re trying to offer support) can be a breath of fresh air, too.

Additionally, for the teachers who are not required to give live instruction for multiple hours of the day, the majority of teaching can now be done in small groups. Kids can sign up for the support slots when they need them, or do the work on their own instead. A certain skill may be taught to the whole class, and then the following day, enrichment or review classes can be offered according to who needs what.

Effective differentiation is one of the biggest challenges for most teachers, in terms of finding an approach that is both effective for kids and manageable for the teacher. Differentiation is extremely time-consuming. But, if you’re not responsible for teaching 6 face-to-face hours a day, you can use that time to plan differentiated lessons and deliver more individualized instruction. There’s definitely something to be learned from this time in order to make next year better.

10. A closer teacher-student bond, and even teacher-parent bond

I know many families have not checked in with virtual school at all, and their teachers are deeply worried. Their students are struggling with this mightily. You may not be able to contact them at all, or connect with them in all the ways you ordinarily would.

But there are some teachers who are finding this new format to be an improvement, particularly in schools where academic expectations are more relaxed, compared to how they normally would be.

Sarah says, “I feel like I know these kids so much better. We’ve been doing Hangouts 3x/week and they just like to sit and ask each other questions.”

Taylor says, “I read short stories as episodes to the kids every night and it really has built a stronger bond. They love it when I really get into the story and beg me to read more.”

I’m optimistic that this forced time of finding other ways to connect with kids and build relationships will show us new ways to strengthen teacher-student (and family) relationships.

Some teachers are saying this is the most contact they’ve had with many parents all year.

Madeline says, “Parents see how important it is for their children to stay on task, and how data I have sent home backs up what they are experiencing.”

This situation is giving many parents a much deeper understanding of what their kids are being taught, their children’s work habits, their children’s strengths and weaknesses, and so on.

We’re also seeing…

11. Better tech integration and innovation among teachers

Nilda says, “I have a new understanding of Microsoft Teams and other technology out there! I’m a techie, but this has broadened even my horizons!”

Patty says, “I learned how to use Loom for prerecorded ELA lessons (I read aloud stories, discuss pictures, ask questions).  I do a screen share combined with face to camera so my students can see digital book pages and my face in the corner. I think next year I may use this to provide at-home support (“homework”) for review and reinforcement. I made all my recordings on Saturday for the week then shared out my links on Monday.”

And finally, we’re seeing…

12. More awareness of (and accommodations for) inequities in the system

I’ve seen some commentary on social media about how grading students on work done during emergency distance learning is simply grading privilege: you’re assessing students’ access to a safe home environment, wifi, digital devices, time freedom for focusing on school rather than having to support the family financially or watch younger siblings, etc.

The truth is that we’ve always been grading privilege. School buildings and resources can help mitigate inequities, but not eliminate them altogether. Schools in more affluent areas tend to have more and better resources for kids, anyway, so it’s not like all our schools were equally funded and all children had equal opportunities before this.

The pandemic is shining a brighter spotlight on the inequities, and the challenges of making sure all kids have the support and resources needed to learn. Problems that were more easily ignored BC (before COVID) are now demanding solutions. Many schools are innovating in this area for the first time, or taking innovation to a new level in terms of making devices and assignments accessible for students.

There’s a lot of work to be done here, but there is the potential for so much good to come from this. If we can go the extra mile to support kids and families now, we can do that always.

I hope this episode has given you some encouragement, that as challenging as this time is, you are at the forefront of exploring new and better ways of learning. Notice what’s working well.

Document what you’re experiencing. Conduct some action research to prove which things are better for your kids so you can keep doing them and keep getting these benefits in the future. It’s not going to be easy, it’s going to be worth it.

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Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Angela is a National Board Certified educator with 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach. She started this website in 2003, and now serves as Editor-in-Chief of the Truth for Teachers...
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  1. 12. More awareness of (and accommodations for) inequities in the system

    “The truth is that we’ve always been grading privilege.”

    Preach !


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