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Teacher's Lounge - Advice for Instruction: Virtual But Not

Dear Teacher’s Lounge,

            In my district, parents have been upset or confused about in-person models that have us all in a classroom, but that also rely heavily on virtual methods for instruction. In other words, students are sitting at desks, but they still need laptops. With our distancing and masking guidelines, it would be hard to get rid of the computers. Have you heard about any effective ways to explain how a classroom with this model of instruction functions to parents so that they can be reassured that their children are receiving a valuable educational experience?       

                                                                                                                        ~Virtual But Not

Dear Virtual,

What a great question, and one that is highly relevant for so many families right now. The adjustment to a different kind of in-person learning is really tough for parents to envision, and if we think about their experiences for the past 11 months, we can more fully understand why that is.

Month after month, kids have been sitting in front of laptops, trying to engage in Zoom lessons. Parents have been bending over backwards to make that experience better for their children, and the challenge of helping their kids is compounded not just by the virtual platforms, but by their lack of background knowledge about teaching. Without any prior training, parents nationwide have become de facto classroom aides without the benefit of collaboration or preparation with experts. Mind you, that only happens in households where parents have the best-scenario option (or insanity, really) of working remotely and keeping their eyes on children at the same time.

The conclusion that most non-educators have arrived at is that remote learning is not as effective as in-person learning. That’s not exactly a revelation, nor do teachers necessarily disagree. However, the distinction between a child learning at home on a laptop and a child in school on a laptop is significant and largely unacknowledged. If a student is sitting on a computer at school, confusion can be cleared up, questions answered and assistance provided more easily because a certified teacher is right there. Can that teacher get really close? No, but it makes a difference to have the instructor in the room as opposed to in a small box on a screen. Furthermore, while a lot of laptop use might be in play, there are also opportunities to talk to other kids, to go outside and play, and to begin layering on more normality.

In terms of other ideas for communicating what this new version of in-school looks like to parents, here are a few ideas to allay anxiety and clear up confusion:

  1. Take photos of the classroom, particularly once the children are there and doing exciting activities;
  2. Send regular communication via email about how the learning is progressing (perhaps once weekly in that first month, and then less once people have adjusted);
  3. Invite parents to discuss concerns directly with you;
  4. Call home to share good news when possible, or send a personalized email to individual families.

In essence, communication is really the biggest factor in a situation like this for ensuring that our practices are clear to people who are not sitting in the room with us. The more we help parents to understand why in-person school is worthwhile and not the same as virtual learning, the more productive our efforts will be.

Another important consideration is that while these months are stretching out with seeming endlessness, in-person instruction will continue to evolve as the pandemic slowly eases and people become more accustomed to mitigation in the long term. When students first return to school, their computer use will be higher than it will be six months from now. It is important to think about the “not yet” when we wish for more ideal circumstances, and to encourage the families that we work with not to lose hope, and to stick with us. The first step is working with kids in buildings, and that is happening more and more. Now, we have to figure out how to navigate the tricky process of recovery.

One final thought: we can only control what we do and how we react to any given situation. Proactivity and strong communication go a long way, but if people are still disenchanted by the strong virtual presence in physical classroom spaces, there isn’t much we can do to change their minds. All we can do is remain focused on our goal, which is to get kids into the most ideal learning situations possible so that they can begin to see growth. If we do that, then the rest of the noise (and yes, sometimes public perception has to be considered unproductive) will fade into the background. Parents have had a long go of it for these many months, and it’s our turn to take back the reins. With that will come anxiety, adjustment, and also joy. We will all figure it out, one day at a time.

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!

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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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