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Peter DeWitt's

Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Student Well-Being Opinion

6 Reasons Students Aren’t Showing Up for Virtual Learning

By Peter DeWitt — April 26, 2020 8 min read
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Many teachers, students, and parents are proving to be remarkably resilient during this time when it comes to the effects of the pandemic on school, education, and student learning. It is not easy to teach in a physical classroom one day and turn it into a virtual classroom the next. Most college and university teacher prep programs do not have a course focusing on virtual teaching and learning (something they may consider doing soon).

Many teachers are still trying to replicate what they do in a classroom, with what they are doing online. It’s important to shift that way of thinking and continue to adapt. Most of us will never feel as confident or competent about how we teach virtually as we do when the students are in front of us. This adaptation is not easy, but we have to start looking at the parts of virtual teaching that are not working and let them go, and begin looking at the places where we can go a little bit deeper.

As I comb through the countless teacher Facebook pages that have been created due to the pandemic, I have learned a great deal about new tools and ways to engage students, at the same time I am constantly reminded of just how much work teaching is, and it’s even more complicated when it all has to be done virtually. When it comes to how teachers are meeting the needs of their students, there are a few important aspects to keep in mind.

Did you know:

  • Teachers have their own children at the same time they are teaching students? And yes, I realize parents have their own virtual working conditions at the same time their children are required to virtually learn.
  • Some teachers live in a studio apartment with no space to work and questionable Wi-Fi.
  • Even in areas where the Wi-Fi is usually strong, there are interruptions.
  • There are teachers who have roommates and have to teach from their bedroom, which is beyond awkward. How comfortable would you be having your students see into your bedroom?
  • Many of the free online sources that students are using were not free a few weeks ago, so teachers are learning those at the same time they are using them to teach virtually.

Teaching During the Pandemic: Over the last few days, I have collected over 120 comments from a few different pandemic pages on Facebook. There were numerous reasons why I started reviewing them. First and foremost, I wanted to get a feel for how teachers were accomplishing the art and science of remote teaching. Secondly, I wanted to be able to code the comments under categories like social-emotional learning, student engagement, instructional strategies, efficacy, and leadership. The interesting part of the coding activity is that many of the same questions for virtual teaching come up with teaching in physical classrooms. For example:

  • How do I use that tool?
  • My students are not handing in assignments.
  • I cannot get parents to call me back.
  • How is your administrator involved in your classroom?
  • How often are you having faculty meetings?
  • What is the required workday?
  • What does grading look like in your school?

One of the posts that appeared time and time again, and created the most responses, had to do with student accountability. There were numerous posts that highlighted the fact that students are not necessarily signing on to get assignments and certainly not handing in assignments, either.

The piece that is a bit different between teaching in the physical classroom and the virtual classroom is the amount of “control” the teacher has over student engagement. Teachers can use:

  • Their physical proximity to engage students
  • The promise of a good or bad grade
  • The threat of a loss of some privilege
  • The promise of an incentive, or one of their other positive social-emotional tricks of the trade.

Most of those actions are gone because of new school policies that prevent teachers from giving grades or repercussions. There is a lot less “control” on the part of the teacher right now, and that can make us uncomfortable. Especially when teachers are being held accountable as teachers.

So many posts focus on student engagement, and there are others that are meant to get people to laugh and breathe, while other posts are examples of venting. It’s a frustrating time in our world, so all of these posts are natural expressions of that frustration, anger, and sadness.

Why Aren’t Students Signing On? When looking at the idea of why students are not engaging with teachers in virtual learning, I wanted to provide a list of a few reasons why that may not be happening. Some of the reasons are issues we know and understand, while one seems to be a reason no one is talking about on any of the pages. It’s not an exhaustive list, and just like any list, it is based on data I have collected. If there is one you feel is missing, please feel free to add it in the comment section.

