We live in weird times.
Two weeks ago, schools closed all around the country. Thousands of teachers and students had to re-organize their way of teaching and learning over night, parents had to become used to having their kids home all day and help them with school assignments while doing their own work as well. Following all the funny and more serious posts from parents and teachers online, I guess it’s been a challenging time for all of us.
When I was a student myself and my parents were missionaries in the Ugandan bush, we were homeschooled, so learning by myself was not completely new to me. But what would it look like applied to my own teaching? Here’s what I have learned from distance teaching so far.
Teaching is hard work. Teaching from a distance is exhausting.
On a normal school day, I teach two to four classes seeing about a hundred students. I prepare my material and hand it out to students. They work through it, ask questions, we discuss the results. Distance takes away the immediate student – teacher interaction, and this week I’ve learned again how important it actually is.
When learning a language, you need to practice it with someone and a teacher to give you feedback. When you learn about something in history, it’s about so much more than just facts. Issues are complex and only become alive and relevant for our world today in a discussion with the class.
Whenever a student has a question, I can quickly explain it to them verbally. During a study phase I can walk around and see where students are stuck or might have taken a wrong turn. Giving them direction can be solved with a couple of words.
‘Translating’ all of this into written form has kept me busy for the last two weeks. You have to prepare your lessons even more carefully, putting every explanation and task into such words that every student can follow them. Instead of quick questions in class I receive 50-100 emails or messages a day from students to clarify a task or asking for feedback on a completed exercise. Sending out standard answers won’t help their learning progress, but replying to each learner individually takes time.
I truly hope that the experience of homeschooling might change the perspective on teachers, who are often stereotyped as ‘lazy’ or ‘overpaid’ by the public (and some parents as well).
You need a routine and help others create one.
The first few days of this new situation felt a little bit like a holiday with no one waiting for me to show up at a specific time and place. You can suddenly have a lie in or watch Netflix all day – which is cool for a few days. But when it suddenly dawns on us that this is not a game and staying home is our new reality, living and working in it can become quite a challenge.
I try to stay outside the hole of purposelessness and dullness by keeping up a routine. I set my alarm clock and try to get up around the same time every day. I put on proper clothes and clean my apartment. I eat my meals at the table instead of on the couch. I schedule daily meetings with students and friends to have something to look forward to. Since I’m in quarantine, I can’t leave the house, but I try to exercise inside and take in fresh air on my balcony. I make time to read and relax. And yes, I Netflix (obviously).
In one of our calls, a student asked if we continued classes during Easter break. When I replied, “No because you deserve some holidays as well”, he desperately begged to keep going and admitted that he was quite overwhelmed and bored. Many teachers have drowned their students in piles of exercises and tasks without any structure or plan to proceed. While I’m a huge fan of responsibility and ownership, the ability to organize yourself doesn’t come naturally to everyone. For families and young people who struggle to make time for their tasks and motivate themselves to do something, teachers can help to set up a schedule that is challenging and not overpowering at the same time.
This is not a holiday, but this is also real life.
While I do think that keeping ourselves busy is a good strategy to fight boredom and panic in these uncertain times, we just also be realistic. There are tons of memes and videos out there from parents ranting about homeschooling and all the work teachers give their kids. Yes, for some students (and some parents) it might be a wake-up call that teaching and learning is actual work. Even though we don’t get to meet in a classroom, it doesn’t mean that we’re off for the next five weeks (or more) without any tasks or expectations. So don’t call it a holiday, take it seriously.
However, we as teachers have to consider the circumstances. We cannot expect a kid or teenager to concentrate for eight hours a day with younger siblings bouncing around or parents to explain complicated math problems. Our tasks have to modified for easy access and easy understanding. Or maybe abandoned all together. Families now have the chance to be together, enjoy each other’s company, learn things outside the classroom and curriculum. Why not spend some time cooking with a parent or experimenting with play dough or naming the plants in the garden? If we allow our students to breathe and their parents to be their teachers for once, we might support families and their learning experience even better.
As much as I love a routine, it doesn’t have to look the same for everyone. A traditional school environment doesn’t allow for much individuality with specific classes and mostly one method of teaching and learning. This unusual situation might prove to be a blessing to those struggling to fit into the strict patterns of a school day.
Times like these challenge us to focus on ourselves a bit more and discover what we’re made of. When no schedule dictates what we have to do when, we might learn that we’re not as tough or organized as we’d hoped to be. However, we might also re-discover strengths that we’ve had all along and which can now be brought to fruition.
