The abrupt, collective shift from classroom to online teaching in the spring of 2020 upended the best-laid lesson plans. Overnight, teachers, many of whom had never taught online, found themselves in uncharted territory.
Educators experienced with remote teaching stepped up in the unfolding crisis, sharing their best online teaching tips with their colleagues.
After the initial shock settled into a daily routine, the community of teachers all shared their hard-won experience, helping each other cope with their new reality.
“From seasoned teachers to student teachers, we were all facing a new challenge together,” says Danielle Cavallaro, a teacher and graduate of the online Master in Education degree program at Merrimack College. “Everyone was supportive, encouraging, and willing to collaborate.”
In this article, we’ll distill some of those online teaching tips, insights, and lessons learned as teachers, students, and parents continue adjusting to the new normal.
Always a Teacher
A year into widespread online teaching brings with it many insights — this is true not only with remote education but with teaching itself.
“The job of an online teacher is the job of an offline teacher is the job of a teacher,” write Reshan Richards and Stephen Valentine in the Edsurge article, A Letter to Educators Teaching Online for the First Time.
The online world is “built to hold and move information,” explains the authors. It is tempting to “share reams of text and bucket loads of data,” they warn. “Please resist the easy affordances of the online world. Instead, try to connect.”
Indeed, human connection is the most cardinal and oft-repeated piece of advice from both seasoned and newly-minted online teachers.
“We are used to spending our days talking, having conversations, getting hugs, and tying shoes for 25 little ones,” says first-grade teacher Jennifer Lowe. “Being in front of a screen all day trying to interact with them and stay connected is so completely different. We have all been finding ways for it to work.”
How do we establish or maintain that teacher-student bond when it is mediated through a screen? We all miss the physical connection denied us by the pandemic, but “with creativity and flexibility, we can reach learners in an online setting,” says Danielle Cavallaro.
“I have always prioritized building student relationships,” Danielle says, “and worried that this would be difficult online, especially with young children.”
Building and nurturing these relationships virtually involves variables depending on individual circumstances. Nonetheless, any thriving student-teacher interaction involves three core elements:
It can feel awkward teaching students online. Let your students know that. When they sense that you’re authentic with your feelings, they are encouraged to relax and be themselves.
Flexibility is arguably the watchword for online teachers, especially this past year. “With creativity and flexibility, we can reach learners in an online setting,” says Danielle.
In an online setting, flexibility involves providing students multiple ways to communicate and participate in classroom activities. When students share with each other, there is a cross-pollination of online connections, which leads us to our next point.
Creating a sense of belonging is challenging without the anchor of a physical classroom, but it is no less critical. Rather than acting as a barrier, technology, combined with authenticity and flexibility, can act as a bridge to belonging.
Practical tips for creating a sense of belonging can include daily morning meetings with students before class begins and posting regular video chats or newsletter posts to access and interact with outside of class.
Creating a connection is fundamentally the same online or in-person: be open, authentic, flexible, and genuinely caring.
“As I found ways to make connections with the students and students expressed joy in their school days, I realized the remote classroom holds great potential.”
A music teacher once explained to his struggling student, “Right now, it’s you against your instrument. Then, after you learn how to play, it’s you and your horn against the music. Finally, you’ll play the music, transforming the struggle you feel today into a joy that you share with your audience.”
So it is with technology.
“At first, the tools you choose will be all that you think about. You’ll only see them as you bump up against their limitations,” says Richards and Valentine in their Edsurge article. “Soon, though, you’ll only see your students. Their personalities will return. Some formerly silent or quiet students may share their voices.” Like the sound of sweet music.
We must be careful not to dismiss the inherent technological challenges many students and teachers face. But “thinking about tools, bells, and whistles,” write Richards and Valentine, “is less important than acknowledging that, once you start, wherever you start, you’ll build capacity just like you have, and had to, in a face-to-face classroom.”
Here’s one example of a typical online classroom technology stack:
By defining your “technology stack” and sticking with it, you can learn your instrument, apply it to your course material, and provide your students with a collaborative learning community.
A Look Toward the Future of Education
“It was such an unusual time filled with fear and anxiety,” says Danielle. “Like my colleagues, I assumed that school would be remote for only a week or two. Three at the most.”
Hindsight is 20/20. As the ensuing weeks and months wore on, the reality settled in that education would never entirely be the same. We best be prepared.
“We learned many important lessons.” Danielle says, “Those lessons include how vulnerable we all are, how we need to support each other and work as a team, and how we need to be thoughtful in our planning, so we are better prepared for any unexpected shifts in learning.
While we are all eager to open the school doors once again, the experience of the COVID-19 pandemic focuses attention on the potential of remote learning.
“Remote learning offers possibilities to continue providing a quality education to all students,” Danielle says.
Stacey Klasnick, program director of the online M.Ed. program at Merrimack College, sums it up nicely: “With creative problem-solving, team-building, and continuous improvement, teachers and students can thrive in any environment.”