Around the world, teachers, students and families are being faced with the prospect of school closures to help fight the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus. In some parts of the world, school closures have been in effect for six weeks or more, while in others communities wait anxiously to hear when or whether their schools will close. School closures are a necessary element of social distancing, and a vital component in the fight to “flatten the curve” of this pandemic, but no-one can know how long a school closure might last, or when it might begin. In spite of this, education is a fundamental human right and as educators we have a responsibility to teach throughout these closures to ensure that our students can access this right under even the most challenging of circumstances.
One powerful tool we have at our disposal to help us achieve this is technology. Right at this moment, tens of thousands of teachers around the world are finding themselves required to teach from virtual classrooms. For many this unexpected crash course in facilitating distance learning is extremely challenging: technology, all of a sudden, has gone from being the icing on the previously optional proverbial cake, to the entire, mandatory meal. The majority of schools and colleges across Europe and the US are already closing, and more will undoubtedly follow.
With little time to plan and prepare, many teachers have urgent questions about how to teach during a forced school closure. We all want to do the best we can for our students, and teachers already work tirelessly under often less-than-optimal conditions to provide a quality education for the students we all care so much about. So, what can you do immediately to help yourself and your students if your school is ordered to close?
Care for your learning community
In every school, perhaps even in every class, there are students and families who are vulnerable, and who rely heavily on school for a number of reasons. There are children for whom school is the only safe place from abuse or neglect. Children who rely on free school meals, breakfast club, or afterschool provision to feed them and care for them during the day, and children who are the primary carers for sick or injured parents. There are parents who work extremely hard under challenging conditions to make enough money to keep a roof over their family’s head, and who rely on school to keep their children safe so they can go to work. When schools close, these vulnerable members of our community are in real danger. They need us to look out for them. Going into a closure, you can take the following steps to support these members of your community:
- Think carefully about who in your class or school might need this extra awareness.
- Check in frequently with these students and parents (if appropriate) by video, email or whatever method you are using to communicate with your class.
- Ask your administrators what the safeguarding protocols are in your context. If you have concerns about a child’s well-being, what should you do? Who should you tell? Are there resources or support that you can share with parents who need it?
In the coming weeks and months, caring for the vulnerable people in our wider communities may become more important than ever before. As educators we will have a unique role within our school communities during this unprecedented time, in caring for our students and their families by being aware, compassionate, and proactive.
Focus on what matters: teaching, not technology
Imagine that a forced school closure is a metaphorical journey. The destination in this metaphor is ‘student learning’. Getting to that destination requires a vehicle - let’s say it’s a car - and in this case that car represents technology. It’s the means of transportation, a tool. Finally, the car needs a driver - and that’s you. Now, if you’re lucky, your car might be a Tesla, but it might instead, unfortunately, be a 1996 Fiat Punto. It would be great to have the Tesla, or even a Ford Focus, and if we had more time maybe we could save up for one, but we don’t, so we have to drive our Fiat Puntos to our destinations to the best of our abilities.
In all seriousness, while what teachers want right now - understandably - is quick and simple answers about what exactly to do, and with which specific technology, the truth is that the resources available to schools, teachers and families vary so greatly, even within countries and states, that there is no simple, generalizable procedure. In many parts of the world, including large parts of the US, education technology is poorly resourced, technology infrastructure is fundamentally lacking, and families cannot always afford to have personal technology at home. At the same time, schools separated only by a few minutes and crucial property-tax levels, might have 1:1 devices and teachers with access to a wide range of technology tools and teaching strategies - or they might have nothing. This is deeply and fundamentally unfair, and this inequity is something we need to fight to change in the long term. In the short term, however, we can only do the best we can with what we have available to us. After all, whatever kind of car is making the metaphorical journey, the person who is going to get it to its destination safely, efficiently, and enjoyably is always going to be you, the driver.
You are the most important element in keeping your classroom functioning. You have meaningful relationships with your students, extensive pedagogical knowledge and skills, and deep understanding of where your students are and where they need to go. Whatever technology you are going to be using, remember that you are really all they need. While you’re planning how you’ll teach with technology, keep in mind the following points:
Even with the best technology set up, you will not be able to cover everything you would cover in a normal classroom. Focus your energy on the most urgent or important goals. Perhaps there are tests coming up, or perhaps the priorities need to be the core academic subjects of reading, writing and math. Think about what you most need your students to learn so they have continuity in their education, and start from there.
Providing a clear and consistent schedule will help students, caregivers and you to manage distance learning more effectively and humanely. It allows for breaks, gives warning about what is coming up, and helps with time management during independent work times. If you can use a platform like Google Classroom or Seesaw, release assignments at scheduled times so students know they are coming and what they will be working when. This will also make it much easier for you to support your students than if you are fielding questions by email about math problems, essay structure issues and the Romans simultaneously.
