Transitioning to Distance Learning: Three Tips for Teachers

Tips for teachers

While it might seem like a different lifetime, it was not so long ago that our world was turned upside down by the emergence of COVID-19 and the onslaught of lifestyle changes that have come with it. Beyond requiring people to cope with the anxieties of a pandemic that is causing people to lose their jobs, loved ones to fall ill, and normal life activities to cease, people have also had to adapt to an educational system that has been turned on its head. Parents are now teachers, teachers are now distance educators, and the kitchen table is the new classroom.

Change is difficult, and quick and unexpected change can be even more difficult. As it applies to our new reality of schooling, it is particularly important to give everyone involved in this process some time for reflection or grace, as none of us have ever gone through this massive shift before. Many teachers find themselves having to manage their own children’s schoolwork, while still performing their job as teachers. As an experienced distance educator and mother of two elementary age children, I have three suggestions that I hope will improve your peace of mind as you are required to adapt to new practices, namely, keep it manageable, anticipate questions, and be available.

Keep it manageable.

The first tip I have is to keep the workload manageable, both in terms of the type of content covered and the quantity of work expected to be completed. At the outset, I would be wary of assigning any new, required content unless I was confident that I had an effective medium to instruct the new content. As we all know from Bloom’s Taxonomy, remembering is a different level of learning than understanding new material and applying it. And remember, not everyone has a parent that is confident in their new role as “teacher.”

Currently, there is a comedic YouTube video circulating in which an enraged mother yells out that due to the new distance learning thing, “Now, our children will find out how dumb we [parents] are.” The reality is that most students should be able to complete the material on their own. You might ask yourself, What concepts can we work on that we have learned before that synthesize objectives we have worked on throughout the year? What concepts can we review that were the most important for our class this year? What familiar activities are easily transferable to home? Journals? Online math practice? Current events videos?

Another question you could ask yourself is how much time is spent on direct instruction, guided practice, group work, and independent practice in your traditional classroom. When designing distance learning opportunities, it is unrealistic to transform all of these modes of learning to solely independent practice activities. Keep the expectation of quantity of work completed LOW! Let students feel successful and not overwhelmed with mountains of worksheets to complete. If you are thoughtful about the type of content students are completing, the amount of time that your students spend doing independent practice in your classroom is about the same amount of time that they should be doing it at home. You can always include extra learning opportunities for students who want to and are able to go above and beyond.

Anticipate questions.

Second, it is vital that distance educators try to anticipate questions students might have and provide resources for students to answer their own questions. In fact, this might be the most important job that distance educators have. Think about this: If students could always do their work on their own, why would they need teachers? When teaching in a traditional classroom, instructors often incorporate an explanation of common pitfalls and how they can be remedied in the instruction. When students are working from home, they need resources that explain how to avoid common errors and how to overcome them if they do arise.

There are many quality videos out there to use as supplemental material—almost too many. Khan Academy, Ted-Ed, Shmoop, and The Owl at Purdue are a few great sites to check out for videos and supplemental resources. Additionally, there are numerous YouTube videos designed to help instructors. A quick word of caution: Make sure that you screen each video from start to end to ensure it has the information you want and that it is appropriate. You should also accommodate any students who need transcripts or closed captioning for videos. If you cannot find what you want already made for you, try making your own mini-lessons on video. Screencast-o-Matic is a great program to make videos using your computer screen and/or computer camera, and is easily synced with YouTube to publish and share each video. If your students do not have access to the internet, it may be helpful to include examples of successfully completed assignments for students to use as a model, or a clear step-by-step sheet of instructions for any assignment (new content or review) they need to complete.

Be available.

Finally, it is essential that teachers try to make themselves available for students to ask questions. There are so many different avenues to connect: phone, email, text, and video conferencing (Zoom, FaceTime, Skype, etc.). In fact, it is best practice to do what you can to encourage students to reach out to you when they need help. You could proactively contact your students to see if they have any questions, and perhaps even check in on how they are doing overall. Of course, it is fine to set the expectation that you have “office hours” or particular times of the day that work for you.

My first-grade son’s teacher has the students Zoom conference each school day from 9:00 am to 10:00 am. While my son might still be in pajamas with a bagel in hand, it does get him up and going on his work at a reasonable time. He uses this time to ask his teacher questions and to check in with his friends. And remember, there will probably be mistakes that arise as we test out these new types of communication. New terms like “Zoom bomber” might be added to your lexicon. I even read that Savannah Guthrie of the Today show—unsuccessfully—duct taped her basement door to try to keep her children out while she was filming the show.

Clearly, there will be consequences that result from this rapid transition to distance learning. Assuming that this is only a temporary situation, we will simply have to be flexible and address any gaps that have developed when children return to school. But if the situation extends beyond the temporary, teachers will have to reimagine the educational process and strive to alter and expand their place within it.  In the meantime, we should give ourselves the space to be human, to make mistakes, and to learn and grow through trial and error. We will get through this together.

Frances Lord Pistoresi is a full-time faculty member in the college of general studies at University of Phoenix. She has over 20 years of experience teaching both in-person and online. Pistoresi began her teaching career as a member of Teach for America’s Los Angeles Corps and has a BA/MA in English from Georgetown University.