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Trust Yourself: Rejecting the Learned Helplessness of Pandemic Teaching

As we inch closer to the start of a school year that will be anything but typical, more school districts are making the difficult call to begin learning virtually. While this is the safest decision from a public health perspective, remote teaching without the physical proximity of students continues to be both a painful and a daunting process. In March, the suddenness with which the virus took hold resulted in the coinage of the term “pandemic teaching,” which describes the reactive pivot to virtual instruction that so many school systems implemented on zero notice. Now that summer is coming to a close and remote learning is still on the table, we see the need to increase the effectiveness of virtual classrooms, even more successful ones. Our learning curve may continue to be steep and unforgiving, but we also need to start trusting ourselves again. As one teacher shared with me in a meeting this week, “I’ve loved every minute of virtual teaching. I’m just doing what I love to do in a different environment. The whole idea of ‘pandemic teaching’ is not necessarily accurate.”

No Disclaimers

Nearly every Zoom meeting or class I attend includes a disclaimer along the lines of, “I haven’t fully figured out this online thing yet. Sorry!” By now, we have all acknowledged that we are not distance learning experts. It’s fine to accept our lack of remote teaching expertise to a degree, but we cannot stay in a place of learned helplessness. Instead, let’s drop the disclaimers, move on and trust in our expertise as teachers. To increase our confidence in virtual teaching skills, think about effective classroom practices that translate to any medium. For example, as always, use the first minutes of class to build relationships. As students enter a virtual space, engage them with a posted, pre-planned question, such as, “Do you prefer fruits or vegetables? Share some thoughts.” These entry questions should be designed to strengthen rapport, just as we would do in person, and could also be connected to curriculum goals as activators. We might be adjusting to new technological tools, but they are simply a different means to reaching students rather than the primary focus of instruction. 

Competence, Not Coverage

Whenever I hear teachers express concerns about “getting through” a curriculum, I wish that instructional leaders would do a better job at providing information about how to reach learning outcomes without reducing student learning to a series of tasks. This fall, we will be seeing students less frequently, so the idea of covering a curriculum needs to undergo a significant mindset shift. How do we prioritize what students need to learn and not get mired in the idea of doing everything? One strategy that has the dual benefit of building rapport while learning about student needs in those first weeks of school is to create getting-to-know-you activities that also share clues about learning. Students can go on scavenger hunts for items based upon what the teacher wants to determine about learning; for example, math time can be about gathering numbers of items in the house and multiplying or dividing them. If the teacher wants to see writing, students can pick one item from the scavenger hunt and share details about the item’s significance, or tell a fictional story about it. When students share information with us, we can sift through what we see to figure out what they need to know. That allows us to pick specific standards of focus as we embark upon the school year and build upon the skills that are the most non-negotiable for growth.

Apply Offline Strategies to Virtual Learning

Pivoting is one thing, but reinventing the wheel is not necessary. While this virtual learning challenge might be new, we still know an awful lot. Bringing students into a classroom community is just as possible at a distance, and we can do it by shifting our thinking just a bit. For example, if we assigned students specific roles in a brick-and-mortar classroom, we can do the same thing virtually. Using roles that stay static or rotate, students can serve a number of important functions. One can be a class greeter, saying hello to everyone as they enter the online space. Someone can be a timekeeper, while another can help monitor the chat. We can even have fun with these roles, assigning students to share a joke of the day (appropriate, of course) or designate a class spirit day theme.  By moving practices that we would implement in person to online learning, we maintain the importance of relationships, create comfort within the online community, and learn more about one another each day. 

We know how to teach. We know how to put kids first. Trusting our expertise is the first step to navigating the upcoming school year. Maybe we have been mired too much in a flawed narrative of sub-par teaching in the spring months that are behind us, and that is something we need to move past if we are to make progress going forward. Now, in these last weeks of summer, think about what works, chase it, and refine it for an online world. Our children need it, and to be honest, so do we. Let’s get back to doing what we do best: helping students.

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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