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5 Things Distance Learners Won't Know in the Classroom

While planning for a traditional classroom return can help smooth the transition for all, there are some distinct challenges that distance learners will face when returning to school. Here are five things distance learners won't know in the classroom.

1. How to Jump Back into Classroom Routines and Structures

Teachers understand the importance of teaching routines and expectations in their classrooms to prepare students for what will come in the following months. As students transition back, there will be an even greater need to emphasize pre-teaching and relearning your expected classroom routine and structure. 

Throughout the pandemic, distance learners became accustomed to the expectations and routines of online classes, whether participating synchronously on a platform such as Zoom or asynchronously completing assignments for feedback. But virtual routines are much different than physical ones. You don't need to help Kindergarteners practice lining up in the hallway over Zoom, for instance.

Whatever the in-person routines may be, the benefits of students learning these in the first few days of the school year are immeasurable. It will save time and frustration down the road.

2. How to Settle for Traditional Paper and Pencil Tasks

COVID has tested teachers in unimaginable ways, but distance learning has resulted in some unintentional benefits. The most impactful of these benefits has been the hard work and ingenuity behind distance learning lessons. When forced to implement lessons in this new environment, teachers searched for and created inventive and engaging lessons. They could use these lessons over different mediums, with various technological tools that were not heavily used in all classrooms prior. These new forms of content delivery and exploration should not be lost as we transition back to in-person learning.

It would be a disservice to our schools and our students to lose the progress we have made when incorporating technology into lesson plans. Reverting to using traditional paper and pencil tasks solely in the classroom means major missed opportunities. The innovative strategies and lessons teachers used to hold students' attention remotely will be integral in assisting students in the transition back to the classroom. A technology-rich learning environment plays to the strengths of many school-age children, and it will be important to continue to provide opportunities for students to showcase their 21st-century skills.

3. How to Ask for Help in Person

Whether academically or in the social/emotional domain, distance learners will need support transitioning back to the classroom. Many students gained a sense of independence and a need to "figure it out" independently while participating in distance learning. However, with the impending transition back to the classroom, gone are the days of searching Google, asking parents (who may or may not have the ability to help), and just "doing their best" from behind the computer screen. The loss of independence that inevitably comes with a return to school may lead to a roadblock for many students when they need help.

Active engagement in class can be identified by asking questions when students don't understand and collaborating with others to solve problems. A good teacher wants to create an environment in their classroom where not knowing is safe and asking for help is acceptable, expected, and celebrated. After their hiatus from in-person learning, distance learners are likely to struggle with feelings of inadequacy, embarrassment, and anxiety that come with the vulnerability of admitting a need for help.

While many students can overcome these feelings during their school careers, the interruption in face-to-face learning will likely exacerbate these challenges for many. Teachers will need to address these feelings head-on and work even harder than normal to create that welcoming and safe environment in their classroom.

4. How to Navigate In-Person Social Interactions

Interacting with people is practice. The more we socialize, the more we learn and understand the nuances of social interactions. But, because we haven't seen people as we wish for over a year now, a transition back to in-person activities may end up awkward and challenging. 

School days are filled with peer interactions and nuanced social situations that require certain skills to navigate. Many students have not used these skills in quite some time and will need support in doing so successfully. Some students will be able to jump right back into the flow of social dynamics, while others returning from distance learning will truly struggle with reading social cues, conflict resolution, and building positive relationships with peers.

The most important thing you can do to support these students is to use teachable moments throughout the day. Students will need to know that their challenges are normal after time away from in-person interactions. There is a big difference between interactions online and being in person with other students. Be sure to use resources your school has at hand to help ease the transition for distance learners, such as your school adjustment counselors or guidance counselors. Refer students who seem to be having a particularly hard time readjusting to receive more individualized support as needed.

5. How to Be Kind to Themselves

Being kind to ourselves is a skill that many adults have not mastered, which means that all of our students will need support in doing so. School is not always a kind place for students, and the time away from in-person learning may not have been a positive experience for some of your distance learners. Whether distance learners are excited about returning to the classroom or are dreading leaving the comfort of their homes for school, all distance learners will need support in aspects we cannot even anticipate.

Students will make mistakes and have a hard time understanding why they struggle with the transition back to in-person learning. The most meaningful role teachers can play is helping children to be kind to themselves. Allow students the time they need to get back into the swing of in-person learning.

The challenges your students will face back in the classroom will vary from grade level to individual student. Be patient as you teach and relearn yourself the in-person classroom dynamic. We've all been through it, so think back to number five on this list. You'll need to teach your students to be kind to themselves, but you need to learn how to be kind to yourself, as well.

Written by Jackie Sugrue

Education World Contributor

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