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Teaching Opinion

‘Don’t Forget to Breathe’ During Distance Learning

By Larry Ferlazzo — August 10, 2020 10 min read
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(This is the final post in a four-part series. You can see Part One here, Part Two here, and Part Three here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

Using the framework of “Do’s and Don’ts,” what would you list as the do’s and don’ts of teaching in a COVID-19 environment?

In Part One, Emily Golightly, Guadalupe Carrasco Cardona, Amy Klein, and Ann Stiltner shared their recommendations.

In Part Two, Amber Chandler, Kiri Sowers, and Kiera Beddes contributed commentaries.

In Part Three, Kellie Lauth, Gina Laura Gullo, and Dr. Theresa Capra wrote about their suggestions.

Today, Laurie Manville, Dr. Alva Lefevre, Emily Burrell, Dr. Rebecca Alber, and Pamela Arrarás finish up this four-part series.

I’m adding these posts to All Classroom Q&A Posts on the Coronavirus Crisis.

“Don’t forget to breathe”

Laurie Manville is an ELD and AVID Excel teacher, as well as virtual instructional ed-tech coach and Cambridge Virtual Academy ELA teacher in the Anaheim Union High school district in California. She enjoys helping her students figure out what they are meant to do in life and guiding teachers in lesson-design creation. In her free time, you will find her backstage (or near a stage) assisting with line memorization, costumes or concessions, and analyzing a screenplay or at home journaling or mastering PiYo.

Dr. Alva Lefevre has been a language teacher, administrator, university professor, and teacher trainer for almost 40 years. She is passionate about working with English-learners and finding ways to apply educational research to the classroom. In her spare time, Alva enjoys traveling, gardening, and art.

Laurie blogs with Dr. Alva Lefevre at L&M Educational Consulting on their Facebook page and their new website, Educators in the Know.

In Laurie’s district, the 2020-21 school year will be completely virtual because of state mandates. The “Do’s and Don’ts” we chose center on a virtual online experience.

Do take the time to really get to know your students through community-building activities. After months of quarantine and social distancing, most students will be deeply yearning for social interaction. It takes time to get to know each other, so set up collaborative teams that can closely work together over the course of the year—whether it be writing groups in ELA or lab groups for science. This provides an environment where students can really get to know one another and have a safe space to receive and give feedback.

Do create routines just like you would in a real-time, face-to-face classroom. For daily synchronous class, start with music and a warm-up. As students enter the virtual classroom, they can verify their attendance via a Google Form posted in the chat box. Use an interactive slidedeck like Peardeck or Nearpod for direct instruction. End with an exit ticket—a Google Form, a Peardeck slide, or a poll. Finally, send them off with reminders and an interesting or inspiring quote. Make Fridays “Fun Friday” and play games like Kahoot!, Gimkit, or Quizlet Live.

Do make communication a priority: email, announcements, posting Google slide decks after synchronous learning, Remind or Aeries Communications, even snail mail. Write welcome emails to parents, make positive phone calls home, invest the time now to get to know families. You can’t talk to parents and students at your classroom door, but you can reach out by phone and email. Send postcards to your students the second week of school—they love to receive “snail mail.”

Do make your class interactive and collaborative. Change it up. For synchronous class, try Peardeck or a Google Jamboard. Peardeck allows you to embed formative assessment. Students interact by answering questions, moving dots, and you can see their answers in real time. Peardeck also saves student responses so the teacher can go back and assess student answers. Jamboards are digital bulletin boards—students write on and post virtual sticky notes all at the same time. Jamboards can be saved and then easily referred to by all later, making them a great place for a creative idea generator.

Do delegate as much as you are able. Ask for student leaders/volunteers to be DJ for virtual classroom music (after being vetted by the teacher) after a few weeks or have a student leader monitor the chat box during synchronous learning. Have them fill out a job application like you would in a regular class and meet with student leaders to train them on your expectations. Switch leaders every month or at the quarter to give many students a chance in a high-responsibility role.

Don’t forget to breathe. Tech can be unpredictable. Bandwidth matters, and when a whole family is videoconferencing, it can slow down—a lot. It’s OK to ask for help. Have a backup plan—a student or instructional assistant to keep your synchronous class going if your call drops or freezes. If your neck and shoulders are tight from sitting for a while, use this 10-min yoga stretch. Take a 15-min walk in the fresh air. It’s OK to say that you have spent enough time on your classes and online experiences.

