Search form

Teacher’s Lounge - Advice for Virtual Instruction: How can I help my kids be more successful?

Dear Teacher’s Lounge,

            After a month and a half of teaching virtually, I’m looking at student grades and they are frightening. To be quite blunt, kids are failing at a rate and magnitude that I’ve never seen. The strategies I used in the past, like catching kids in the hallway and bringing them into my classroom to make up work, or reminding them in class of missed assignments, do not work in a virtual world. I only see my students a few times a week as it is, and I’m feeling as though the grades just aren’t fair. How can I help kids be more successful, and how can I change the way I do my job to prevent this from happening over and over?

                                                                                                            ~Failing My Kids

Dear NOT Failing,

Sorry, but I had to change your signature name a bit. You are not failing; in fact, your desire to change what looks like a disturbing pattern signifies quite the opposite. What you are up against is a lot to handle, especially in the isolation of a virtual classroom. In situations like this, I typically invoke the philosophy behind the Serenity Prayer: the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.

The first step to solving a problem of this magnitude is to do some digging into root cause. When students fail, especially in larger numbers, we have to figure out why. Your letter indicates that missing work is the culprit, so we can address that in a moment. Sometimes, failures also indicate or even connect to other problems: poor attendance, a lack of comprehension, or insufficient first instruction, to name a few. Figuring out the “why” behind student failure is a complex process, and sometimes we have to look at each student one by one to determine what is going on. Depending on how much information we have during distance learning, it might not be possible to make a solid determination about the cause of the failure, but undergoing that reflective process is still valuable, and might help other students as well.

Let’s get back to the missing assignments, and how that might be the cause of most of the failure you see. How can we assess students when they have not turned in the work? If a grade of zero is the result of an absence of data (i.e., no student work), we have no idea whether they have any content mastery, and whether the failing grade is accurate. Our goal as teachers should be to get student work into our hands in the most practical way possible: by providing assessment opportunities in class during virtual learning, and not through homework or independent study.

This tactic might sound too simplistic, but it’s really the best strategy if you think about it. Suppose my learning goal for the week is to make sure students can add fractions with the same denominator. If I teach the concept on Monday, I should not let students leave class for the day without providing a short (one or two questions, tops) check for understanding. On Tuesday, I can give students the same type of assessment, just with a change in the actual question. As the week continues, I can build new questions into that check for understanding to build upon or differentiate the learning, or I can give a short quiz on Thursday that loops through to be given as an option on Friday as well for students who need to reassess. Either way, I will have been gathering data all week that tells me what students know. As an added benefit, I can choose which assignments to grade, and will probably opt for something that happened later in the week, when student performance reflects optimum mastery. If a student is missing from class on Thursday or Friday, however, I have something from earlier in the week to look at and grade. In other words, we should be basing grades right now on what students show us during our instructional time, and not be relying on them to turn in work completed outside of class. We have no idea what their personal lives look like right now, and we are disconnected enough from them as individuals that making the process harder is simply unwarranted.

Along the same lines, shortening assignments and making them more focused is advisable. Before the pandemic, we had a number of curriculum goals that could be met in the time provided, though even that was stressful. Now we have the same number of curriculum goals, but reduced instructional time. It is up to us to judiciously pick and choose (ideally, with our teaching teammates) the standards of focus to prioritize, and then to tailor both our teaching and our quicker assignments to those learning goals. If we do not streamline what we are trying to assess by what is the most important, we are doing students a disservice.

Even before virtual teaching became a reality, we had the habit of piling too much work onto ourselves and our students. Now more than ever, we must face that tendency with clear-eyed refusal. Ironically, giving students more work will often tell us less about what they can do.

Furthermore, we will just wind up feeling awful about our teaching, which is exactly why you have written to me. As your letter indicates, grading students during a pandemic feels like a rigged game. There is no way to accurately and fairly grade students from a distance, and the inequity of our grading practices pre-pandemic are now especially on display as systemic problems catch up with us in a virtual world. For now, the best course of action is to be vigilant, fair, and strategic about making sure we give all students multiple opportunities to show us what they know.

Have a question, comment, or helpful tip about virtual teaching and learning? Send them to the Teacher’s Lounge  We’ll get through this - together!

Read more tips and advice from Teacher's Lounge!

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

Copyright© 2020 Education World