Renewed Teacher Appreciation in a Time of Distance Learning: Three Takeaways as a Parent and Educator

By Diane Staehr Fenner

As a mother of three kids—in grades five, seven, and nine—it’s been utterly overwhelming to try and re-envision what schooling will look like for the remainder of the school year. This pervasive feeling is despite the fact that I was formerly a teacher and am currently an education consultant. Shortly after my district of nearly 200,000 students—the tenth largest in the United States—closed schools on March 13, I learned that all schools in my state of Virginia would remain closed through the end of the year.

The sea change to a distance learning model has left my head spinning both as an educator and as a parent. I recognize that I am privileged in many ways, including having the luxury of being able to work from home and minimize my contact with the coronavirus; having high speed internet access and devices for each of my kids; and being a native English speaker who used to teach in the same district where my kids attend school. Nonetheless, it’s been eye opening.

In this post I’ll share my three biggest take-aways and ways of coping with the experience so far, as a parent who knows a little about education.

1 – Reflect on your own hierarchy of needs.

You might be familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of basic needs, which is a framework that seeks to explain humans’ stages of growth. Maslow’s theory suggests that the most basic level of needs (e.g., food, love, clothing, shelter, financial security, health, safety) must be met before individuals are able to desire or become motivated to work toward meeting the higher level needs. Here’s what the hierarchy looks like as originally conceptualized in 1943, with physiological needs that must be met first:

Adapted from Maslow, 1943

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how what I’m experiencing doesn’t quite align with Maslow’s framework as originally conceptualized. Right now, the order of my hierarchy of needs is different due to the pandemic as is how each need plays out within this bizarre context. My hierarchy is looking more like this these days:

This is a breakdown of my needs, in their order of importance:

  1. Safety needs – Keeping my family members and myself safe by sheltering in place, trying to stay informed about the virus and how to slow its spread, wearing masks, getting and using cleaning supplies, trying to keep up with my own work and keep my small business running
  1. Physiological needs – Figuring out how to get groceries for my family when supplies are scarce and social distancing can’t be practiced, enlisting the kids to help keep the house clean(ish), cooking each meal at home
  2. Love and belonging – Keeping my kids happy and virtually connected with their friends, maintaining my kids’ routines, supporting my kids’ distance learning, keeping in touch virtually with my friends and family
  3. Self-actualization – Prioritizing some alone time as necessary to be a bit more creative, such as working my way through one of my kids’ piano lesson books to brush up on my skills and writing in my journal
  1. Esteem – Last on the list and rarely a thought, this is the least important area to me at the moment but involves a fleeting sense of accomplishment through supporting my family and colleagues

The takeaway: it’s grounding to think about what your hierarchy of needs looks like today. Being able to articulate how you’re feeling and what is needed to cope with those feelings will help you make sense of this crisis and the extra anxiety it’s causing. Reflecting can also help you prioritize where you focus your energy. For example, is it more essential for you to you to go for a walk, cook a family meal, or listen to your child read aloud?  

2 – Be OK with being good enough.

After schools closed abruptly during the middle of the night in March, we waited a month for distance learning to begin in earnest in my district, although the district provided optional materials online before that time. However, things did not go as intended during the first week of synchronous (live) instruction, and that facet of distance learning was subsequently “paused” for the remainder of the week. Synchronous learning was then attempted one more time this week but had to be canceled yet again. I recognize that distance learning will never fully replicate a brick and mortar school, but my kids and I had been eagerly awaiting some semblance of live contact with teachers and classmates. Of course, all of these rapid-fire changes and feelings of things happening beyond my control with my kids’ schooling were taking place within a context of information, misinformation, anxiety, and ambiguity about the coronavirus pandemic itself.

To keep up with instruction, whatever the district determines it may look like this week, my kids have to navigate separate links for each class and set of materials on both Blackboard and Google Classroom, since the district uses both platforms. I’ve done the math to see what that means: the total number of links for me to navigate as a parent each day to make sure my kids are meeting expectations is 34. Here’s a handy table:

Kid and GradeNumber of Distance Learning ClassesNames of Distance Learning ClassesNumber of Links to CheckOther Materials to Check for Distance Learning
1: 5th grade3ELA, math, specials6Handout packet to download each week,
Email
2: 7th grade7ELA, math, social studies, science, health & P. E. two electives14Handout packet to download each week,
Email
3. 9th grade`7ELA, math, social studies, science, health & P. E. two electives14Email

*One of my kids has an IEP, so I am asked to do a set of additional speech/language activities with that child each week that were provided by the school and report back about how these activities went.  