Learning only through technology doesn’t have to mean learning only on technology. You should not be logging into Zoom at 8am with your whole class and staying there until 3pm, trying to teach as you usually would, except online. Instead, aim for a balance of synchronous and asynchronous teaching. In practice, this means assigning activities and tasks through pre-recorded or live videos, and documents shared through a platform like Google Classroom, then checking in with groups of students through scheduled live video conferences. You will also find that the energy in distance learning is very different - it is more tiring for students who won't have the classroom dynamic and natural socialization opportunities to invigorate them. As such, don’t overfill the day - less is more, at least at first. Give everyone (including yourself) time and space to adapt to this very unfamiliar situation.
Neither students nor teachers are well-suited to sitting down in front of a computer for 8 or more hours per day. It is surprisingly physically tiring, so make sure you schedule active movement and relaxation breaks for your students and yourselves. Include time in your schedule for physical activities like skipping, running, or games, and encourage students to connect with each other socially. Backchannel chat on apps like Padlet, and text or video chat through Google Hangouts - with appropriate supervision - can provide a great platform for conversation and discussion. Provide balance also in the types of academic work you set. Not all tasks should involve working at the computer: assign tasks that involve building something, discussing, drawing or painting, learning and performing a song or poem, or doing an experiment. Students can even share videos, photos or audio recordings of these tasks through platforms like Seesaw and Google Classroom.
Plan ahead, if you can
If you haven’t closed yet, take this time to consider some important logistics and gather information about your resources, and your student population.
In some contexts, particularly the international school sector, a school closure can result in teachers and students returning or retreating to other countries. This can mean that your class may end up spread over multiple time zones, which will impact on your ability to help all students in real-time, and to confer with students in certain time zones. Think about how you might manage that, perhaps by scheduling two or three check-ins per week at whatever time is least inconvenient for you both.
If you are not lucky enough to be in a 1:1 school where students are allowed to take their devices home during a closure, try to find out what (if any) personal devices the students have access to at home. By creating and emailing a simple Google Forms survey to parents you can find out what devices are in each home and, very importantly whether those devices are shared by more than one child/student.
This matters because if two or three siblings are expected to share a single device, this will significantly impact on their ability to complete tasks that rely on access to it, like video conferencing and online work. In the case of shared devices between siblings, try to collaborate with the other teacher/s for that family to work to prevent schedule clashes where possible.
For students who have no device, ask your administrator if there is anything that can be done to support them. For example, perhaps classroom desktop computers or laptops can be loaned to these families - after all, they won't be getting used in the school building! Or perhaps there are resources at the district level that can be reallocated temporarily.
Be kind to yourself and seek support
Teachers become teachers because they care about kids and they believe in the power and necessity of high-quality education. That strength of purpose is so needed in this world, but it can drive us to overstretch ourselves sometimes. To go from using little or no technology, or even from integrating it wholeheartedly into your normal teaching, to teaching exclusively through technology is an incredibly steep learning curve. Remember that you are doing your best in what is a very challenging situation, and be kind to yourself as you learn.
Many teachers in the early days of school closure find themselves glued to their computers for 10 or more hours per day, trying to answer every question instantly, and be there for every student all the time. This is just not sustainable. Your students need you healthy and present, and that means taking time for yourself and your needs. Take breaks, go for a walk (if you are allowed to go outside), break for lunch, rest your eyes, and try to consciously separate home time from work time, even though you are working from home.
Finally, even though you may be feeling very alone, you aren’t alone. Almost the whole teaching profession is right there with you, unseen but supportive, and going through exactly what you’re going through. This Facebook group is a fantastic source of tips and support, and the Twitter hashtags #DistanceLearning #FlippedClassroom and #EdTech are useful too. Reach out and ask for help and ideas, and share what is working for you and what isn’t.
Schools may be closing but teaching is still open, and so are your colleagues around the world.
Sarah Gilmore is co-author of Integrating Technology: A School-wide Framework To Enhance Learning and is an EdTech Integration Specialist at Berlin International School in Berlin, Germany. She has taught internationally for many years as an Elementary classroom teacher, before specializing in the use of technology to enhance learning across the curriculum. In addition to her teaching and coaching work, Sarah presents at conferences and workshops internationally.
She is a co-founder of Intechgrate.eu with Katierose Deos, where she consults with schools and their teachers on integrating technology into wider teaching and learning. You can connect with her on Twitter at @S_J_Gilmore.