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A Year in Review: Advice from Teachers Who Lived It

Jun 04, 2021 2021-06-04

A guest blog by Jason Schmidt. Repost courtesy of NETA.

If you had told me back in December of 2019 that every one of my teachers would be proficient at scheduling and managing Zoom meetings and posting electronic assignments multiple times throughout the day using Seesaw and Schoology, I would probably have called you in for a psychiatric evaluation. Pandemic life has drastically changed the way we deliver instruction to our students, and rapid technology adoption has been a key component to our way of work these past nine months and into the foreseeable future.

The Oconto Falls Public School district is about a half-hour north of Green Bay, Wisconsin, in the Oconto River Valley. We serve approximately 1,600 students in four different buildings from K4 (preschool) through 12th grade. The Falls is a very sparsely populated district covering 10 different ZIP codes. Even though our district is spread out, COVID-19 has not left us alone. While the district started the school year in person, we pivoted to virtual learning for the month of October and into November, and are now utilizing virtual learning before and after major breaks to reduce the need for quarantines after group gatherings.

In June, the question posed by the administration was not, “What do we do if we need to deliver virtual instruction?” but rather, “How do we prepare our teachers when they need to deliver virtual instruction?” With this in mind, we planned to use Wednesdays during the entire school year as virtual instruction days so that teachers could practice this mode of instruction and learn how to do it effectively.

So far, I would say that it has been a successful strategy, but that’s not to say that there haven’t been some bumps along the way and lessons learned. I hope you find the following bits of advice helpful.

Build a Schedule, Make It Work, and Stick with It
We determined early on that our schedules needed anchors to help parents and students navigate the new environment. There had to be time for live check-ins with students, synchronous instruction, lunch/activity breaks, and opportunities for teacher planning and administrative tasks. It took a couple of iterations of our schedule in each building, and all are slightly different in their timing, but everyone has the same anchors in their schedule. Once we found a schedule that worked on Wednesdays, we adopted the same schedule for all virtual days.

Make Mistakes and Learn from Them
Teaching is a complicated profession, and when we add more complexity by introducing unfamiliar tools and environments, it is easy to get overwhelmed and make mistakes. We need to be able to recognize when things aren’t working and seek out resources that will help us get better. You are surrounded by colleagues in the same situation as you—collaborate and bounce ideas off them to help hone your skills and make yourself better.

I could add a few other things to this list, but I would like you to see what others have to say too. I reached out to my teachers to see if they had any pieces of advice for schools that may be looking to move from in-person instruction to virtual. I’ll close with what advice they had to give.

“Be forgiving, especially of yourself.” —Kelli Anderson, High School English Teacher

“You’re about to get a peek into the real lives of your students. Remember, they are small people, not just knowledge receptacles. MASLOW BEFORE BLOOM!” —Jean Eastman, Elementary School Counselor

“Three screens of fun! Yes, one screen to share, another for Zoom tiles (or a projector wall so you can see the faces even better), and the other screen is devoted to seeing the students’ screens (like go guardian) so you can track and make sure your students are on task.” —Jesse Baumgart, Elementary Music Teacher

“It’s not honorable to work yourself to death. Take time to REST! It’s the same principle as the flight attendant will tell you. PUT YOUR OWN OXYGEN MASK ON FIRST! You can’t take care of anyone else if you’re not okay.” —Jean Eastman, Elementary School Counselor

“Utilize breakout rooms. It will allow you to individually help students while not disturbing others that are working. I wish I could use them when we are in person. Having the mindset of pivoting to virtual instead of changing to virtual helps. You don’t have to change everything. Just pivot what you are already good at to a virtual format. And show yourself the same grace you allow your students.” —Mollie Jones, High School English Teacher

“As an art teacher, I have found students are not as excited to make things at home as when they are at school. Slow down and keep it SUPER simple. Forego the enrichment “stretch” portions and keep to the basics. For hands-on activities, have them Zoom with you and work together on it, at least to get them started. Spending tons of time on making video lessons is useless if they don’t watch them or do the assignment. To maintain your own sanity, combine lessons for multiple grades. For example, have a theme for all grade-level lessons, but do the same lesson with 2nd and 3rd, another with 4th and 5th. This helps with office hours and having multiple age students attend with questions. Providing answers will make sense to anyone listening. We just studied Wayne Thiebaud, but drew different objects. However, the coloring was basically the same. They focused on value, complementary colors, and monochromatic colors. Incentivizing the completion of the project by using it as their vision for the ceramic version when they return in person has helped motivate more students to actually do the assignment.” —Kelly Kokko-Ludemann, Elementary Art Teacher

“Give yourself grace. It will not be perfect, but you will be better every day. Not all students will be able or willing to turn on their camera or microphone. Give students ways to engage with the material in real-time without having to let you into their space. Peardeck, Nearpod, and Google Jamboard are some of the tools I use to ensure that students are present, listening, and comprehending new material. When introducing a new technology tool, clearly model how to use it from a student view. Share your screen and talk students through the steps as you do them on your computer. Repeat when they use the tool for a second and third time as well! Focus on what works best for your students and try not to compare yourself to other teachers. This year is not about showing off, overachieving, or being a ‘perfect’ teacher. Your online classroom doesn’t have to be cute; it needs to be functional” —Hannah Zidon, High School Spanish Teacher

“Teach your students how to take a clear picture of their work.” —Chris Ingold, 3rd Grade Teacher

“Things will go wrong. Be able to laugh at the situation because that is about all you can do about it sometimes.” —Val Nickels, 7th Grade Social Studies Teacher

“Virtual instruction will take a lot longer than in-person instruction. It just does. You need to really target your instructional minutes to what is most important. You will have times where it does not work, at all. It has happened to everyone. Just like in the classroom there are times when technology doesn’t work, a kid says the way wrong thing, or the kids are not understanding what you are teaching. Get through it and reflect on what went wrong, why, and what you can do to fix the problem. Overall, you have a lot less control over everything. You can set the environment, prepare materials, and anticipate problems but sometimes the kids don’t show up or they don’t do the work. You have to know what you can control and what you can’t and move on.” —Valerie Burd, Elementary Reading Specialist

“I sent a mini whiteboard/slate and expo marker home with my students. Then I could have them respond to questions during our Zoom meetings. I liked how that encouraged everyone to be involved and respond. Also, take a walk on your lunch break. Sitting all day is tough both physically and mentally!” —Anonymous

“Make sure your parents also know how to navigate your LMS and keep them updated on how things are working as they are going to be your new classroom assistant.” —Anonymous

“Don’t expect everything to be exactly the same. It’ll be okay.” —Anonymous

“Less material is covered, so decide on what is most important and go slow with directions. Give the students a question to answer in the chat while waiting for attendance or as an ice breaker. This can be a quick review question or just for fun.” —Anonymous

“Practice, practice, practice. It will be critical to practice virtual instruction as there are many aspects that are challenging. Through practice you will quickly recognize that normal operating procedures will need to be adjusted, such as taking attendance, formative assessment practices, and classroom management techniques to address student engagement challenges. You will also need to become familiar with virtual software capabilities in order to place students in break-out rooms.” —Anonymous

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