It was a year of false starts and frustrations, of troubleshooting technology glitches, and trying—and often failing—to coax students to speak from the tiny windows of their Zoom screens. But, teachers say, it was also a year of growth.
In most cases, remote and hybrid learning during the 2020-21 school year is demanding more from teachers than the crisis solutions schools improvised last spring, in the first few months of the coronavirus pandemic. Many districts went back to traditional grading policies and school day schedules, expecting online courses to more closely match the scope and sequence of their in-person counterparts. Often, in hybrid settings, teachers were instructing both at once, working with one group of students live and another via video stream, a practice known as concurrent teaching.
After a year of experience working with students online, teachers say they’ve figured out some key lessons: Accept that virtual classes will look different from in-person ones, keep instructions simple and routines consistent, and find ways to show students that you’re there for them, even if you’re separated by a screen.
When it comes down to this narrative of lost time, lost learning, I’m irate from that. It’s so negating. I feel like my students did a lot of learning this year.
It’s likely that many teachers will still need these skills next school year, even as more districts open their buildings to in-person learning. In a recent, nationally representative survey from the EdWeek Research Center, about a third of school and district leaders said that they’re planning to start the 2021-22 school year with some form of hybrid instruction.
And most of these lessons, teachers said, will inform their practice even once they return to the physical classroom. Being forced to slow down, to think creatively about how to reach all students in a new format, and to adjust based on student feedback built new skills that teachers want to continue using post-pandemic, they said.
By facing the challenges of remote and hybrid learning, teachers say they’ve been able to find some successes. Education Week spoke with six teachers about the important lessons they learned during this time, distilling eight of them here.
1. Adjust your expectations about how much content you’ll cover and how quickly.
At the beginning of this school year, Jasara Hines noticed that her students had trouble completing assignments that spanned multiple days. Hines, who teaches high school English/language arts in a suburb of Chicago, was only seeing each class for two 50-minute blocks a week. Students would lose the thread of a multi-day lesson, or forget to turn in work. So she switched up her strategy mid-year: “I really had to hone in on readings and activities that we could do in a 50-minute time frame,” Hines said.
She’s ditched one of the novels that they usually read for a justice-themed unit—To Kill a Mockingbird—in favor of shorter articles and excerpts that they can analyze together in class.
Cheryl Manning, a science teacher at Evergreen High School in Colorado, also cut down on some of the work she assigned this year. “I’ve always been a hyper-grader, grading everything, and I’ve stopped doing that,” she said. Instead of always requiring written summaries after labs, Manning built in more time for oral discussion—a change that she thinks has boosted her students’ science communication skills and given them a chance to connect with each other through the screen.
Manning’s choices reflect a greater trend in pandemic-era approaches to assessment and grading. In an EdWeek Research Center survey asking teachers with remote or hybrid students how their practice changed from the beginning of the 2020-21 school year to now, 55 percent of teachers said they increased the amount of flexibility their students were given when it comes to how they choose to complete assignments and demonstrate knowledge, and 59 percent said they decreased the strictness of their grading policies.
Getting rid of the some of the grades she would normally give shifted students’ focus, from just getting their thoughts down on paper to deeper reflection on how they got the answers they did. “Why didn’t I do that 20 years ago?” Manning said, talking about the change.
2. Don’t try to recreate your in-person lessons over Zoom. Try a new approach if you feel stuck.
Manning remodeled all of her in-class labs into experiments that the high schoolers could do at home, assembling kits filled with baking soda, vinegar, balloons, and pH paper that remote students could pick up at the school building. “It was still mathematically rigorous, it was still good chemistry, but it was simpler,” Manning said—and, she added, more environmentally friendly, as it omitted some of the chemicals that students would normally handle in the classroom.
Sumner Bender, a theater teacher at Spring Hill High School in Chapin, S.C., used an entirely new curriculum unit with her online students this year: slam poetry. She chose it in part because videos of performances abound online, meaning students would have easy access to examples outside of the physical classroom. But Bender also appreciated how writing poems gave the teenagers a space to process the isolation and grief of this year.
Some of the teachers who work with Ericka Mabion, a K-8 STEM coordinator in the Kansas City Public Schools in Missouri, also brought in a new project. All of the K-6 students started studying computer science. The subject gave students a creative outlet, Mabion said, and it also was a good fit for multiple-sibling households that might all be doing remote school in the same space. The problem-solving inherent in coding lends itself to collaboration. “If you have siblings, they would be able to help each other. They would be able to celebrate with each other,” she said.
3. Use collaborative, digital workspaces to better understand student thinking.
In a normal year, Hines, the Chicago area ELA teacher, would ask her students to annotate passages as they read. This fall, she tried to digitize that process, asking students to mark up PDF files. But the editing tools were too cumbersome for the process to work well, so Hines moved to programs like Pear Deck that allowed students to write their thoughts on a shared set of slides.
