Teaching today is not the same as it was just a year ago.
The global Coronavirus pandemic has forced schools to change the way they do almost everything.
With infection rates moderate to high in most areas of the country, many schools have resorted to full virtual instruction while others have adopted a hybrid model incorporating a mix of cyber and in-person classes.
Only in the most sparsely populated, secluded or reckless areas have schools been allowed to reopen 100% without safety precautions.
For many districts trying to juggle both in-person and virtual classes, the online component has been left to ed tech companies like Edmentum often specializing in credit recovery.
These have been an absolute disaster.
Corporate America has no business educating our youth – and moreover they’re terribly bad at it.
However, in many districts, virtual instruction has come to mean something else entirely.
It has meant classroom teachers creating their own online instruction and assignments while teaching synchronously through applications like Zoom.
I want to be clear that I think this is the best possible model under current circumstances.
It is the best way to balance the needs of safety for students and staff with the needs of academics.
However, this isn’t to say it is trouble free or even preferable if the world were ever to snap back into the shape it was before the pandemic.
The people best situated to tell us this are classroom teachers.
Along with students whose input and experiences should not be ignored, it is our collective educator core who have been thrust into this strange experiment. But unlike children, they have the knowledge, maturity, skills and life experience to evaluate it best. And being one of those intrepid individuals, I here offer my thoughts.
After more than four months teaching this way, I’d say these are the top 5 pros and cons of virtual instruction:
1) There is Less Pressure Day-to-Day
Right off the bat there is something to be said for virtual instruction – it feels more low stakes.
You sleep longer, can more easily access amenities, the bathroom, food and drink.
For one, you sure can’t beat the commute.
Some students admit that they roll out of bed each morning and onto the computer. This is not always optimal for learning in that the mind needs time to wake up and focus itself. However, the fact that one has more choice over how to prepare for school, what to wear, more leeway about breaks and whether to eat or drink in class – all that leads to an increased casual feeling to the day.
And that’s not all bad.
As a teacher, I love being able to go to the restroom whenever I need – something that I cannot do in my school building. Back there, I have to literally train my bladder to be ready when I have breaks in my schedule.
Though I certainly don’t roll from my bed to class, the extra sleep I get from not having to drive to the building and the reduced stress of forgoing a commute, traffic, bad weather, etc. are extremely positive.
It helps me be more relaxed and ready to meet my students needs. It makes me a better teacher.
This doesn’t mean teachers aren’t incredibly stressed by the pressure to create new curriculum, using new technology and new district rules that are being rewritten by the hour. But at least the day-to-day instruction, itself, is more low key.
2) It is Harder for Students to Disrupt Class
We’ve all been there. An unruly student or two brings a dispute to class and picks on each other back and forth.
In the physical classroom, this can be a real problem requiring a lot of effort to resolve. You have to de-escalate the situation or else it could turn into an exchange of fists.
Online it’s a snap. You can simply mute the participants. The teacher has much more control over what communication enters the classroom space and physical violence is impossible.
True, a dedicated disruptor can find a way to cause a ruckus. He or she can try to use the chat or even the video camera. They may even have each others cell phone numbers and communicate back and forth that way.
However, few students are aggravated enough to take such measures. I haven’t noticed much beyond simple teasing.
Some of my students put pictures of each other as the backgrounds on their camera screens – but these have always been friends trying to get a laugh. A comment from me and it stops.
If worse comes to worse, I can still remove them from the Zoom meeting and alert the principal or dean of students for disciplinary action.
But I haven’t had to do that yet. I’ll bet disciplinary referrals have dropped to record lows. And without them, virtual learning may have all but dismantled the school-to-prison pipeline.
3) It’s Easier to Communicate with Parents and Students Individually
There are many reasons for this.
In the physical classroom, the most common form of communication is verbal. But digital spaces allow for several other methods.
