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The First Week - Starting Virtual School on the Right Foot        


The first week of teacher inservice is usually marked by excitement and anticipation. Teachers gather in a freshly cleaned school, rested from a summer of living like normal people (i.e., people who can use the bathroom whenever they like), and dive right into collaborative planning and preparation. Sure, there are a lot of meetings, but those are also punctuated by luncheons or celebrations that let us reunite with our work families. Plus, we all look forward to seeing our students for the first time, and spend much of the week decorating classrooms in preparation for their arrival.

Things are different now, and we are all reeling to varying degrees. While some teachers are returning to in-person school, virtual learning is widespread and likely to become more pervasive unless we can get the pandemic under better control.  As we attend remote inservice meetings and undergo numerous online trainings to get on top of distance learning methods, the pressure to start class off on the right foot is more intense than ever before. We all know those first few days of school set the tone for a class, so what should we prioritize as we prepare to meet our students on computer screens?

For the Love of Teaching

On the first day with kids, I have always been giddy. That doesn’t necessarily last past the first week or so, but I put a lot of energy into being transparent about my love of teaching. As I tell my classes frequently, “Being with you is the best part of my day!” That mindset can follow us into a virtual space, and it absolutely makes a difference in how we start the year. Instead of bringing up the limitations of distance learning or looking ahead to better days in a physical classroom, it is better to celebrate the present by sharing the excitement at seeing kids and teaching them, just as we would any other year. On those first days, sharing some information about ourselves and why we do this work is important, and being at home makes that even more doable. We can give students a virtual tour of our houses, or show them our favorite personal objects, or ask them to bring something to the screen to share. We can weave our reason for teaching into what we share about ourselves and explain that a lot of who we are gets wrapped up in what we do. If kids know we do this job out of love, they will absorb our enthusiasm for the new school year.

Learn the Kids

One of my students used to bring a melted pint of ice cream to class each day, stick a straw in it, and drink it like a milkshake. When I asked her about it, she said that she never gets hungry before the afternoon but she also feels sick if she doesn’t eat something, so she decided to drink her food so she would notice it less. Little details really matter. What we used to observe in our classrooms can still be a factor in our virtual spaces, but we might need to make a little more effort to mine those bits of information about our students. Asking a lot of questions through activities or just in those moments before class starts in a casual way can be revealing. If I see a student holding a favorite stuffed animal, I might ask about its name, or where it came from. Sometimes, students do not engage virtually, so that might be an opportunity to reach out privately in the chat and ask for a good time to catch up by phone, just for a conversation. Using our powers of observation can help to gather clues about what kinds of lives our students have, and what is important to them. If we pay attention to our kids, they will want to join us in the learning, no matter where we are.

Commit to New Learning (Within Reason)

Last week, I made the mistake of taking about six online courses simultaneously as I tried to get ahead of new information about online learning platforms. Within a couple of days of trying to cram knowledge into my head, I was worn out and not that much wiser. We are all trying to learn about virtual teaching as quickly as possible, but we have to make the process doable. Making a commitment to learning new things is important, but keeping expectations realistic is what will help us grow. When I talk to teachers, I typically advise them to immerse themselves in one thing at a time, taking at least a week to try a new program or platform to increase the level of comfort. The goal is not to master each platform, but rather to function competently within it. Furthermore, prioritizing what we learn first is important. It is much more vital to learn about how to provide students with online feedback than it is to make a Google Classroom look as adorable as possible. We can gradually grow our proficiency, and we can learn it all — just not all at once.

Value Ideas

My writing students used to get rid of endless pages of their work to the point that I would try and head them off near the recycling bin and say, “Respect your idea, even if you don’t like this draft.” How many times have we thrown away perfectly good ideas just because we executed them incorrectly the first time? In the first weeks of virtual instruction, we will fall on our faces over and over as we try new things, but that doesn’t mean we should decide our ideas were not any good. That first-day community builder that went awry? Take a deep breath, and try another version of it when ready. The lesson that made half the kids in your Zoom room sink lower and lower in their chairs until they became invisible? Ask them what might help them learn better next time. Keep trying. This is not the first year of teaching all over again. It’s just a new way of doing the job, and we will get it right as long as we don’t give up.

We keep hearing about the importance of kindness during this time, and we might be forgetting to apply some much-needed compassion to ourselves. I will be the first person to admit that I’m not so great at giving myself leeway when I don’t perform at my absolute best, but now is probably not the time to strive for perfection. All of us are about to embark upon the most unprecedented school year in our lifetimes; let’s just focus on getting through that first week or two with the idea that a good enough start is good enough.

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam is a Learning and Achievement Specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has worked for nearly 20 years as an English teacher, staff developer and department chair. She is a National Board Certified Teacher, and recently earned her certification in Education Administration and Supervision. She can be followed on Twitter: @MirPloMCPS

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