Teaching in extraordinary times

By Michelle Olah
Instructional Strategist

I would not say I am an expert by any means, but I find myself in the unusual circumstance of being able to empathize with many different people during these strange COVID-19 days. I was a “brick and mortar” Spanish teacher for 8 years before making a transition to teaching virtual school. (Did you know that is what online teachers called you before last week?) 

I am a mom whose son is currently taking all online classes this year and have seen remote teaching and learning from a family perspective. I am a Floridian who has experienced (more than once!) the stress and anxiety that comes with a developing emergency situation: The stress of preparing for the unknown, the anxiety of constant news and social media coverage, the disruption to schedules and daily routines, and the obsession with finding scarce resources. 

COVID-19 preparations have a lot in common with hurricane preparation! And currently I am an Instructional Strategist that works from home for Wayside Publishing. I can understand the joy and frustrations of working from home. Just yesterday I was trying to hold a webinar with the dog barking and going crazy in the background! Based on all these diverse experiences that all seem to be coming to play right now, I wanted to share some of my thoughts with you. 

Stop and Breathe 

Before we go any further, I want you to stop and take a deep breath. I don’t know if you even realize how much stress you are under right now. You are in crisis mode and the instinct to fight is kicking in some serious adrenaline. You are planning lessons, tweeting, checking emails, checking Facebook, learning new websites and platforms to use with your students,  attending webinars to learn new tips and tricks for remote learning, being a teacher to your own children, trying to find toilet paper (really?!?! I still don’t understand that one)…the list goes on and on. You need to STOP for just a second and breathe. Find a quiet place and close your eyes. I think we are in this for the long haul and you can’t keep going at this pace. You need to take care of yourself and pace yourself  so that you can be there for your students and your family. It’s ok to stop for a minute. You will be better for it. After you’ve done that you can continue reading… 

Be Patient and Kind 

The first person you need to be patient and kind with is yourself. When I transitioned from a brick and mortar teacher to teaching online, I had a few things going for me. First, I CHOSE to make the switch. I had the opportunity to think and prepare for the new situation I was going into. Second, the virtual school I was going to teach with had an established and well-articulated curriculum (lessons, assessments) designed for full time instruction. Third, I received intentional and appropriate professional development on the resources and mindset behind online teaching and learning.

And let me tell you something. Despite all that, transitioning to online teaching was STILL hard! And took time. And took patience. Because at first, I wasn’t good at it. I didn’t know how to be an online teacher. There is an entirely different set of skills and dispositions needed to engage and teach online. That doesn’t mean that you can’t and won’t learn! You will! I have no doubt about that. But in the meantime, don’t expect to be the highly effective teacher that you are in the classroom.  Be patient with yourself and let yourself just be “okay” for now. It gets easier and you will get better! Maybe you’ve seen on Twitter or Facebook or at your school, teachers who already have it all figured out. Don’t compare yourself to them, if they have it figured out already, they have been doing this for a while now.  

Next, be patient and kind to your students (and their parents). This isn’t easy for them either. I mentioned that my son is in full time virtual school. He’s in ninth grade. He CHOSE to do online virtual school, he has a dedicated work space to do work, he has ONE learning platform where he completes all assignments, his courses are established and organized, he has a mom who was a teacher and  works from home, he is an only child so he doesn’t share a computer and guess what?! It STILL isn’t easy!

He is a good kid who gets distracted, bored, and off task. He gets behind. I get frustrated and start to nag. Even under these ideal circumstances virtual learning is challenging. Now add working parents, younger siblings, stressed families (emotionally and perhaps financially), computer/internet challenges, multiple teachers not all using the same websites and platforms, etc. to the equation and you will realize why you need to lower your expectations a little. None of this is normal and we can’t act like it is. And all of this occurring in less than a week! The speed at which teachers, parents, students and school systems are experiencing these radical changes is staggering. So, please, do your best and expect that your students are doing theirs, but understand that there is much more going on here in everyone’s lives than just your class.  

Now that we’ve established these are extraordinary times where social and emotional learning may overtake traditional learning for a while, what are some easy, low stakes things you can do while you right now to transition to online teaching and learning? 

Change your Mind(set) 

Less is More  

In the following days, keep repeating this to yourself over and over. Less is more. Less is more. What does that mean? 

Less Content 
Give yourself permission to not follow your pacing guide. That’s over and done. It’s time to move on. Focus your attention and your students’ learning on only the most important concepts that they really need to master this year. Do they need to know EVERY article of clothing? All of the types of food? Decide which vocabulary and structures are the most beneficial for students and give them the time and resources to really understand and acquire them. Identify your key outcomes and work backwards. What are your expectations for what they really need to know and be able to do by the end of this year? How are you going to know whether they got there? And then what learning activities are the most essential to get them there? Should student learn new content on their own? Or it is more beneficial to their longtime language proficiency to master and expand an what they have already learned? Those are questions only you can answer. But I hope after all the uncertainty and craziness slows down you can take some time to think about these questions and make a realistic plan for your students learning. 

