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Teacher's Lounge Virtual Instruction Advice - High Anxiety

Dear Teacher’s Lounge,

As we get closer to the start of school, I’m so confused by all the new things I have to learn. There is a new online platform for instruction, endless possible extensions, I’m supposed to have a Bitmoji classroom (whatever that is), and I also have to figure out a brand-new data system. How can I handle all this stress when I’m not in a building to get help from others?

                                                                                                                        ~High Anxiety

Dear High Anxiety,

First of all, repeat this sentence as many times as you need to: “I am not alone, and I will be okay.” Then, believe it. You know more than you realize.

Whenever we’re barraged with an overwhelming number of tasks, the ability to prioritize becomes our best friend. I like to categorize my day into three groups that I label A, B and C. The first thing I do is make a list of everything that I feel pressure to achieve. Once that’s written down, I put an “A” next to things that are urgent and important, a “B” next to things that are important but less urgent, and a “C” next to items I would like to get to, but probably won’t. Incidentally, many of the items in the “C” column eventually become an “A,” but that’s just life. If they never become important or urgent, that can also be pretty revealing.

In your case, you have a deadline looming of teaching kids, and being able to do so in a way that makes you feel comfortable is incredibly important. The first step to making headway is realizing that, unlike the teacher who I talked to who recently said, “I’ll never master Zoom teaching,” you will get better each day. In six months, you will look back at your September self and shake your head slightly at all the things you did not yet know. And you know what? I am willing to bet that even the less knowledgeable version of you will still be a stellar teacher, and I know that because you shared this concern to begin with. Effective teachers care about learning, both their own and their students’.

With this list of programs and tech tools to learn, figure out which ones will be needed with the most immediacy. For example, you mentioned an online platform for instruction, and that sounds like the number one tool you need to learn more about to launch your classes. Some of the other items, like a cute Bitmoji of you that permeates a virtual space, can probably wait. It might help to think about needs in the virtual world the way you would think of them in a physical space, and use that to figure out where priorities fall.

One other thing you mentioned is the lack of colleague support during this time. If your school is not providing a drop-in support space online for teachers, perhaps you might think about starting an online room for teachers to gather in at a specific time and day each week. This space would operate as a place to air job-alike needs and concerns, and it could be extremely helpful not just in getting answers, but also in feeling less isolated during a difficult time. Stress is a real concern, and it’s hard to manage alone. Hearing your own concerns mirrored in the experiences of others can alleviate some of that, as well as following the usual recommendations for self-care. If it helps, dedicate a limited amount of time each day to your own professional development so that all of these new teaching tools do not take over your entire self-concept as a teacher. Remember, you know how to teach, and you care about kids. You’re just doing it in a different way. Keep breathing! 


Dear Teacher’s Lounge,

I have to teach at home, but my kids are around me doing virtual school. I know that all teachers are struggling with this problem, but have you heard about any possible ways to handle the constant distractions from our own children and yet still focus on our students?

                                                                                                                                         ~Teacher Parent

Dear Teacher Parent,

Your situation really resonates with me, mainly because as I write this, I’m sitting at a dining room table with my three kids and dog, trying to work amid an endless cacophony of needs. In fact, I was just requisitioned to help my daughters make a potion for virtual wizard camp that blew up in my kitchen. And yes, this happened while I was facilitating a professional development for teachers. Was it distracting? Heck, yeah. Did it derail my session? Not really, and I’ll explain why.

The first is obvious, but it’s important: all of us are distracted to a degree right now. Whether we work with kids or adults, we don’t have anyone’s full attention most of the time. Computers are just too enticing, and our families are relentless. As embarrassing as it might feel to have a child burst into your screen wearing nothing but a pair of sunglasses and baseball cap, everyone is adjusting to a loss of professional veneer together. That’s why work clothes are now really nice t-shirts on a good day, and why the presence of human or animal life is worthy of an internal shrug.

All that said, it can be genuinely distressing to be distracted in the virtual classroom, so the structure of the class can be set up early to accommodate home life realities. One simple strategy is to place clearly labeled course materials for the week (or even the day) that are designed for independent work into a shared space. Make the expectation clear to students that if and when real life distracts you for a moment, they can go into that space and work on one of the assigned activities. Another way to maximize that time is to have discussion topics at the ready. Depending on the age of students, they can either be sent to breakout rooms to have a conversation, or younger students can look at a posted question and write down short ideas to share with the teacher once the distraction passes. Will students stay on topic in these situations? Not necessarily, but the opportunity to learn is there, and social time for them to chat is also valuable. Either way, structures for working without the teacher can be set up with intention during the first week of school and consistently followed, and students will soon learn what to do.

Above all, keeping expectations in check is probably wise. When we teach in classrooms, we are constantly interrupted by announcements, or assemblies, or a kid in the back throwing up. It’s not as though distraction is new; it’s just different because our personal lives are bleeding into our jobs. How we react will determine whether kids are thrown off, so treating home life as a norm and even talking about it a little (as in, “Oh man, my daughter just blew up the kitchen”) will make relationships even stronger in the long run.


Dear Teacher’s Lounge,

What are some of your favorite tech tools? I’m just curious how to translate some of what I did in an actual classroom to a virtual one. Thanks!

                                                                                                                                         ~Aspiring Techie

Dear Techie,

To answer your question, I asked some of my colleagues for their thoughts. After all, hive mind really helps in these situations!

The tool that came up the most often was any program that creates a screencast, such as Screencast-O-Matic or Screencastify. The benefit of a screencast is that a teacher can talk to students asynchronously, both for instructional purposes and to provide feedback. Suppose that a student completes a large-scale assignment that deserves a lot of commentary. By using a screencast, the teacher can move through the student work and talk them through their progress in what amounts to a one-way conference. For students who receive detailed verbal feedback better than shorter written thoughts, this tool can be an invaluable way to help kids move forward.

With communication being so limited during this time, Google Voice is also an important way to keep the dialogue open between teachers, students and their families. This function allows a number to be set up that is not a teacher’s personal phone number so that texts or phone conversations are possible without revealing personal information. Without the ability to communicate in person or call people from a school building, using Google Voice really bridges some gaps. All users need is a personal Gmail account to get set up.

One last tool that teachers discussed enthusiastically is Pear Deck, which is an extension that comes with many teacher accounts at a base level. Essentially, Pear Deck communicates with slide programs (like Google Slides or PowerPoint) and makes it possible for students to not just access the slides, but also engage in interactive pursuits with teacher guidance. With Pear Deck, quick assessments are pretty easy to execute, and they can also be a little more appealing to younger audiences. There is also an audio feature, which means that students can listen to directions or other resources to build upon the lesson. If a teacher knows how to create slides, Pear Deck can be a way to build upon that knowledge base gradually.

As with all technology tools, even the best ones are meant to support instruction, not replace it. No technology on its own can replace our teaching expertise, but digital tools can help us create more access and opportunity for ourselves and our students. A physical classroom allowed us to interact with kids without as much forethought; when it comes to translating skills to a virtual classroom, continuous reflection about our connections with others is a helpful practice to keep growing in online teaching and learning.

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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