You can email individual students messages, work, assignments, grades, etc. You can utilize the chat feature to send a private message. You can simply talk to them in the Zoom meeting. You can set up an individual Zoom meeting like office hours to answer questions. You can ask or answer questions about assignments in the stream function of Google Classroom.
All these options allow for students to talk with their teacher one-on-one more easily than in the physical classroom.
Consider this: let’s say a student has a question about the homework after class. In the physical classroom environment, there may be little they can do but wait until the next day. Before last March, I’d had students send me emails, but I never checked them as regularly as I need to now.
In the digital world, students can easily send a message through email or stream at any time. This certainly puts a strain on educators but most questions I receive are during school hours and easily answerable in a timely fashion.
When it comes to parents, just having the contact information at your fingertips is a plus. Also teachers have more time to communicate with them when you remove lunch duty, hall duty, in-school suspension and other necessities of the physical classroom. When teachers don’t have to function as security guards, we get more time to be teachers.
I find that in the virtual classroom, I have the time to communicate with every parent at least once a week – or at least I try. Even in the digital world, some parents are incommunicado.
4) It’s Easier to Read a Text Together
As a language arts teacher, this is really important to me.
For more than 15 years, I’ve read texts aloud with my students and asked them to follow along. I tell them to take their index fingers, put them in the text and move along with where we are in the passage.
Few actually do it, and there’s really nothing I can do to make them. Except beg.
In the virtual classroom, I can easily put the text on all their screens, place the cursor under the words and follow with the reader or the audio recording.
Students can try to ignore it, but that’s harder than just following along. It also allows me to point to specific parts of the text.
If a student is reading and struggling with a word, I can point to prefixes, suffixes, roots, etc. to help them. And I’ve honestly seen improvements in some struggling readers fluency.
5) It’s Easier for Students to Work at Their Own Pace
This isn’t really a core value of the physical classroom.
Teachers give assignments, set due dates and students have to get things done in the time frame.
Online it isn’t such a straight line.
Teachers instruct in a Zoom meeting, but students are not required to attend. They can catch up with a video of the meeting if they need or prefer.
And since we all anticipate students may have issues throughout the day with connectivity, the technology, home responsibilities, distractions, etc. teachers haven’t been so firm on those due dates.
I freely give extensions and tell my students that assignments can still be made up for full credit well past the deadline. It’s about getting the work done, not so much about when.
I find myself explaining assignments more often than usual, but it’s somehow not as annoying as it sometimes is in the physical classroom.
We’ve created a culture of care and understanding. I think that’s a positive thing even if it doesn’t emphasize due dates and time frames as much.
1) Student Absences
No matter how you look at it, there are an alarming number of students absent throughout the day.
For my own classes, this was much worse in the spring when we first went online. Starting in September, more students have been attending regularly.
However, there are two important points to be made.
First, there are some students who do not attend the live Zoom meetings but instead watch the videos and do the assignments. Their work is not worse than those who attend – in fact, it is sometimes much better.
I suppose it’s possible students in the Zoom meetings could feed information to those not attending, but with the videos and the ability to communicate with me at will, it’s almost more work to cheat.
Second, though some students have neither attended many (or any) Zoom meetings or handed in many (or any) assignments, this was true in the physical classroom, too.
Some parents do not provide the structure necessary to ensure their children are doing their school work. This is true no matter how that work is presented – physically or virtually.
In my classes, about 20% are regularly absent. Of those, 10-15% are not participating much at all.
That’s about the same as I would expect to see in the physical classroom.
We need to identify these students and provide them with the resources necessary to succeed. But that’s always been true.
2) The Camera Conundrum
To turn your camera off or not? That is the question.
Zoom meetings can be an awfully lonely place for teachers when every student has their camera off.
The general consensus is that we should allow them this freedom. It encourages them to attend the Zoom meetings on their own terms and avoid the stress of seeing themselves constantly on their own screens. It allows them to avoid the fear of being judged for their surroundings.
Allowing them this latitude certainly does increase attendance and create a more positive attitude. But the teacher is in a worse position to monitor student engagement.