Did I mention I also work full time?

While my ninth grader works mostly independently and doesn’t require much guidance from me, I need to spend more time with my seventh grader to be sure she understands what she needs to do on multiple platforms (e.g., filming and submitting videos on Flipgrid, doing work on Flocabulary, completing experiments on her own and submitting Google docs). And I need to spend the most time with my fifth grader, basically sitting with him as he’s completing his work, which could entail him completing handouts, creating Google slides, or uploading a video to Padlet. All of this was rapidly turning into a second, full-time job, while I tried to keep up with my own job and keep the kids fed and the house not too disgusting.

All the while, I recognize that district leaders, teachers, and other parents are collectively trying to navigate this situation. We all know that virtual learning is not going to the take the place of learning that happens in school, but yet we want to feel as though our children are doing their work and have some sort of predictable routine. We parents need to be kind to ourselves as well as to our kids and their amazing teachers. Together with their teachers, we are all reinventing the way we do school in this time of physical distancing, and it is stressful.

The takeaway:  it’s OK to feel frustrated with constantly changing expectations and routines (or lack thereof). I’m doing the best I can to keep my kids engaged with their schoolwork in a system not designed for distance learning, and that’s enough for me right now. Our kids will always remember this time throughout the rest of their lives. They probably won’t remember what their distance learning lessons were about per se, but they will remember how their teachers and parents went out of their way to help them feel comforted and connected.

3. Recognize that, despite everything that’s happening, kids are learning.

Even during the month while their district was developing a distance learning plan, when it was difficult to facilitate much formal education at home, my kids spontaneously learned a few things on their own that neither I nor their teachers planned or expected. 

Here’s an incomplete list of what I’ve observed them doing during quarantine:

  • Letter writing – my 9th grader started writing and mailing handwritten letters to her friends from high school. Before being quarantined, she wasn’t sure how to address an envelope. She now sends and receives a few letters a week, which brighten her day.
  • Dog fostering – my 7th grader has fostered two dogs so far. In addition to learning a lot about responsibility while caring for the pups, she’s also writing online dog profile bios and taking photographs to help these dogs get adopted. She also started and maintains a TikTok account for the nonprofit.
  • Board game design – my 5th grader watched a creepy movie that was not quite rated G, but now he’s reading the book. He also decided to create a board game based on the book and movie.
  • Presentation skills – one of the kids got the idea that they would make a presentation about something that interested them, and then they all decided to create their own presentations, using Google slides and wacky images to talk about their chosen topics. It was a blast.

The takeaway: even if kids’ education does not look the way it did a couple of months ago, they are always learning, sometimes in unexpected ways. Some of the things they’re learning may turn out to be important life skills or lead them to a career choice. We just don’t know that yet while we’re in the middle of this pandemic. And, it’s an added bonus if they’re having fun.

Closing Thoughts

I’m not sure I can create a tidy summary of the messy thoughts above, although one conclusion does rise to the top of the heap: I am even more appreciative of the time, effort, and expertise our teachers bring to the teaching of our children every school day, especially when the rollout of distance learning might be changing from day to day. My kids’ teachers are doing an amazing job crafting lesson plans and being creative at connecting with my kids and me, and for that I will always be grateful. We are all trying.

At the same time, I’m also hopeful that this mode of learning might lead to new pedagogies that can later be incorporated into classrooms.  Some students may develop strengths in a distance learning environment that might not have surfaced otherwise, while others may take less readily to remote learning, as I’ve learned from the differences between my own kids.

When we can all take a collective breath again, we should take stock of what we’ve learned and see which elements of distance learning we may wish to incorporate moving forward. Do I want to check 34 links each day and have a schedule that changes daily? Hell no! Do I want my kids to feel less stressed and keep discovering what interests them? Absolutely! Let’s all continue supporting each other and continue our own learning, whatever that may look like.


Diane Staehr Fenner, PhD is president of SupportEd, LLC, a woman-owned small business located in the Washington, DC region that provides professional development, technical assistance, and research to empower ELs and their teachers. Diane is a former ESOL teacher, the author of five EL books, and is a frequent keynote speaker on EL education across North America.

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