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How can we help teachers support students?

During the pandemic, with so many kids being homeschooled or interacting with their teachers online, it has been heartwarming and humorous to see everyone from late-night hosts to friends on Facebook saying, for example, that while they appreciated their children’s teachers before, they now believe teachers should make seven-figure salaries. But the jokes underlie the dramatic shift that COVID-19 has caused in our educational system in just a couple of months, and the struggles that parents, teachers, and students are facing in adapting to this new paradigm.

Despite the unique challenges individual schools, communities, and families are facing, there are some things we can all do to help teachers provide students with the best possible education under these circumstances. We asked a few teachers in different types of schools across the country, with a variety of challenges and technology access, for their views on the shift to remote learning and how we can support them.

Kerri Bisaga is a high school special education teacher in the metro Boston area; Jessica Thomas is a fourth-grade teacher in Wichita Public Schools; and Lawrence Liu is a high school Chinese and US Government teacher at Washington Latin Public Charter School in Washington, DC.

What have you been most surprised by in this abrupt shift to “remote” learning?

Kerri Bisaga: I think many teachers have learned that while our students adore and are often addicted to technology, their functional technology skills are actually very low. In my role as a special educator for students with mild/moderate disabilities, I’m normally able to spend time with students in small groups, where it’s easy for me to offer computer support efficiently. Without this daily, in-person computer support, the transition has been especially stressful for students with learning disabilities.

Jessica Thomas: How unprepared we were for it in a lot of ways. We often don't have consistent ways of communicating with families, because they often change phone numbers and addresses, and this lack of communication really was an obstacle to overcome in the shift to remote learning.

Lawrence Liu: In some cases, for several students who struggled the most during the school year, they have risen to the occasion and used this as an opportunity to reset and focus on academics. That has been great! It’s possible that the constraints of distance learning have provided certain students with more structure and fewer distractions and our school has been great about providing a consistent curriculum structure across disciplines and leaning into our most struggling students to support and encourage them at this time.

What would you most like nonteachers to know about teaching right now?

KB: I’d like them to know that I am, in fact, still teaching! While my schedule is more flexible right now than it’s ever been in a traditional school setting, I am putting in the same amount of effort and hours.

JT: How learning looks right now is going to vary from district to district and even from family to family. Educators are trying our best to help students and families have access to learning tools, but it is ultimately up to families to structure learning for their children.

LL: Teachers are putting in a lot of effort into figuring out how to adapt and do their best teaching in this new environment. I have attended numerous professional development sessions on using various technology tools to teach and I continue to experiment with how best to produce interesting content and run live classes online in a way that maximizes student accountability. We’re trying to strike the balance between conveying important substantive content while making it interesting and entertaining in light of the fact that it is a wholly online platform. I’ve dressed up, played music, and pretended like it was a TV show all in a bid to retain interest in ways that match the medium.

What has been most difficult for you and for your students?

KB: Motivation, for both me and my students! My career as a teacher normally lends itself to a really routine-oriented lifestyle, but right now it feels like I’m a first-year teacher all over again. Many of my students are having a hard time just getting out of bed before midafternoon and stopping themselves from endlessly scrolling on social media. Our district has also chosen to grade students pass/fail, which takes away a bit of extrinsic motivation for students who were doing well to begin with.

JT: Trying to communicate with unresponsive families and students not having access to technology.

LL: Distance learning exacerbates inequities that already exist in our society. Some of our students didn’t have laptops or reliable home Wi-Fi access and also relied on school breakfasts and lunches for sustenance. We have done a good job of identifying at-risk students and families and providing them with the necessary technology, but it is still a great challenge. Broken cameras, spotty Wi-Fi, and just not being able to check in with someone in person over the course of a school day continue to be issues that we are constantly addressing.

How can education resource providers best help teachers right now?

KB: Strong tech support is so, so important as teachers are required to navigate programs we’d never even heard of two months ago. Also, I know resource providers want teachers to have all the tools they need to be great distance educators, but the sheer number of emails and offers has been incredibly overwhelming while I’m already working to master several new platforms. Moderating the number of emails would be a huge help to us.

JT: Providing free resources that are user friendly and easy for parents to access. I also think social-emotional resources are important for kids in this uncertain time.

LL: There is a lot out there and it can be quite daunting. Teachers do not have time to try out every new tool, so ease of use and accessibility are key.

What advice would you give to parents who find themselves trying to juggle certain teaching responsibilities at home right now?

KB: I think a lot of parents feel like they’re being called upon to totally fill the role of the teacher, but they do not have to! Teachers will do a lot of the teaching, we just need you to communicate with us, and provide scheduling support so the kids log on at the right times.

JT: I would tell parents to just do the best they can. Realistically, we can't expect parents to be teachers. I think the best thing that parents can do is make sure their children have structure: a set time to wake up, to work on homework, and to be active. All of these things are important to helping kids be happy and productive at home.

LL: Hang in there and do your best and don’t expect perfection. This is a learning process for all of us. Don’t be afraid to reach out to your student’s teachers and administrators to give them feedback on how the experience is going for you or to take advantage of such opportunities provided by your school. We need to hear what the experience is like on your end, to help us continue to adapt and improve on our end.

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