A teacher's perspective on the ins and outs of online schooling, along with some advice for parents, students and educators

Here I was at 3 p.m. — on a Sunday, no less — holding a virtual meeting with my school team. Our tireless lodestar, Mary, asked us to sum up our feelings in one word. It had only been two weeks since we’d last heard a bell or stood in front of a full classroom, but we were already exhausted.

“Anxious.”

“Concerned.”

“Anxious.”

“Frustrated.” 

We were exhausted not because we’d been burning the midnight oil to cobble together packet work to be sent home at the last minute and crafting online lessons to be sent into the digital wilderness, but because of our worry. First and foremost, as teachers, we worry about students who may not have access to the internet and to Chromebooks, which will now be their school. We worry about students who are going home to neighborhoods in food deserts, who may now have to care for younger siblings, who were months from graduating high school and now fret over whether they’ll be able to walk across a stage in May. In this unprecedented situation, safety and stability are concerns that immediately override diplomas and credits. At least for now.

But since the closing of schools in Ohio (and across the nation) for the foreseeable future, many parents, students and educators are scrambling to adapt to “distance learning” in this new normal, only to find more questions than answers. 

What we do know from House Bill 197 is that our schools will be exempt from state testing and report cards; whether you feel strongly for or against the implementation of these metrics (a topic for another time), that exemption has been an enormous stressor lifted from Ohio districts. The legislature also relaxed the requirements for graduating seniors. As long as students were on track to graduate, and they have all the necessary credits mandated by the state, they will graduate. Despite some brain drain and disorientation when we all return, these are great and necessary calls on the part of the Department of Education.

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What we don’t know is what “distance learning” will look like for the remainder of the year. In the last few days, I’ve talked to educators and parents from Maine to Washington about what they are doing in the makeshift schools and classrooms they’ve assembled in their living rooms and basements. I’ve dubbed my window-filled home office the Treehouse, as it overlooks a nice view of a now-traffic-deficient High Street. All of these teachers and parents are utilizing some kind of educational software — Khan Academy, Edsby, Firsties, Illuminate, ClassDojo and more; the list of options is endless, but they all have similar aims and results, which is to aid and assess classroom instruction. For virtual instruction, teachers are showing their resourcefulness with Google products, Zoom meetings, YouTube, Facebook and other platforms that can spark engagement and help make connections in real time.

But just like a livestream of your favorite band can’t replace the concert experience, and a FaceTime session with your mom can’t replace dinner around the table, online learning can’t replace the tactile intangibles that are present in a brick-and-mortar school building. “Distance learning” is nothing but a Band-Aid that hopefully never becomes a commonplace ritual every time we need to shelter in place.

Fortunately/unfortunately I’ve worked in online education as tech support, and later as a teacher, at the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow. Firsthand knowledge allows me a different perspective, and while in its creation ECOT seemed like a grand idea with untapped potential (in my time there I did, indeed, provide a needed service to a very small percentage of homebound students), it was a monumental failure and a scandalous fleecing of taxpayers and local school districts. And though online classes might work at the college level for tuition-paying co-eds with responsibilities and busy lives, they don’t work as well for the kindergarten teacher in Bexley who has suddenly been tasked with holding hour-long, remote language arts classes with 20 near-toddlers. Or the history teacher who can barely amend a shared Google document and now has to record a cache of virtual, interactive lessons.

This pause in school as we know it shouldn’t signal a “See, we told you so” response from Betsy DeVos, who is no doubt licking her chops in anticipation of a nationwide, for-profit, online public school system with little to no oversight. We don’t have to imagine that dystopian model, because we will return to school. Teachers may be exhausted, anxious and concerned, but we are also extremely resilient.

If there’s anything in plain sight right now, it’s the need for equity in our school systems. I’ve seen many colleagues who work in schools that are 1:1 with their technology, meaning every student has their own machine from which to work at home. But my school isn’t so fortunate. There are rural schools in Ohio, as well, that barely have internet strong enough to handle the current strain.

It also brings up the issue of pay. Parents are likely discovering for the first time that teachers do more than just teach content in their day to day. They are your student’s counselors, confidants, disciplinarians, babysitters and conflict mediators. If we paid teachers more, there might be doctors, scientists, engineers and business leaders choosing to be in the classroom. This is not groveling, nor is it pride. In this crisis, our country’s first line of defense consists of medical professionals, city workers, delivery persons and grocery store cashiers, but teachers are also essential. Right now, they provide a second line. I dare you to try that algebra homework with little Johnny without the help.

