Perspectives From the Field: Teachers Teaching Online

By Mark Whipple

As an Instructional Technology Specialist in a suburban middle school south of Boston, MA, I was curious about the ways teachers might begin to use technology in our new and suddenly-online learning environment. The expectations coming from states, school systems and individual schools vary widely, and teachers’ level of experience and comfort with technology varies just as much. What techniques for in-person classroom teaching can be applied, and what new methods are needed? What are some approaches to meeting the needs of students when not physically with them? What do teachers need to do in terms of self-care to be present for their students?

Through interviews with teachers I’ve compiled some suggestions to help those struggling with this brand-new world. While there are significant differences among charter, independent and traditional public schools regarding the type and amount of material teachers are expected to cover, the good news is that most teachers have been given great latitude in how they engage with their students. This has led to some very creative and thoughtful strategies.

The charter school and independent school teachers I contacted are typically working on a schedule that approximates a regular school day. Zoom or Google video conferences are scheduled for different subjects throughout the week. Teachers often assign group work by creating break-out sessions where groups of students would move to a separate video conference apart from their classmates. Rachel, who teaches second grade at an independent school north of Boston, found that break-out rooms helped her differentiate by focusing on the groups that had a greater need for her input.

Rachel says it took a while to get things running smoothly with her students online. For example, the first day they had to focus on how to use the Mute function in Zoom when appropriate. She has had good success with a tool called NearPod, which is like an interactive, online Powerpoint or electronic whiteboard. For example, she created a page with blank clock faces and each student had to draw the hands for the requested time. Rachel could see each of them as they progressed. Rachel sounded a theme I heard from many of the teachers I spoke to: by connecting with the students online, we are providing them with some structure to the day and helping them remember that they are part of a community, a community that values them and their efforts.

Tracey is a paraprofessional for an early childhood autism class in Boston Public Schools. She conducts a “Daily Circle” using Facebook Live. Typically she has fifty families following the live feed, and hundreds more watch after the video is complete. Tracey suggests teachers work with their strengths. She has a husband who teaches TV production so her equipment setup is top notch. A co-worker of hers raises chickens so one day she had a whole lesson about eggs hatching. Tracey also feels the face time is important for the kids and recommends that this is new to everyone, so don’t be afraid to ask for help from coworkers and administrators. Another suggestion Tracey provides, which was echoed by several others: you need to provide yourself structure for both time and place. Designate somewhere in your house or apartment as your workplace. Have a schedule for when you are “on” and make sure to plan to have downtime as well. Colleagues have shared with Tracey that this is one area that makes teaching online more challenging.

Annie is a sixth grade ELA and social studies teacher in a Boston charter school. When I asked what expectations her school set for teachers, she said they “stressed the importance of keeping kids in a routine and keeping kids learning.” Teachers should try to see to the social and emotional needs of their students as much as the online medium allows. Annie echoed the need for students to feel that they are a valued part of the community and she emphasized the importance of virtual facetime. Annie recommends that teachers ask kids what is working and what is not with their online learning. Initially, her students were stressed about knowing what they needed to accomplish and when, and how to get help. That was a fairly simple fix, says Annie, and things went more smoothly thereafter. Being honest with kids by sharing that this is hard for everyone so we need to help each other. Students should reach out to teachers, parents and their peers.

A teacher from another Boston area school meets with her ELA students virtually for two hours on Monday, and then they work independently on assignments throughout the week. They are graded on their participation during direct instruction. She says that patience and flexibility are vital for transitioning to online instruction. If everyone is anxious, “anxiety is not conducive to learning.” Give kids options for assignments and allow lots of time for them to complete their work. If we can become distracted when trying to work from home, so distraction must be even more of a challenge for the students. She says it’s important to remember that we’re all trying our best and this won’t last forever.

A few more quotes from teachers.

From Tim, a third grade math and science teacher from southern Connecticut: “The challenge is getting every single kid involved and invested. It requires a lot of support from parents at home.  My advice would be to collaborate with your other teachers. Communicate. Share the work.  There’s lots to do.”

From Emily, a sixth grade ELA teacher from a city near Boston: “Try not to compare yourself to other teachers. This is important even when we ARE in school, but I feel like it is especially relevant now. You are going to see other teachers doing more than you are capable of or willing to do. That’s ok, and it does not mean you are a ‘bad teacher.’ If you care about your students, you’re a good teacher.”

Teaching online is an environment for which many of us were not as prepared as we would have liked. It’s easy to become frustrated and overwhelmed by the challenges of the technology and the physical separation from our students. But just like when we’re in our classrooms, we need to focus on the people and not the tools. We need to look after the social and emotional well-being of our students and ourselves. It’s OK if it’s not going perfectly (when does that happen in the classroom?), and it’s even better if you can share some of your challenges with your students. The technology you use will vary depending on what is available, what you feel comfortable with and who is available to provide support. It’s OK if you aren’t doing the same things as your colleagues. Remember that we’re all giving it our best and this won’t last forever.

Mark Whipple is an Instructional Technology Specialist and Technology Teacher at Sharon Middle School in Sharon, MA. Over the last 20 years Mark has worked in a wide variety of academic settings, including urban, suburban, independent, charter and traditional public schools. As he approaches retirement Mark is looking forward to his next career as a theater lighting designer.

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