The 6 reasons are:

No access

- Some students are living in homes that may not have access to Wi-Fi or limited access at best. Many of those students may not have a “device” to use for schoolwork. Yes, schools hand out devices to students, which is extremely helpful, but not all families are experts at devices and Wi-Fi. Common Sense Media reports (Today Show. 04/21/20) that over 10 million students in the US do not have devices. If teachers and leaders are struggling with technology, perhaps it’s probable that families are struggling with technology, too? Not everyone works for the Geek Squad.

Essential Workers - Some students are working full time. Whether they are working the fields in California or at grocery stores in the Midwest, it’s plausible that our students have had to take on jobs to help their families put food on the table. Their work, and the contributions they make monetarily at home, is essential.

No Grade Incentive - Many school districts in many states have gone to a no grading policy because they don’t want to punish students who cannot attend all classes or hand in all of their work due to equity of access to virtual learning. The interesting thing happening here is that there are students who find that the incentive for showing up is not there, so they no longer need to attend the class. Is there a way that we can use a no grading policy to our advantage? Can we continue to provide students with the flexibility to do project-based learning around topics they find interesting to get a sense of their interests and creativity?

Taking care of their siblings - If parents or caregivers are still working because they are essential workers, it is possible that our students are caregiving for their siblings and helping those siblings do their classwork ... or keeping siblings from tearing things apart. These students may attend only half of the classes they are “required” to attend.

Bedlam but No Bedroom - Not everyone has a bedroom to themselves. In fact, I work in many schools where multiple families live in the same apartment or house. If there isn’t a quiet space where they are able to focus, perhaps it’s just easier to not connect with their teacher at all.

Student - Teacher Relationships - Some students are not connecting because they felt invisible while they were in the physical classroom, so they feel that they will not be missed in the virtual one. Additionally, some students just didn’t find their teachers very engaging in person, so they aren’t really concerned about engaging with those particular teachers online.

In the End

There are students not attending all of their classes because of a lack of accountability at the same time their teachers are being held accountable. Let’s face it though, most teachers are less worried about the kind of accountability that comes from their school leaders, and more of the accountability they are concerned about comes from the pressure they put on themselves as teachers. So many teachers care deeply about their students and worry about their social-emotional and academic growth during this pandemic.

In one of the pages I explored, someone posed the question, “Knowing what you know now, would you have done anything differently when the students were in front of you?” I thought it was a great question, and apparently so did others because there were 79 responses at the time I began writing this blog.

Most of the responses focused on how they would have used different tools, or they would have assigned at least one virtual assignment every week. All of these responses are important. However, very few of the comments focused on how teachers would have built better relationships with students so those students would show up to the virtual classroom. If we find ourselves in a situation where we are teaching online for the first month of school, knowing we have the same restraints we do now (i.e. no grading, access, etc.) student teacher relationships is the first place we must start, and we need to take some time soon to think about what that may look like in a virtual setting.

Questions I have been pondering:

  • We know that virtual teaching during a pandemic is hard, and takes a lot of work. However, what is working for your school/classroom right now that can continue to be used again in the fall?
  • What is one way you have communicated during this time that brought in the most attention by the community (i.e. teachers, students, families, etc.)? Many years ago, we went from just sending home paper newsletters to parents (we went from a 5 pager to a 1 page), and I began flipping communication through our parent portal. I was amazed at how well it went the first time around. Are there any similar changes you have made that have worked well, and it surprised you?
  • As school leaders, what do you need to do during the summer to continue to connect with families? With my PTA we would have at least one summer meeting, and one summer event. If social distancing is still in place, is there a virtual event that you can create?
  • As school leaders, how are you supporting teachers and students socially-emotionally and academically? For example, are you engaging in their live classroom chats with students?
  • As school leaders, what incentives are cable companies offering that may help put more hot spots in the community? I coach with a high school principal that contacted those companies and got them to compete with each other a bit, and his high poverty community ended up with a few more hot spots set up.

Check out the new Vlog addition to Finding Common Ground below.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.