It helps to identify times throughout the day (or night) when you’re most productive: Are you an early riser? Do you work best during the night? Which setting helps you concentrate the best, which factors distract you the most? Get to know yourself and then work accordingly. If you work early in the morning, why not relax in the afternoon? If other people motivate you, why not connect with them virtually while you both do your respective work?
In order to maximize your results in the individual tasks, it helps to sort them into heavy and light work.
Collect all the tasks you have or want to do. Which of them need a lot of headspace, creativity and energy? Which ones have a deadline attached to them? Which of them do you dread the most? Label them as heavy work and do them in your most productive times.
Use your down time (less productive time) for less demanding and fun tasks, your light work.
In my case, I am a morning person and therefore get up early to do my heavy work: writing and creating things. My down times are often used for light work, such as responding to emails or research.
Teachers and parents can help students to find their best working times and settings, and then allow them space to work with that. At the of the day, you’ll look back on today’s accomplishments feeling productive and content.
Challenge yourself and challenge the system.
A normal school week has me so busy that I don’t have the time and energy to experiment a lot and sometimes I am not happy with how my lessons turn out. School resources, especially digital ones, are often limited and don’t allow for many new teaching or testing options. With so much time at home right now, I enjoy looking into new ways of lesson planning and communicating with students online. Putting together online quizzes, videos and whole lessons is a challenge, but also quite fun.
Observing the rapid change in the last few weeks has been quite interesting actually: Pedagogical researchers have demanded more individualized learning strategies and support for years, open-minded teachers have struggled with restricting rules and politics have held back support for too long. Issues like data security, money or lack of knowledge have always been recited as stumbling blocks to innovation and change – until a national crisis hits and people are forced to teach and learn differently. May this challenge encourage teachers to make use of what is already out there and may politicians and those who have something to say in the educational sector finally cash in on their promises and pave the way to true change and innovation.
Thank God for technology.
The most obvious challenges and changes happen in the digital realm. Every day, I log into a zoom meeting with a bunch of students. With a shared screen we talk through new content and old exercises. We play vocabulary and history quizzes on our phones and tablets. I put together tests which every student can access through our cloud classroom. All while lying in bed and sipping coffee.
With the absence of classrooms, suspended tests and loss of personal contact you have to become creative. Yes, using new technology can be exhausting and work intensive at first, it takes a while to figure out how it works. I’m grateful for my students’ feedback what worked and what didn’t.
But now we have the time to experiment and try new things which can be incredibly useful in our teaching (both in and outside the classroom). Why not click through the ebook versions of your normal school books and see what is already on offer there? Why not enrol in an online class for fun and see what is possible in digital teaching? Why not set up a cloud classroom and explore the possibilities to engage and connect with students in new ways? Why not reinvent the ways you teach and test?
If we spend some time challenging ourselves and our teaching styles now, we will hopefully be better prepared for the digital challenges in education in the future. And we might have some fun along the way, who knows.
Why social distancing is wrong (by definition).
Technology can solve a lot of problems, but there are a few things no screen or app can replace: The personal connection to another human being.
These days, politicians and media urge us to practice ‘social distancing’. While I understand the logic and reasoning behind it, I am also a word person and struggle with the word choice. ‘Social distancing’ implies that we stop communicating with each other and focus solely on ourselves. This would be catastrophic in times when so many of our students are stuck in struggling homes. Many of them share rooms with siblings and don’t have a lot of space to themselves. Some have no other form of distraction than their phone. Some of them struggle to connect with family members. Some of them face domestic violence.
If we teachers stop communicating with our students, they might lose a valuable contact to trust and talk to. We could be the key people to provide a routine, encouragement or simply an open ear. These strange weeks at home have made us more vulnerable, more hungry for human interaction and connection. They reveal what humanity is made of, the good and the bad. We need to be in touch with others – not physically, but with every opportunity we can find online. It will help us grow together, as teachers and students, as human beings.
This lockdown is a challenge for the entire society – doctors and politicians, nurses and farmers, workers, parents and their children, teachers. There will be hindrances and conflict along the way, but hopefully this will be an opportunity for all of us to explore and thrive. As individuals in our roles as students, parents and teachers, but also as a community helping and encouraging each other.
What have you learned from this experience so far – as a student, teacher or parent? I’d love to hear from you!