Confined? Maybe. Boxed In? Nope.
November 21, 2020
November 21, 2020
Teachers are looking at life through a new lens these days, and not only because much of their work is being done by webcam. Education’s virtual 2020 calls for new skills, and teachers across Virginia are adapting and tackling new approaches every day.
NEA’s Guide to Teaching Online Courses spells out some of the essential skills teachers need to have in order to be effective in a distance learning environment. Here are just a few of those skills and how some VEA members are doing with them this fall:
Online teachers must be able to communicate with a number of other stakeholders through a variety of methods, some online, some not.
“I’ve communicated with building administrators, teachers, parents, and students by phone, email, and Google Meet or Zoom,” says Dr. Angelnet Stith, a Greensville Education Association member and an intervention specialist. “Prior to the first day of school, I called parents to introduce myself and explain how I’d be providing assistance and resources for attendance, behavior, and grades. I also sent students an email and invited them to a virtual check-in and chat.”
“Nothing is ‘as usual,’ whether you’re communicating with students, colleagues, or families,” says Charlotte Hayer, a Richmond Education Association member and high school economics teacher. “Typically, communicating with students would start with one-on-one conversation in class. Now, you cannot talk to a student with everyone else online listening. If you’re using platforms like Google Classroom, you can send an email but that’s only helpful if the student checks their school email account regularly and responds.”
Being in touch with parents has some challenges now, as well, according to Hayer. “Emails are fine as long as they’re read and answered,” she says. “Phone calls are challenging because we no longer have access to the school phone, and I don’t want parents having my personal phone number. However, if you try to use other options, like Google, the phone number generated is not recognizable and probably won’t be answered. That means that teachers have to find other ways to communicate, like using Class Dojo or Remind.”
Even communicating with colleagues isn’t easy. “You used to be able to stop by other teachers’ rooms and talk about how things are going or ask for help with something,” says Hayer. “But, no matter who we’re communicating with, the overarching issue is the amount of time it now takes, on top of preparing lessons, attending online school meetings, online professional development, and taking care of yourself and your family. It is too much.”
Because online communications may lack the full array of visual and oral cues that help listeners interpret speakers’ messages, it is important that online teachers be sensitive to problems of misinterpretation, and that they are careful to use an appropriate online tone in course design and course delivery.
“I’ve found myself talking in a much more animated voice and using my hands more than I would if I were in front of the students, partially to entertain them into listening, and partially because I can’t figure out if they understand what I’m talking about,” says Erin Merrill, a Prince William Education Association member and a middle school civics teacher. “Could their parent be hanging around while I’m teaching? Could they be taking screenshots or turning me into TikToks? Possibly, so I’m much more aware of how I’m presenting myself.”
It can be especially tricky, Merrill notes, when you can’t see your students. “Whether you’re Zooming, Google Meeting, or on Teams, you’re often teaching to a screen of blank squares and are unable to get the visual feedback and engagement from students that we’re used to,” she says. “Having to record yourself teaching that way, and then often having to watch your film back if you’re in a county that requires you to post the videos for student references or add closed captions, is especially awkward.”
Setting the right tone in class has been a frequent topic of conversation, says Sandra Barnstead, a Spotsylvania Education Association member and co-chair of VEA’s Instruction and Professional Development Committee. “We know tone is an issue in writing, like in email or social media posts, because it’s hard to read when you can’t also read the person’s body language,” she says. “I go into each class knowing I need to be positive and supportive for my students. I do monitor my tone, knowing that if I sound frustrated my students will think it’s because of them and not the frustrating email or phone call I just received.”
Dr. Keila Foster is a member of the Maryland State Education Association and mentee to Greensville’s Stith through NEA’s Leaders of Color Pathways Project, and she works to keep things positive in her classroom: “I stay away from jokes and sarcasm and fully utilize words of encouragement. Encouraging words are so crucial in an online world because communication can only be taken literally and not figuratively. The ultimate goal is to build a rapport with students that fosters student-to-student respect and student-teacher respect.”
Respect is critical, agrees Charletta Williams, an Education Association of Norfolk member and a fourth grade teacher, because it helps avoid “problems of misinterpretation.”
Online teachers should foster student-to-student discussion during course design and delivery. During the design phase, online teachers should build in course discussion as a feature of student assessment. Their instructions for when, where, and how students participate in online discussions should be clearly communicated. During course delivery, online teachers should facilitate course discussions by intervening appropriately when discussions are either not occurring or are inappropriate.
Online teachers should foster student-to-student collaboration through the use of online discussions, group projects, team activities, and instructional style. They should demonstrate skill at facilitating discussions and be reliable guides to student learning.
“I struggle with both of these skills in my classes,” says Barnstead. “It’s difficult, especially when there isn’t an efficient way of breaking students into small groups when there is only one teacher. My classes have tried brainstorming in smaller groups via Google Docs where they all have access to and can edit the same document. This is a challenge, too, because students cannot talk to one another—they only see what the other is typing. I have one group of students who always welcomes each other and says good morning. This isn’t true student-to-student communication, but I do encourage it by telling them that I love how they say good morning and goodbye to each other via chat. I have another set of students who have offered to help each other over the phone after class. That was really touching as well—again, not true student collaboration, but I encouraged it and let them know I noticed they’re helping each other.”
