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What's Working: Distance Learning Tips for Teachers

Get ideas to improve your practice, better meet students’ needs, support parents/caregivers, and sustain your own well-being.

Christine Elgersma | September 24, 2020

Though distance learning probably still doesn't feel easy, it's no longer brand new. Over the summer there was a small chance to take a breath, regroup, and figure out how we might improve the approach to teaching and learning remotely.

Of course, the circumstances remain challenging for everyone involved, but at least we've learned a bit about what works -- and what doesn't. These lessons can help us improve our practice, better meet students' needs, support parents/caregivers, and sustain our own well-being during this tricky time.

We reached out to members of the Common Sense Educators Facebook Group to find out what they've learned along the way and what tips they'd share with their peers. Whether you're just starting the school year or are really hitting your stride, we think you'll find some helpful ideas here.

Equity and access

Educators agree that getting a handle on access issues early is critical. Find out who needs equipment, connectivity, or other accommodations to make distance learning work for everyone. In addition, keep equity in mind as you set distance learning expectations and norms.

  • "Many states have made funds available for schools to assist families, and they may not be aware of their options (or might be too embarrassed to ask). Low-/no-tech activities may be a better fit for kids with limited access to tech. Well-resourced platforms like Google and free tools like Khan Academy, PBS Learning, and Smithsonian provide high-quality content at no cost. Use tools that can communicate in languages that your students' grown-ups are speaking at home so that they know how to help." --Marianne Rogowski, media specialist, North Carolina
  • Allow students to keep their cameras off and/or use an appropriate video background, since some students feel uncomfortable allowing others to see their living space; being on camera for fear of screenshots and bullying; and trying to share a space with other people in their household. Find other ways to check in with them during instruction.
  • As much as possible, check in with students individually or in small groups to build strong relationships, and encourage kids to let you know their circumstances and what they need to learn.
  • Remember that lots of students are sharing devices, sharing space, and dealing with economic stress, so lead with empathy.

Communication and connection

Whether you're teaching remote full-time or using a hybrid model, connecting with families and students regularly is key. Besides teacher-student and teacher-family communication, also consider how you can support student-to-student connections.

  • Keep it simple: Avoid sending a ton of emails that might overwhelm parents. Find one platform that everyone can access, and consolidate messages as much as possible.
  • Solicit feedback from kids and parents regularly.
  • Use group work to break up teacher-led instruction/asynchronous activities and to help kids feel connected: "Group work is just as important and maybe even more so in a remote environment. It helps build connections and adds social presence to the classroom." --Stacy Homeyer Tippens, educational technology specialist, Virginia
  • Create a homeroom, office hours, or a mentor program so you can connect with kids more informally in smaller groups.

Technology and tools

When it comes to using distance learning tools, not everyone's going to be at the same level of familiarity and skill with the technology. Try to have patience -- with yourself, your students, their parents and caregivers, and your colleagues. Embrace the opportunity to build community as you all learn from each other.

  • Master the basics, and then branch out. For instance, make sure you can use Zoom features seamlessly, and then work in Flipgrid or Nearpod to vary the classroom experience. Make sure students and caregivers know how to navigate, too! --Faith Kemmler, director of Christian education, Pennsylvania
  • Provide resources for both kids and parents to learn how to use their apps. If the parents don't know how to navigate Google Classroom, for example, it's much harder to offer support and be sure the work is even done.
  • Practice with colleagues to learn the features of the platform you're using so you know how to mute, use chat, etc., so classes can run smoothly.
  • Give kids tech duties, like Chat Monitor, and flip the classroom to allow them to present sometimes -- they'll likely come up with lots of cool ways to use the tools and enjoy having more control!
  • Use "Hide self-view" when you just want to focus on students (or get tired of looking at yourself), and make sure kids know how to virtually raise their hands and use school-appropriate virtual backgrounds.

Well-being and flexibility

The physical and emotional health of everyone in your classroom community has to come first. Without these, no learning can happen. Set the tone by making well-being a priority for your students and yourself.

  • "Kids don't have a way to be together on the playground or at lunch. They don't have the opportunity to just relax with friends. That social piece is essential for healthy development and should not be ignored. We need to find ways to integrate games, chatting, and show-and-tell at all levels." --Sasha Clayton, principal, California
  • Build in breaks and encourage screen-free time -- for students and teachers! Limit homework so kids have enough time to do physical activities and have fun.
  • Since fair isn't always equal, stay flexible about how and when kids demonstrate learning.
  • Emphasize the importance of well-being, getting exercise, sleeping, and downtime. Try to model with stretch breaks, informal check-ins, and humor.
  • Encourage kids to reach out if they're struggling, and let them know the best way to do it.
  • Celebrate birthdays and milestones in whatever ways make sense.
  • Take care of yourself, too. Find ways to build self-care and work-life balance into your daily routine.