Distance Learning: How Will We Get Through This?
Originally published in TEACH Magazine, March/April 2021 Issue
By Sherry Siewert, MEd.
Teachers and parents (and teachers as parents) are scrabbling through a tool box of teaching and parenting techniques, looking for the right tools to help them with managing students. Too many are coming up empty-handed in this new world of distance learning.
Teachers have been forced to abandon the classroom management tools that they are accustomed to. As a result, they find it challenging to provide instruction without a firm grasp on student focus. They are speaking words into cyberspace with no assurance that they are reaching listening ears.
Alternatively, parents have been forced into the role of classroom manager. They are responsible for keeping their children accountable for their schoolwork and behavior, and many are doing this for multiple children at different grade levels and for teachers of various teaching styles.
Educators desperately want to help the parents but feel cut off from their students and familiar resources. Parents feel an obligation to step up to the plate but have no idea how to swing the bat. What if there was a way to combine tried-and-true classroom management tools with parenting techniques, giving all stakeholders a new toolbox to rummage through?
I had to give up some of the typical classroom management techniques I once used when, three years ago, I took a job as an online high school English teacher. My techniques became less about managing students and more about communicating expectations with them and their learning coaches (our title for parents or guardians assigned to help the students at home). It really comes down to the students, their learning coaches, and intrinsic motivation. Yikes—that’s the key, isn’t it? Not just teaching students what to do, but why to do it.
After one year of teaching in a virtual classroom from home, I decided to home-school my own children. I have four boys who, at the time, were in grades 6, 4, 3, and preschool. I tried to plan and prepare us for the new routines, but that first year there were many bumps along the way and we learned as we went.
When schools closed and the nation locked down, I was already using my new tactics that meshed classroom-style management with parenting skills to have focused kids who got their work done on time. (Some days were better than others, but that’s true for parents and teachers alike.)
Here are some of the tools I found that helped me as a parent-teacher, as well as some ideas I’ve shared with learning coaches when they sometimes struggle to be the teacher-parent.
Tip #1: “Treasure Box” or Reward System
Any box, bag, or even just a piece of paper with the rewards written on them will do. Teachers have used this to provide coveted scented-pencils, cute eraser tops, in-class job privileges, and extra minutes for recess to keep students on task. Parents have likely done the same with things their children value. It might be simple, but it’s effective.
Admittedly, there is not much the teacher can do in this area during distance teaching, but they can suggest that parents be the ones to determine when a treasure box reward is deserved. Personally, I keep two “treasure boxes”; one houses cheaper items and the other, weightier rewards. My kids can choose from the first any time I think to offer, or they think to ask. I offer treasure box rewards for daily piano practice or completing an assignment within the hour (and I set a timer—another valuable tool). Offered items include 30 minutes of video game time, a 30-minute activity of choice with me (game, craft, etc.), ice cream, $1-$3 toys, and lollipops.
The weightier treasure box is reserved for when they finish a full chapter book or, most often, when they have finished their schoolwork all week without too much wrangling on my part. Yes, there have been weeks when one child or another did not receive this reward. This treasure box contains 60 minutes of video game time, one-on-one time with me, or a favorite treat.
Tip #2: Checking for Understanding
Since teachers can still use this tool sometimes in live sessions by asking appropriate Depth of Knowledge (DOK) level questions, encouraging student repetition, or using various sensory triggers (i.e. audio and visual) for attention, the major difference here will be for the parents. After a student leaves the virtual classroom, there is far more time now for the parent to step in and assist with the learning process.
These simple tips may already be known to some parents, but many will find them new and extremely useful. To help them get and keep their child’s attention, they can:
- Ensure direct eye contact and be on the same level as the child (e.g. sitting in a chair instead of standing or hovering over them);
- Ask for a verbal repeat in the child’s words after reading directions;
- Provide helpful memory cues for recall, such as a list of steps with pictures or a tapping action along with a recitation. The parents can find these cues themselves through an internet search or the teacher can provide them.
Tip 3#: Time-Blocking
There are no longer bell schedules and no 50-minute blocks of time to neatly fit in a math lesson, so instead, time-blocking can be used. Sharing this tool with your students’ parents can make an impressive difference.
Time-blocking is the method of setting aside a chunk of time for a particular task. First, make a list of tasks, then determine how much time each task generally requires. Schedule in required activities (live class sessions, lunch break, doctor’s appointments, etc.) then fill in the rest. This is something teachers can model for parents or send instructions for in a short email or video.
Keeping the schedule flexible makes it easy to accomplish daily goals as well as squeeze in a five-minute task here or there, as needed. Those tend to pop up throughout the day. Setting timers can really help with this tool.
Tip #4: Lightening Things Up
The days of anticipating a class party, the movie day after finishing a novel, or the spontaneous outdoor game of dodgeball have vanished (for now). This is where parents need the most help—taking a break!
Fun activities to suggest to your students’ families could include a weekly family movie or game night, scavenger hunts (teachers can provide a list of items and align them with lessons), and outdoor game time. Encourage parents to do this often to ease tensions, especially when tensions seem the highest.
Trouble with getting children back on task when the activity is over? Treasure box.
Tip #5: Avoid Burnout
Veteran teachers know the value of silent activity stations and pre-planned transitional activities (such as video clip segues, stand and stretch, etc.). However, parents often struggle as they jump their kids from one task or virtual meeting to another.
Offer these gentle reminders to parents (and practice them yourself!):
- Emotions are hormones coursing through your body. These hormones, on average, take two minutes to run their course. When you feel emotions rising, slowly drink a glass of water, wait for it to subside, then act.
- If there is no time to wait, breathe deeply by counting to five and then breathe out to the same count. Breathing has a calming quality.
- When you are feeling tapped out, release the locus of control and let the consequences run their course. Whatever they are, you will be in a much better mind frame to deal with them if you apply the other steps in this tool.
- The word that teachers dread is “burnout.” At this time in our educational history, parents are just as likely to suffer from it as teachers. Remember to make time for yourself and stick to it. As a home-schooler and full-time teacher, this is a tough one for me. The days I do it are measurably better for myself and my kids.
Teaching is hard. Parenting is hard. It’s refreshing to know that instead of floundering on your own, you can reach out and help each other. I know you have more ideas and tools in your trusty old tool box than I have offered here, so take your favorite parenting tricks and mix them with your favorite teaching techniques. Share your expertise with your students’ parents and don’t forget to apply it to yourself, your children, or your family and friends.
The best answer to the question, “how will we get through this?” is, “together, although we’re apart.” Share ideas, resources, and tools to make distance learning more manageable and less stressful for all stakeholders and we’ll all reap the benefits as the future unfolds.
I believe that there is strength to collect from any perceived weakness. Right now, the weakness lies somewhere in our fears about providing quality education, but I predict that the strength to come will be students’ increased abilities to manage their time, take ownership, and begin to seek out learning for its own sake.
Sherry Siewert holds a Master of Education degree from Northcentral University in Arizona. She is in her third year teaching English for an online high school and has several years’ experience teaching middle school in a brick-and-mortar classroom.