Online teachers should be able to demonstrate an ability to use multimedia, as appropriate, in course materials.
“Students often have the same questions repeatedly during teaching time and I want to be able to teach with minimal interruption,” says Maryland’s Foster. “So, to train student to be more independent in helping themselves learn, I put together a list of common questions and their answers, which I copy and paste into the chat area. This allows for swift independent utilization.”
Foster uses Google Slides for accessing daily lessons, and Nearpod, for engagement and collaboration, as her main multimedia tools. If students don’t have a camera or microphone on their computers, they can use their mobile phone for Zoom and their computer for Nearpod. “Nearpod is cool because you can insert video and add multiple choice quizzes between video segments,” she says. “I can also use the collaboration board to further sequence lessons together afterward, and there’s a draw feature to color-code content or circle and underline. Another amazing feature is being able to embed Google Suite into this online space.”
Online teachers should monitor student learning and provide students with feedback on their performance. Teachers should be adept with the various platform features so that they can provide students the opportunity to submit their work online. They should review submitted work in a timely fashion and should provide students with feedback.
“I’ve always been the teacher that grades quickly,” says Prince William’s Merrill. “However, I know that for many of my colleagues this is not always the case. With our virtual and hybrid teaching platforms, we can now stretch out and embrace the new tech as a way to give feedback electronically. The Canvas app or SpeedGrader, for those in school divisions that adopted Canvas, lets you see the student’s upload and both annotate directly on it or leave comments for the students at the same time as you grade it. No more carrying home piles of worksheets!”
Online teachers should foster appropriate online student behavior, model an effective and respectful online tone, guide discussions’ tone and substance, and address problems with inappropriate online behaviors.
During virtual learning, Stith has seen, among other things, students sleeping during instruction and using inappropriate profile pictures on Google Meet or Zoom. In response, she’s sent students emails with strategies to correct the online behaviors and then followed up with them. She reports great success in correcting behaviors.
Here are two examples of her emails:
I hope you are doing well. During my observation in your second block class, I noticed that you have been sleeping during instruction on two separate occasions. To thrive academically, you need to have energy, the ability to focus, concentrate, retain information, and be a creative problem solver. Here are three tips to help you get a better night’s sleep in order to thrive academically:
1. Exercise for better sleep
2. Reserve the bed for sleep (avoid attending virtual class while in the bed or making the bed your learning space)
3. Have a good routine. By working out what time you need to wake up, you can set a regular bedtime schedule. It is also important to try and wake up at the same time every day.
I am here if you have any additional questions or concerns regarding my email. Thank you so much for your attention to this matter and I wish you much success.
I am writing to ask that you update your Google profile picture, which is shown when your camera is off during class, to a more school appropriate picture. You can delete the picture you currently have and your initial will show or you can change the picture to a more school-appropriate picture. Please make sure your Google profile picture is changed before the end of the day today. I am here if you have any additional questions or concerns regarding my email. Thank you so much for your attention to this matter. I wish you much success during this school year.
Merrill relies on building relationships to help manage student behavior. “Across social media we hear the stories—Zoom bombs, screenshots, and memes,” she says. “How do we protect ourselves from mischievous students? The greatest tools I’ve found are arming yourself with your county’s code of behavior and continuing to build that relationship with your students online. By teaching your students the county’s policy on inappropriate use of technology and cyberbullying, you let them know that you’re taking their behavior seriously and making sure they know what’s expected from them. Taking time to greet your students, asking about them, and giving them personal feedback on assignments will also make them less likely to misbehave. In my class, students can see I’m taking discipline seriously and because they’re worried about being caught, they aren’t misbehaving virtually.”
“During Zoom classes, I greet students by name as they are admitted to the room and give them some time to ‘talk across the screen’ to tell their friends something,” says Christina Bohringer, an Education Association of Alexandria member and a first grade teacher. “When we return to Zoom after recess/lunch, we share questions and comments—I even have a few students that always want to know what I had for lunch and if I had a ‘good time at recess.’ When students unmute and blurt out, as they are wont to do at six years old, I gently remind them that another student was waiting and had already raised their hand in the participant window. So far, each time my students apologize, mute, and then go raise their hand. It’s also been interesting to watch how patient they are, when they see that 10 other students have their little blue hand up.”
Online teachers should demonstrate the appropriate use of both synchronous and asynchronous communications with students, using one-on-one communications when needed, and fostering and guiding group discussions.
“Teaching virtually has reminded me to break down my directions into smaller chunks than ever before,” says Bohringer. “When needed, I will quietly invite a student to a 1-to-1 Zoom breakout room to have a personal talk about their work or behavior. From day one, I’ve been teaching my first-graders how to use all the Zoom tools—like raising their hand, thumbs up/down, yes/no, and reaction features of clapping, heart, and cheering. These are vital pieces of having a group discussion.”