By Kathryn Nieves Licwinko
As soon as someone finds out I’m an educator, they immediately want to dig into my feelings about teaching from behind a screen. In fact, virtual learning seems to dominate most of my conversations about education. Even after I returned to in-person instruction, discussions shifted toward wondering if (or when) we would return to remote instruction again. As I and my colleagues teach amid uncertainty of what the rest of the school year holds, I continue to consider the lessons I learned from teaching online. I not only think about which virtual teaching methods were successful and what I would do differently if my school were to return to online learning; I also consider how I can apply the lessons I learned from virtual instruction to my traditional, in-person classroom.
Some school districts have fully returned their students to the classroom. Other districts have decided to create virtual academies for those students who thrive working at home. Regardless of the model adopted by your school district, there are some lessons that we can take away from our virtual teaching experience and bring into our current educational practice.
Lesson One: Put Student Needs First
While understanding and supporting students’ needs has always been an essential component of education, the pandemic highlighted just how vital it really is. We focused on finding solutions for our students who may not have had access to digital tools needed for virtual instruction and ensured that the diverse learning needs of our students were accommodated within lessons. We placed a much-needed emphasis on social-emotional learning, giving students time to talk, share, and work together, even though they were no longer in the same room. We taught academic content, but we also made sure student needs were appropriately addressed. This central focus on the diverse needs of our students, and our resourcefulness in finding solutions to those needs, is a lesson we educators can, and should, carry forward into any instructional setting.
Lesson Two: Be Flexible & Provide Choice
Virtual instruction allowed for increased flexibility in learning. For me, I felt I could take a step back and reflect on what I was teaching. I removed the notion that I had to follow a specific pace and, instead, let my students guide my teaching. I had always embedded student interests into my lessons, but providing choice became an even more important piece of my classroom when we were virtual. I know many teachers threw away the notion that all students had to do the same task simultaneously. Instead, students could choose how to showcase their understanding of a skill. As a special education teacher, I had often given choices within my instruction even before the pandemic, allowing students to draw their own conclusions about how to best demonstrate a concept. However, the switch to working virtually really showcased how important choice and flexibility are within learning.
Lesson Three: Continue to Ask, Share, and Collaborate
I noticed an increase in teachers collaborating when we transitioned to virtual instruction. Teachers would put out calls for specific resources on social media, and fellow educators were more than willing to share their self-created materials or ideas. All teachers were entering unknown territory, so both new and veteran teachers asked for recommendations or advice. These circumstances provided an opportunity for every teacher to share and learn from one another, regardless of how many years they had spent in the classroom. Teaching can sometimes feel isolating when you keep your ideas inside the four walls of your room. Virtual instruction encouraged a sense of widespread collaboration and camaraderie within the education profession, and that is worth maintaining.
Although the transition to virtual learning was not ideal for all learners and educators, it provided some valuable lessons we can transfer to any educational context. As we continue working in this new—and still somewhat unpredictable—school year, it’s important to remember these lessons and consider how they could be applied to any district-selected instructional model.
Kathryn “Katie” Nieves Licwinko is a special education teacher at Sparta Middle School in New Jersey. She is a Google Certified Educator and Trainer. She received her B.A. from Centenary University in 2015. In 2019, she graduated from New Jersey City University with an M.A. in Educational Technology.