The solution has two big benefits, Hines said. First, because she’s the owner of the slide set, she knows she’ll have a record of all students’ work at the end of the period—unlike with the PDFs, which she has to rely on students to submit. Secondly, she can respond to students’ contributions in real time, as the slides update live.
Samantha Wiley, a 4th grade math and science teacher at Haywood County Schools’ Virtual Academy in Brownsville, Tenn., also highlighted the value of collaborative digital workspaces that show teachers how students are figuring their way through problems. “Sometimes when they get off track, you can stop at that point and correct,” Wiley said, before students head off down the wrong path on a question. She said she wants to continue using these collaborative documents, even after a return to the physical classroom.
4. Give explicit instructions and stick to routines.
Throughout this school year, Tina Stevenson has asked her remote students for feedback on what’s been going well, and what could be going better, in virtual learning. (Stevenson teaches remote and in-person students concurrently.) Her middle schoolers told her that they wanted clearer, more specific instructions for everything—from assignments to how to use the tech itself. Stevenson, a math teacher and department chair at Locust Grove Middle School in Virginia, started giving tips on how to use some of the tools embedded within Google Slides. She also created a consistent routine for every math lesson: warm-up, go over yesterday’s assignment, then answer questions.
Bender, the South Carolina drama teacher, has also tried to inject more stability into online students’ schedules. She has in-person students and full-time remote students, whom she teaches during different class periods.
She started giving her remote kids a plan for the week ahead. That way, if students miss a day—due to connectivity issues, work schedules, or family emergencies—they know exactly what they’ve missed and where the class will pick up next time.
5. To get kids talking, try smaller groupings, or one-on-one conversations.
Stevenson, who’s teaching one group of students in the physical classroom concurrently with an online class, used to hear crickets from her remote students when she asked if anyone had questions—though her in-person students didn’t hesitate to speak up. But once she started one-on-one meetings with the online students, she found that they would use that space to ask questions and talk about their thinking.
Hines, from the Chicago area, cut down on the number of students she put in breakout rooms from five to two or three, after having trouble getting students to engage in conversations in the bigger groups. The smaller groupings made the teenagers less intimidated to unmute and contribute, Hines said, and they also lowered the chances that one or two students would dominate the conversation while the others stayed silent.
6. Craft an intentional, inclusive camera policy for synchronous learning.
Some teachers never asked students to turn their cameras on—like Hines, whose district had a policy against requiring it. Instead, she found other ways to hear students talk and get a sense of their personalities. She asked them to send her video responses to a prompt via the app Flipgrid, allowing her to “meet” her students while still giving them control over when and how they portrayed themselves on video.
Bender, in South Carolina, struck a compromise: She doesn’t ask students to turn their cameras on during regular class periods, but does ask students to appear on camera if they’re performing a poem, or a scene from a play.
In Wiley’s class in Tennessee, students are required to keep their cameras on. But, she gives them other options to contribute as well, like the chat box on their video meet. “A lot of students might be shy, so they would rather type it in,” Wiley said—again, a strategy she would consider using, alongside face-to-face class discussions, when she and her students return to the school building full time.
Offering nonverbal methods of class participation, like typing into a chat box or private messaging a teacher, was a common tactic—67 percent of teachers said they encouraged students to do this more now than they did at the beginning of the school year.
7. Give students more time than usual to talk about what’s going on in the world, share their feelings, or just vent.
“Sometimes we want to just jump into those lessons,” said Wiley. But she’s tried to spend more time at the beginning of classes talking with students—with some, about how they like virtual learning a lot; with others, about how they miss their friends and in-person pep rallies.
With the pandemic, the movement for racial justice, and ongoing economic uncertainty, this has been a difficult year for students, said Bender. She’s tried to open up opportunities for students to process these events together.
She’s invited students to share with her the small things that are bothering them that they feel like they don’t have any control over right now. She remembers one student who talked about constantly being late for track practice, because the virtual school day ends after the in-person day. The coaches were giving him a hard time about it, Bender says. Still, she remembers him saying, he felt bad complaining—this was right after a massive winter storm hit Texas, and he didn’t want to sound ungrateful when so many people had lost power and water. “That doesn’t mean that what you’re going through needs to be minimized,” Bender remembers telling him.
8. Celebrate the new skills students are learning.
Manning, the Colorado teacher, knows that her students aren’t getting exactly the same chemistry course, or earth science course, that they would have during a regular school year. But they’re also gaining experiences and learning skills they wouldn’t have done in the physical classroom: using shared online documents to collaborate with their peers on written work, interviewing scientific experts over Zoom.
“When it comes down to this narrative of lost time, lost learning, I’m irate from that. It’s so negating,” Manning said. “I feel like my students did a lot of learning this year.”
A version of this article appeared in the April 21, 2021 edition of Education Week as How to Make Teaching Better