Most days I feel like a medium at a seance asking if so-and-so is here. Give me a sign.
I try to pose questions to get students involved – even more than I would in the physical classroom – and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.
There are times when I yearn just to be able to look at my students again and see what they’re doing. Because I know some of them are not paying attention.
Some are texting on their cell phones. Some are playing video games on another screen. Some are talking with brothers, sisters, friends or parents in their house.
There’s not much I can do except try to keep my classes as engaging as possible. Most of the time, I think it works.
But not always.
3) It’s Harder to Monitor/Push Students with Special Needs
This is related to the previous point.
The problem of the camera is particularly pernicious for students with special needs. I can’t tell you how many IEPs and service plans want me to monitor students with ADHD and bring them back when they lose focus.
This is nearly impossible for a student with his or her camera off. I can try verbal queues, but students don’t always answer. I can ask them to turn on their cameras if that has been added to their IEPs, but they rarely comply. And if they do, they just point the camera at the ceiling or otherwise away from their faces.
The human contact of actually being present in a physical space has many advantages – especially for students with special needs.
I try my hardest and do everything I can to help them. But I feel that some of them are falling through the cracks – at least more than they would be in a physical classroom.
4) Technological Issues
Even under the best of circumstances, there are always technological issues.
Students do their assignments and their devices don’t save the work. Their batteries run low. They haven’t downloaded the proper apps. They’re using the wrong emails to access a google form.
The list is endless.
Thankfully, my district has a help desk students can access. But teachers need to be aware and permissive about technology issues. We have to air on the side of letting them get away with something rather than being too strict.
And the technology issues aren’t limited to the students.
One Friday I found the wi/fi in my home was down. I had class in 30 minutes and had to find someway to connect online to teach.
I still don’t quite understand what happened. The Today Show was in the neighborhood doing a live broadcast that morning. Perhaps that had an effect.
For whatever reason my Mac laptop could not connect to the Internet. I had a barely functional PC that for reasons I cannot explain was able to connect.
So that’s what I did. I connected with the PC and taught my classes. The connection was still spotty and I got kicked out of my own Zoom meeting once.
When I got back on moments later, the students were terrified. But we got on with it and managed.
I don’t know why, but the issue seemed to fix itself about 2 hours later and I was able to get onto my laptop and experienced no further problems.
I suppose the point is that we have to realize technology issues will crop up. We need contingency plans. Lots and lots of contingency plans. For ourselves, as teachers, and for our students.
5) Danger of a New Normal
This is particularly scary.
Ed tech companies have been trying to take over public education for years.
Unscrupulous business people have been trying successfully to privatize and profitize education.
Charter and private schools are packed with students these days. This is partially because their smaller size and greater resources allows them to more easily meet in-person safety standards. Where public schools have recklessly reopened, cyber schools have swooped in to provide a safer option, too.
When even many public schools become less focused on doing the right thing than on doing the popular thing, they open the door to privatization.
It’s the wild west out there and no one can really tell how this will all affect what the future of education will be.
If the pandemic ended tomorrow, I would like to return to the physical classroom. But I can’t say I’d willingly leave every innovation of virtual instruction on the cutting room floor.
I like giving tests through Google Forms.
I like giving paperless assignments on Google Classroom.
I like being free to contact parents and students easily and not being tied to duties more suited to school security officers.
I like being able to pee whenever I need.
But I don’t want to lose the best aspects of the physical classroom.
I don’t want to lose autonomy and have everything micromanaged and predetermined by ed tech companies.
I don’t want ridiculously large class sizes justified by a digital space.
I don’t want to have to teach live on-line and in-person at the same time, curating and managing the virtual space and the physical classroom.
I don’t want to be under constant digital surveillance.
These are all dangers of the new normal.
I don’t know what the future will be, but I know it will not be what it was before all this started.
That’s equal parts scary and exciting.
But right now teachers really can’t afford to worry about it too much.
We’re too busy trying to get through the current crisis.
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