Don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Collaborate. Reach out to your colleagues. Split up the work in grade-level teams. Ask admin. to support you in phone calls home to parents. You don’t have to do it all by yourself. I am learning that the best way to cope during these demanding pandemic times is through working together. There is no way we can get it all done or “pivot” with all of the changes from fully virtual to hybrid and back again without leaning on each other.

“Don’t lecture”

Emily Burrell is a mathematics teacher and co-lead mentor teacher at South Lakes High School in Fairfax County, Va.:

Do: Take this opportunity to tear the whole thing down. If the data show that your teaching methods have inequitable results in student learning and engagement, no matter how good your intentions are, now is the time to try something new to provide ownership to all learners.

Do: Collaborate. You have great ideas and a unique framework for understanding. Your colleagues do, too. Together, you can build new learning opportunities, reflect on student learning, and revise.

Do: Schedule breaks for yourself. Add to your calendar: “take a long walk,” “Zoom get-together with friends,” “call a loved one,” “Netflix night.” Your calendar can easily fill up with “should do’s.” Make your own mental health a priority.

Don’t: Lecture during synchronous class. With limited synchronous class time, activities where students collaborate to build their own understanding should be prioritized. Lectures can be provided asynchronously (I like EdPuzzle for this).

Don’t: Try to teach too much. Your school system should provide guidance as to which topics can be de-emphasized so students have time to process and learn.

Don’t: Forget that no matter how good your relationship is with a student, there will be plenty you don’t know. It is possible to have high standards and still show grace and understanding.

“Use humor”

Dr. Rebecca Alber is an instructor at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education. A teacher educator and literacy specialist, she advocates liberatory education and literacy in all K-12 classrooms. She is an ardent follower of the Abolitionist Teaching Network @ATN_1863 and Rethinking Schools @Rethink Schools:

Do use humor and share yourself. How about a slide about you (hobbies, interests, a few photos) that first day?

Do give the students time and space to share who they are.

Do continue to develop curriculum that centers your students’ lives, interests, and concerns.

Do provide plenty of ways for students to “show what they know.” That means giving your students choices—if they have limited use of devices and/or connectivity, perhaps they write out their responses or that essay by hand and take a photo of that hard copy and send it when they are able?

Do survey students often so you can gauge how they are doing. Make some surveys anonymous so you can get honest answers on how the group is comprehending the content and managing the work. Formatively assessing students often (and in various ways) will be so important because we won’t have the luxury of “reading the room” like we do when we are teaching in person and when we mingle from student to student in the classroom.

Do stay responsive and meet each student where they are.

Do keep connecting with a colleague, or two, or three routinely. It’s easy to feel isolated during the typical school year, and with distance learning, this feeling (and reality) may be even more heightened.

Don’t forget that having a “beginner’s mind” will be a great asset for you as you design learning that you will be assessing and rerouting structures, strategies, and content along the way.

“Don’t despair”

Pamela Arrarás (M.A. TEFL). world languages (English/Spanish), ESL & intercultural-studies teacher—head of Languages & Arts Department at Escuela Secundaria 12, Bahía Blanca, Argentina. Passionate about language/cultural exchange projects using technology:


-Remember to be as flexible as possible when planning: Try to incorporate flipped-classroom strategies to allow for possible school closures or blended learning as needed. Expect last-minute changes as new protocols are put in place and take that into consideration when designing lessons and units of work.

-Keep in mind that the digital divide affects students and families like never before: If given the choice by your school/district, try to use applications and tools which will not require having the latest smartphone or notebook.

-Limit the amount of new tools and apps you incorporate. We are all looking for the silver bullet that will solve everything and in that search, we might get carried away: Pace yourself. The learning curve for students and families might get daunting. If possible, check with colleagues who had your students last year/term and ask them which tools and apps the students are already familiar with and see if those fit your needs.


-Take for granted that caregivers will be able to help out with schoolwork. Try to incorporate a blog, FB group, or mailing list with tips and advice regarding your course (kind of a teachers’ book but for families). Use polls and surveys (Google Forms is my favourite tool to do this) to reach out and find out more about the families’ needs and your students’ learning environments.

-Forget to give students a chance to express themselves regarding their emotions and fears in connection with COVID-19. At the same time, try to stay positive and limit time spent talking about the pandemic: We all need an oasis from news and numbers. Let your class be that oasis.

-Spend all day available to students and families. Set clear boundaries regarding ways of communicating with you, days and times. Make use of features such as email auto-responders and Google Calendar to schedule meetings with parents and students.

-Despair. We will get through this.

Thanks to Laurie, Alva, Emily, Rebecca, and Pamela for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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