Fewer websites, platforms and resources 
Now is not the time to introduce new technology resources into your life or the life of your students. By all means, if you have been using FlipGrid, SeeSaw, Kahoot, Gimkit, Zoom, etc. with your students all year, keep using them. If you haven’t, DON’T start now! Every minute you are spending trying to learn the “best” website for a particular task is time not spent on making critical decisions about your content. Choose as few solid websites and resources to focus on and try not to use any that you haven’t already used with students. You may not be using the “perfect” platform but at this point, perfect is the enemy good. And right now, good is good enough. When all this is over, you will have time to learn and become proficient with all these awesome sites you are seeing on Facebook and Twitter but right now, I recommend you file them away in an “Awesome but learn later” file. 

Smaller chunks
Mini lessons are the rulers of online learning. Try to create mini lessons that students can do in a short amount of time and in between other tasks and chores. Not only are they easier for you to create from your make shift office with the kids fighting and the dogs barking, but they are also easier for the students to tackle in their unique circumstances. Remember we are focusing in on the most important learning that needs to occur, and it is all about quality not quantity. You don’t have to manage a 55-minute class anymore so a 55-minute lesson plan is not required. Give short but meaningful tasks that won’t be difficult for you to create or students to complete. 

Except When It’s Not – When should less not be the focus? Here are some suggestions on where to put more of your time and energy. 

Communication
The more you and your students communicate, the more engaged you will all be. In a brick and mortar classroom, your communication was probably limited to verbal communication. To keep students engaged in an online environment you need to communicate in a variety of ways and often. You can use discussion boards, individual calls and emails, chats, and videos to communicate with your students and let them know you are there for them. Use this time to get to know your students better and let them get to know you. Hopefully, when this is over and you are back in your classrooms with your students, your sense of community will have become even deeper. 

Feedback 
When I moved to the online teaching environment, I really learned the value of individual feedback. After teaching all day in the brick and mortar classroom I came home carrying a crate of papers or a file of audio recordings that I knew I should give feedback on. But I was tired, and there were more lessons to plan. And so, it often got pushed to the end of “to do” list. In virtual school I had to give feedback if I expected students to advance their proficiency. Feedback is where the real learning takes place in an online environment. I encourage you to use this new means of instruction as an opportunity to focus on how you can move your students on their path to language and cultural proficiency using feedback. 

Creativity
Why not use this break from the usual routine to tap into students’ creativity and passions? Give open ended assignments and projects that allow students to learn something or try something new using the language. Instead of giving them a website to use, give them a problem to solve or an outcome to demonstrate and let them decide on the platform. Give them the opportunity to use their language skills in creative ways. Now might be a great time for the students to create and own their own language learning by focusing on what interests and motivates them.  

Humor and Encouragement
Break out those GIFs and memes! Give shout outs of praise and encouragement. If you’re brave, try making a TikTok video! Your students will appreciate humor and getting to know you better! Check out this Pinterest board for Memes that will make you and your students smile. We could all use more humor these days.  

180 classes of One 

After my three years of teaching virtual school Spanish, I decided it wasn’t really for me. But the lessons I learned by teaching students online made me a better teacher. I realized that I didn’t really teach 180 students. I taught 6 classes of 30. Even though I tried to differentiate I still I taught to the whole class. When I moved to the online environment, I really learned what it meant to teach to every student. I now had 180 classes of one. I got to know each student as an individual. I learned about their families, their struggles, and their successes. It changed the way I looked at them and I gave them the opportunity to see me as a person, not just a teacher. I learned how to give students meaningful feedback that helped them continue their language growth. These were all lessons worth learning even though it wasn’t easy. My hope is that you will find your own lessons and grow as a teacher during this challenging time. And don’t forget: Stop and breathe.  

9 thoughts on “Teaching in extraordinary times

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  1. Incredibly well-written, spot-on, timely post for those of us in the trenches of this madness. Thank you so much for this. Our district is asking us to perform on-line miracles overnight and my stress level is through the roof. Your words are incredibly calming and helpful.

    1. Thank you so much for reading and commenting and we are so happy that we can be there for you and all of your fellow teachers!

      1. So true Michelle! Great advice is contained in this blog. From someone who is already teaching virtually, I can agree with a lot of what you wrote. It will be difficult and require a different skill set than the brick and mortar classroom. The most important takeaway “you are teaching 180 classes of one” Each student is basically their own class, individualize to help them succeed.

  2. This article will help stimulate discussions in the school community to produce a thoughtful sustainable school response to our current situation . Many thanks for sharing your experience!

  3. Thank you for this encouraging perspective. It definitely gives valuable directions to focus on. Which is very much so needed this days to not get lost in the never ending cyber/virtual world :)) Thank you for taking the time to post this.

  4. I am not a regular Twitter person but in the midst of “Corona” I find myself there more often. Your commentary is FABULOUS!
    Thank You!!!

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