The power of connection, communication, and a little grace
In mid-March 2020, like many other educators across the United States and around the world, I shifted to emergency remote teaching due to the global pandemic. During the first few weeks I was trying to figure out how to manage my own three children and how to be as effective as possible teaching remotely while dealing with the underlying stress of the pandemic. I began to have moments of time and the mental space to reflect on my teaching and the feedback I was getting from students and their families. While I would love nothing more than to be in my physical classroom with my eighth graders, this situation pushed me to adapt and taught me lessons that will continue to impact my instruction long after I return to my physical classroom.
Emergency remote teaching magnified the need to connect and address the social-emotional needs of students. Suddenly the emotional and physical wellbeing of my students were on the forefront of my mind, and I no longer had many of the opportunities to connect with students that are naturally built into a school day. I realized that I mostly relied on the unplanned moments of connection in the hallway both before and after class and while working with students individually or in small groups.
Without these opportunities to interact and connect with my students during remote learning, I began to intentionally build them into daily assignments and live class meeting times. Remote teaching helped me realize that I needed to spend more time intentionally developing connections with each student, each day.
Once I return to my physical classroom, I will continue to develop new ways to build in these moments, but there are a few strategies I can easily carry over from teaching remotely. During remote learning, I have begun all live class meetings with time to check in with kids and share how we are all doing. When I return to my classroom, I will implement “first minutes” during the first 2-4 minutes of each class period to check in, practice speaking and listening skills, collaborate, and build community. It will be like a morning meeting, eighth grade-style, that fits into the time constraint of a 45-minute class period. I look forward to taking this time to connect in a space that is available to all students and that is intentionally planned to meet their needs. Taking time to focus on connection will be time well spent because as I build connections and address social-emotional needs, it will also create an environment that helps students learn the curriculum.
During remote learning I dedicated days for students to journal or free write. The format for writing has varied and allowed students to use prose, poetry, or images to share their ideas, thoughts, and feelings. I wrote and shared my own responses before asking them to write one of their own. This allowed them to see a little into my life while providing an authentic model for their writing. Students had the option to share their response digitally with peers or keep it private and share only with me. Through these consistent writing opportunities, we learned a lot about each other, and some students produced their most creative and detailed writing of the year. When I return to my physical classroom, I look forward to assigning free writing assignments to students in order to build relationships, increase opportunities for authentic writing, and address the social-emotional needs of students.
During remote learning, I began posting short screencasts online with a video of me explaining assignments and concepts. I have always given verbal and written directions; however, I have never provided students a place to access verbal instructions after class. Remote teaching showed me how quickly I could screencast directions and share them with students. Students voiced their appreciation for the opportunity to go back and watch the videos any time they needed. When I return to my classroom, I will continue to make and post these video clips for complex assignments and concepts. This extra layer of communication will help a variety of students including those who need extra time to process, or who are absent, benefit from previewing material, or gain reassurance that they remember the directions correctly.
A Little Grace Goes a Long Way
Throughout remote teaching, I have thought about how students are in different situations at home and the variety of factors that might affect their ability to complete assignments. I have made a point to address every situation of late, incorrect, and missing work with understanding and grace. I have focused on first checking in with how students are doing, then asking if they need help completing the assignment and then inquiring about the status of the assignment.
Before remote teaching, I would often simply remind students to turn in an assignment by stating verbally or through an email that the assignment was late. I did not take time to first ask what caused them to not complete the assignment or inquire if they needed help turning it in. Teaching remotely has changed how I address late, missing, and incomplete work. It has shown me how beneficial and easy it is to address all situations with compassion first. It has also caused me to stop and think about how many students throughout the years needed someone to check in on them or offer help instead of simply saying, “you haven’t turned in your essay, you know it was due yesterday.”
Remote teaching, a global pandemic, and a total shift in how I can interact with students taught me that content comes after connection and compassion. I am naturally a task-driven person and I admit that I needed this reminder. I needed to remember that I don’t always know everything that is going on in a child’s life, and it doesn’t take a global pandemic for students to have valid reasons they need some grace, someone to check in on them, a little help, and after all that, a gentle reminder to turn in that essay.
Published in AMLE Magazine, August 2020.