Most educators in the United States are still adjusting to the reality that they’ll be spending at least the next couple months teaching their students remotely. Schools in east Asia, where the COVID-19 outbreak began late last year, have gotten a head start because most schools have already been closed since early February.
Much of the discussion in America about remote teaching has focused on whether schools are prepared, and how they can get up to speed to serve students with a variety of needs. But longer-term considerations will soon come into play: How can I keep my students engaged for weeks at a time? Should I maintain the pace at which I normally teach? How are my students feeling about this unprecedented situation?
For some answers to questions like those, Education Week talked to Connie Kim, the middle school principal of Hong Kong International School (HKIS), which serves nearly 3,000 K-12 students. She’s been an educator for 23 years and an administrator for eight. But this school year is her first as principal at HKIS, she’s never taught online before, and while the school has 1-to-1 program, it had never before needed to offer full-time virtual instruction to all students.
She was thankful at the start of the shutdown to have some relevant credentials, though. She’s finishing up a doctoral dissertation on online education, and her school developed some remote teaching protocols last fall during closures related to nationwide protests.
Schools in Hong Kong are currently scheduled to reopen April 20, but Kim’s school is operating as if they’ll remain closed even longer. Here’s what Kim recommends for educators thinking about teaching remotely for the long haul.
Don’t force yourself to replicate a typical school day. In the early weeks of the shutdown, Kim’s school set up a block schedule reminiscent of the one students experience in person.
But that schedule wasn’t entirely effective in a remote context. Students in elective courses were struggling to complete projects in time for scheduled class sessions. Administrators also hadn’t figured out the ideal use of time teachers were spending on videoconference sessions with their students.
Now each day includes four hour-long block periods, with the first 15 to 20 minutes reserved for live videoconferencing between teachers and students. The structure of the day is much different than a typical school day, but more conducive to balancing students’ structured and self-directed time, she said.
Build in screen-less time for students. Many schools in the U.S. have students who don’t have access to Wi-Fi or digital devices at home. But for those that do, Kim recommends being mindful that they’re not being overexposed to those devices, particularly given recent research linking screen time with delayed language development.
On March 18, the school implemented a “wellness day"—a one-day reprieve from the exhausting pace of teaching and learning every day in this new format, especially given the extenuating circumstances of the pandemic.
“We’d been going full force,” she said.
The school has also built in time each day for students to read, play outside, or complete other tasks that don’t involve screens, Kim said.
Don’t sacrifice professional development. Teachers are overwhelmed by the new technology tools they have to start using and the new approaches they have to take to keep students engaged. Kim’s school has maintained regular collaborative sessions, via Zoom, for educators to “calibrate” their teaching and share tips and insights. (Download Education Week’s guide to using videoconference platforms safely and effectively.)
Kim wishes those sessions had been more robust when the shutdown started. But now they’re a valuable time to examine how virtual lessons are going, and how they might be fine-tuned.
“They had to build the plane as they were flying it,” Kim said. “They’re just as resilient as the kids.”
It’s important to make sure students feel supported by the entire institution during a time of crisis, so Kim has asked each department to share resources
“Your video lesson that you see as a sixth grade math student may not be your teacher on the video, but you know that’s one of the teachers in the math department,” she said.
Be consistent. Early on, letting individual teachers devise their own teaching plans made for a chaotic and confusing landscape for students and parents to navigate. The school has since emphasized common protocols, like sharing information primarily on the learning management system Schoology.
“For a student who has seven classes, he or she can find the information the same way no matter what class they have,” Kim said.
That approach also helps parents with multiple students in different grades.
Don’t assume something isn’t possible until you’ve tried it. Kim and her colleagues initially thought offering personalized instruction and support to any extent would be impossible. But they’ve since found some creative strategies, like using breakout rooms in video chats and connecting students who need extra help to learning specialists.
Some of those efforts, including setting up protocols for teachers’ office hours, are still in progress and in flux. “The silver lining is that teachers are collaborating more than ever,” Kim said.
Take it slow, for everyone’s sake. It’s not going to be possible to teach at the same pace as usual, Kim said. That’s especially true as the pandemic wears on. “Our kids have been doing this for over eight weeks, and we’re sensing a lull of enthusiasm. The novelty of being on Zoom and working from home is wearing out now,” she said. Some students who are typically outgoing in class have also been more reticent to speak up while dealing with the awkwardness of a virtual chat.
Kim recommends teachers develop methods for gauging students’ comprehension and progress, and accept that they might need to repeat certain lessons more than they normally would before students are ready to move on.
“It’s a constant cycle of us having to regroup, recharge, having to be the cheerleaders for our students and our parents,” she said.
Photo: Maddie Judge, a 2nd grader in Baltimore, Md., has built her own schedule and is now working on a remote learning platform. (Courtesy of Katie Judge)
A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.