This pause, too, also highlights what we are teaching in our schools. Though my school may not be equitable in terms of tech and resources, it does have an advantage over several in the country. I mentor a crew of high school seniors who, before closing, were already out in the community, engaging with the real world and learning 21st-century skills that aren’t a part of the state standardized curriculum. They spend at least an entire semester studying media literacy, doing civic engagement, practicing professional writing and communication, volunteering for the less fortunate or at the YMCA, apprenticing in trade shops, assisting recording studios and non-profits, as well as working with book publishers, auto mechanics, public defenders and artists. Our kids won’t learn solely in front of a computer screen.

As the saying goes at my school, we are “crew,” not “passengers.” Parents who are now balancing working from home with afternoon biology and teachers calling to ask why a student won’t respond to emails. Students, meanwhile, don’t quite understand what is happening right now. We are all on the same proverbial boat, and we all have a role in where that boat is headed.

I don’t have any handy, one-size-fits-all bag of tips and tricks, but I’d like to model what we call “the habits of learning” that we instill in the students at our school, and use it as a sort of scaffolding for how teachers, students and parents can proceed through the choppy waters ahead. Use this more as an overarching philosophy for how to approach each lesson and subject.

Self-direction 

It's no longer Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday; everything has simply blurred into “Day.” Self-direction — the motivation to actually log in and do the work assigned — was part of the downfall of ECOT. You’ll now have to modify your student’s day into a bell schedule. You’ll need to create a routine, and you’ll need to show your student how to follow this routine on their own. I recommend getting familiar with some kind of calendar app or, in my old-school methodology, a physical notebook and folder to keep everything organized. A checklist is the best motivator. And if you provide the students with a sense of purpose and authenticity in their work, self-direction will follow.

Perseverance 

I should say something about 100 percent of the shots you don’t take you don’t make, but I won’t. Perseverance means learning from your mistakes, keeping with a task even if it’s the most mundane, then try and try again. Parents, you’re likely getting graphic organizers and worksheets you don’t understand in the slightest. Email your student’s teacher or research online. Ask questions. Teachers, we are the world’s best improvisers. If something isn’t working, grab a lesson from a colleague and make it your own. Some of my senior students might have to mop the floor or fold boxes every day for their first few weeks, but that perseverance pays off and leads to trust and greater responsibilities.

Teamwork and collaboration 

This is a habit that’s hard to facilitate remotely. If nothing else, a school building is a community, and without teamwork and collaboration you are doomed. The same will probably translate to the home school. The best solution is project-based learning. Have your students brainstorm how they’ll work together to tackle litter on their neighborhood walks, create a family film or documentary where everyone has a role, or design a jigsaw lesson where each student researches a different element of  your family's genealogy. Better yet, commandeer your high-schooler to help the third-grader with elementary math. There are resources out there, like the new songwriting workshops and initiatives by We Amplify Voices, that provide pure collaboration at home. Teachers, you are probably in the middle of some teamwork as you read this. Keep it up. 

Service and stewardship 

At my school, this is an essential factor. Your education and how you use it in authentic ways for the greater good is paramount. Our extremely talented art teacher, in these harrowing times, has made amazing use of her skills. My colleague Randi Channel, stuck at home watching the “daily DeWine,” has crafted a journal for students to reflect on what they learn during these informative press conferences. Taking it one step further, she’s designed a lesson that instructs how to sew PPE masks for health workers and, eventually, the general public. Beyond that, she has enlisted a number of our willing students to donate and cut fabric for this gesture. She’s currently my hero — the definition of a resilient, dedicated educator in a time when we need them. Where she found a void, she filled it with some hope. 

Adventure and risk 

Of course, no one should be risking anything right now. But adventure and risk is the theme for our senior year. Our students are encouraged to move out of their comfort zones and into environments that challenge them. If, perchance, you have a negligent teacher, or too much time on your hands, encourage your student to learn something new. Lifelong learning can be achieved, but only if you keep searching. What I’ve found in the new normal is a number of online companies wanting us to try what they offer. There are free coding lessons, music instruction, foreign language training and countless other new skills that even I am taking advantage of in my downtime (my partner evolved her baking to the realm of soft pretzels). Locally, I have colleagues, like primary school art teacher Courtney Hall, who have taken matters into their own hands. Hall has developed her own YouTube series of simple art tutorials that anyone can do. Though it was not a requirement of her administration, she used the inherent adaptability teachers possess, along with boundless creativity, to make something that puts all of these habits and skills in motion.