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Strategies for Overwhelmed Teachers - Small Changes, Big Differences

This past week, I met with a teacher who verbalized a concern most of us have right now: “I just don’t feel like I’m doing enough to help my students.” I hastened to be reassuring as we began to brainstorm some ideas that might help him feel a little more confident about virtual teaching methods, but his words stuck with me for the rest of the day. For anyone who has been riding the virtual learning struggle bus, get used to the feeling. The instability of our current reality will likely be around for many months, so it’s time to accept the discomfort of teaching at a distance. Part of the joy of being a teacher, not to mention the challenge, is the need to constantly change the way we work. What do some of those key pieces look like now that we are entrenched in virtual learning, and how do they differ from older perspectives and practices?

Late Work

Most teachers have experienced the frustration of grading late work, and that is compounded when assignments come in all at once at the end of a marking period. When students turn work in late, teachers really feel torn about what to do, particularly during this pandemic. On the one hand, we want to help students as much as we can when we are so far away from them, but time can be finite when it comes to grades. A lot of our approach to this issue has to do with mindset. Instead of stigmatizing work that comes in after a certain date as “late,” both in our heads and out loud to students, simply think of it as an opportunity to see what the students know. That might sound like an oversimplification, but don’t we want to simplify right now? If we are out of time with grading, we can still express appreciation to the student for giving us an indicator of their progress. And even if we are short on time, we can take a few minutes to look over whatever students place in our hands so that we know how to help them moving forward.

Grades vs. Feedback

Among the chief concerns teachers have, they struggle with how to grade students in virtual learning, from how many assignments are reasonable to ensuring the fairness of the grade itself. What do grades mean in a virtual classroom, and how much confidence do we have in the grades we give? We cannot choose to stop grading students (unless we run our own schools), but we can simplify the process by attaching less importance to a number, and more to the feedback we provide. With voice options like Kami, we have the ability to record our feedback and give students more detail about their progress. Zoom or similar platforms give us the option of virtual conferences with students, or we can take advantage of the quicker process of typing over writing by hand to give a more comprehensive amount of feedback. In ordinary circumstances, students often struggle to understand why they earned a particular grade; in these times, that can be even more confusing. Strengthening our communication around feedback is the best solution we have.

Work Load

Recently, I read a heartbreaking student email which was as polite and well-written as it was a cry for help. Always conscientious, this student was feeling completely overwhelmed by the amount of work being assigned after class time, particularly in view of her other obligations both in school and at home. The feeling of being overworked right now is universal, affecting children and adults alike. We have to recognize that kids are feeling it just as much as we are, and really try and think about which assignments are actually necessary to achieve student growth. Is more really better? Or can we assign one formative assessment at the start of each week and have students work on that one thing from Monday to Friday, until both they and we are confident that they have reached the learning goal?  For the sake our own sanity, not to mention our students’ mental health, do less to achieve more.

Right now, we all feel like Sisyphus. We keep rolling that boulder uphill, only to be knocked down again at every turn. Instead of letting that feeling of defeat win the day, let’s think about making tiny incremental steps toward feeling a little bit more capable each day. We might be overwhelmed, but we also have the ability to strategize about what we can control as we gradually make our way through this first half of the school year.

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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