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With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Overcoming Apathy in Remote Teaching

By Larry Ferlazzo — April 07, 2020 6 min read
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(This is Part One in an ongoing series responding to specific teacher questions related to remote learning.)

Note: In addition to a recent 11-part series and video offering advice to educators making the transition to remote learning (and many more upcoming related posts), I’m kicking off a series today of short posts responding to specific questions from readers.

Today’s question comes from teacher Rosemary West:

Apathy is happening in some instances; I think it’s due to stress & the fact that some kids do not have strong, positive relationships with educators. How do we help ourselves, and our students, overcome obstacles & think beyond the present?

What is apathy and what can you do about it?

Susan Scott has been teaching for over 15 years and currently works at the International School of Ho Chi Minh City-American Academy teaching and supporting grade 10 students. Her school moved to distance learning Feb. 4 due to the coronavirus.

In this time of pandemic, quarantine, and distancing, apathy is infiltrating the well-being of students, teachers, and parents alike because of the stress, uncertainty, and fear. So the question is: How do we overcome these obstacles and think beyond the present? How do we prevail over this apathy?

The problem with apathy is that it sneaks up on us. One day you put on earrings, dress neatly for the camera, down your morning coffee, and think carefully about the backdrop for your upcoming Google meet. The next day, you might comb your hair and sit down for coffee, but you feel the weight of our predicament and just slip on a school T-shirt over your pajamas. That’s the slippery slope of apathy.

In Vietnam, we started online learning Feb. 4. Weeks 1-6 we worked from our classrooms, but week 7 we began to work from home. Self-quarantine began to take its toll on all of us. I complained about not sleeping and being tired all the time, and the kids weren’t showing up for calls, handing in assignments, or answering emails. Was I giving them too much work? Too many options? Too many new technologies to adjust to?

I took my thoughts and wrote a note to my students. They annotated it with their own thoughts and wrote a response letter to another student or teacher. The letters were a revelation and an affirmation: Yes, I was giving too much and expecting too much, and they were overwhelmed. Through this reflection, I learned I had to change the way I was working, because it wasn’t sustainable in the long run for any of us.

Here’s what I did to fall back in love with teaching and conquer apathy. For a little while, anyway.

  1. Students: Probably the biggest worry is trying to reach all students all the time. You couldn’t do that in the classroom and you won’t be able to do it virtually, either. We know the axiom: Each one Teach one. But these days, make it Reach one. One high school student was so tangled in his learning in the first six weeks that he stopped, didn’t hand in anything. After several attempts to get him re-engaged, he finally reached out. I worked with him on two assignments, and then he was missing in action for another three weeks. But this morning, I had an ecstatic text from another teacher, “X CALLED IN TODAY!!! HE’S STAYING WITH ME FOR OFFICE HOURS RIGHT NOW :)” It made her day, and I’m sure it made his day as well. Even if it takes all day, try to connect with one hard-to-reach student. Try sending messages through Google meet. Send personal emails. Don’t contact the parents about every assignment unless you know for a fact that students are safe with their caregivers. If you aren’t sure, ask your guidance counselor. Work with other teachers to find out who is not turning in work and split up that list.

  2. Lesson design: I listened to my students and changed the way I assigned and graded work. I set a task for the week with one or two small components, one of which is always a padlet. I grade only two formative assignments per week for completion only. Find at least one good thing to comment on anything kids turn in. Even if they do the assignment wrong, find something. “Oh, I love how creative you were with your fake-news tweet. Would you consider making it about coronavirus since that’s the topic?” Their world is falling apart, and positive feedback is crucial, but grades are not.

  3. Social-emotional learning: Let them know how much you care. But don’t expect anything in return. I wrote letters of encouragement and told them how much I missed them. No one responded. And for three days that rankled, and then I remembered that we are living in the midst of uncertain times and I may not be as important to them as I had imagined.

  4. Reflect on your practice: Teaching has always been a stressful job, even with the most supportive administration, smart and diligent co-workers, and hard-working students. You chose this work because you love children and young people. You chose this job to make a difference in the world. You are uniquely qualified to do this. Don’t give into the doubt but do give yourself time to reflect on what you are doing and why you are doing it. What I love about teaching is that we have the chance for a new start. If you don’t like what you’re doing, if it feels forced, unsustainable, or inauthentic, stop and take a breath.

  5. Know that it will get better. It always does. The pendulum has swung for me several times in the past 10 weeks, and I expect it will keep swinging. Tomorrow will come and you should make every effort to meet it on your own terms to do what you can, for those you can, for as long as you can. And only you know what that looks like.

Thanks to Rosemary for her question and to Susan for her response!

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.

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