When you tell your friends you teach middle school, do they cringe and follow with “It takes a special person to teach middle school”? Or, if you are from some areas of the south, you get a “Bless your heart.” Well, they are right! It does take someone who is willing to be a little weird and a little cool. It takes a teacher who wants to come out of their comfort zone and be vulnerable. A middle school student can see right through you and your authenticity, and this is true even in an online environment!
As the majority of middle school teachers across the world have had to become online teachers practically overnight, I thought this was the perfect time to share some of what I have learned through my experience as a fully online teacher. I realize it is not the same as your challenging situation may be because I have had time to plan and prepare lessons and resources I need each day, but I hope the advice and resources I can offer will be helpful.
I’ve had the privilege of teaching seventh grade math virtually for four years, and I can tell you that teaching middle school students online takes even a little more finesse than my years in a face-to-face classroom. My students are the tech gurus, but they don’t know how to access your Google classroom. They can record themselves all day on TikTok, but they don’t know how to download a document. They can watch YouTube videos for hours, but they get bored a few minutes into a teacher-created video. So, how do you keep them engaged, learning, and begging for more?
Here are a few simple tips:
They want to know you are listening to them. They want to know you can “see” them through the computer. They want positive affirmations when they do well, and they want to know you see them when they are not working. They want to know they matter. So, how do you pay attention to all of your students? This can be challenging! Each week, I start by calling my failing students. I open their grades and go through their work with them on the phone. Then, they can re-submit and correct work. They can also hop into my virtual office on Zoom where I pull up assignments, write on a whiteboard and actually see their face. Each Friday, I send out texts and emails with positive affirmations to students who have submitted their work or done something I can praise them for! Students love to show their families these texts and emails. It gets their weekend started off right! If you have a class reward system, award them points. Class Dojo is a great site where you can input your students’ names and award them points. My students work HARD for those Class Dojo points. You may need to change the rewards to something you can do virtually. They can redeem them for extra credit, being me for a day, picking a song before you start your lesson, and a variety of other rewards.</e,>
Make it fun!
Create interactive and engaging lessons. Play games with your students during the lesson! That’s right...even when teaching new content! Sometimes it may feel easier to deliver the content, model the problems, and let students practice. But, what if you played games while you were teaching the lesson? My top favorite games to play with my students are Pop the Balloon, Whole-Class Escape Rooms, Connect Four, and using a board game (either in PowerPoint or physically showing one with my camera). The students are engaged and learning. They want a turn to play and will do just about anything for a chance to “pop” that balloon! See below for quick videos on how to incorporate these into your classroom immediately.
Although much of your recent online work may be asynchronous due to varying schedules of your students’ home situations and perhaps sharing of devices, it really can help you connect to your students to offer some live instruction. I challenge you to give some of these synchronous lessons a try. These fresh experiences might be just what your students need to keep them motivated through the end of the year.
Another way to make it fun is to have a class party. We have a party every month where we showcase student talents, play music or games, etc. Since I teach online all year, once a month works great for my team. If you are doing distance learning for a short time, maybe you do something fun on Monday to start your week out strong or maybe you do something on Friday to end on a good note. Some fun party ideas are:
Student DJ Party Students send in songs and vote on which ones to dance to. Encourage cameras to be on! Remind them of dancing etiquette and appropriate clothing.
Student Spotlight Have students send in a slide with fun facts about themselves, but no pictures. Students must guess who the mystery person is on each slide. Throw in one about yourself! You and your students will learn so much about each other. I am always surprised at how much they already know!
Themed-Out Parties Pick a fun theme and do everything around that theme. For example, a virtual SNOW party! We had a virtual snowball fight by throwing paper at our cameras. It sounds silly, but the laughs that came out of that moment were priceless. We included winter-themed crossword puzzles, word searches, coloring pages, and more. What theme would you want to do?
Student Talent Show Students video themselves performing their talent and then show them one by one during the show. You would be surprised what some of your students’ talents are. Students love it! We recorded it and sent it out to families to watch later as well. *Make sure when students send in that they are giving permission to send out later.
Keep it simple.
Take a look at what you’re having students do each week. Are you having them log onto several platforms to complete work? Are they struggling with their usernames and passwords? Look at your current set up and see what’s working and what’s not. The fewer logins the students need, the less frustrated families and teachers will feel. I also suggest reaching out to other teachers. Collaborate with them on the platforms they are using as well. For example, for a couple of years I tried different scheduling platforms for my calls with families. There are five other teachers on my team. Since we all share the same students, we decided to use the same platform for scheduling calls. Our families really appreciated this! It made it simple for them, and I had a much better turnout of families making appointments. This significantly reduced the time it took to track down students.
Don’t forget to take care of yourself.
We tell students all the time to step away from the computer, but I can never remember to eat lunch! Make sure you are stepping away. Move around, go for a walk, cook lunch, or make a phone call to a friend. I set a timer when I need to get up and move around. This allows me to take care of myself without losing track of time. When I come back to the computer, I’m a much happier person and can handle situations better. Set office hours and stick to them. Do not work outside those hours and encourage your teammates to do the same. Parents will get used to receiving immediate responses. You have to protect your personal time as well. It can wait until the morning, I promise. Working from home can be hard because your computer is always there. Make sure to shut it off and put it away. If you work out of an office, shut that door at the end of the day and don’t go back in! It took me a long time to get good at this. But I am a better teacher, wife and mom when I set a schedule and stick to it.
No one knows for sure when this new reality of online teaching in a time of COVID-19 will end for good, but I hope that you have learned some tricks and tools that you may be able to implement even when you are not able to physically have your students in your classrooms. In the meantime, every day will not be perfect. It takes practice and routine to get online teaching down and even then, one setback can derail an entire day. One minute you may feel like a rock star, and the next minute you might be downing a bag of candy. Take some deep breaths and know that you can do this. You are a teacher. Keep showing up for your students. Keep doing your best. I know you are.
Melissa Martin currently serves as a middle school math teacher and content lead for Florida Virtual School. She was recently named 2020-2021 Florida Virtual School’s District Teacher of the Year.
Stacie K. Pettit, Ph.D. is an associate professor in the College of Education at Augusta University, Augusta, Georgia. She is also a proud first cousin of Melissa Martin.