I’ve been working with students for close to twenty years, and even though I don’t work in a physical classroom any more, I still treasure the notes I get from students and parents. The best piece of mail I received this year was a note from a parent in June: “Without your help, graduating wouldn’t have been possible.” In my role as the Director of Student Support at One Schoolhouse, I worked with students with a wide range of learning profiles and accommodations, and helped to devise and implement plans for success. These plans often made the difference between surviving and thriving in an online course. And although I can’t talk about this from the perspective of an educational psychologist, I can tell you what I’ve seen work in our online courses, and what challenges students with learning differences frequently encounter. Here, I’m sharing the four most important things I’ve learned.
The best online courses are designed to support a lot of standard accommodations. Some of the most common accommodations--for example, written instructions, recorded lectures, and work plans--are standard best practices in online courses. In addition, students may be more willing to accept differentiated support, because it’s much more subtle (and often private) in the online space. Because course content lives online, students aren’t time-bound. They can access work any time it’s needed, and take as long as they need to absorb it, which means that students with slower processing speeds don’t have to worry about missing information. The best online learning environments give students a guide to progressing in a linear fashion, which supports executive functioning challenges. Moving seminar-style discussions to online discussion boards gives everyone the chance to participate without relying on interpreting social cues, a skill that can be especially challenging for students on the autism spectrum.
Extended time is just as important online as it is in the classroom. Just like in your classrooms, assessment strategies vary widely in online courses. For the most traditional assessments--time-limited and closed-resource--students who receive extended time still need that accommodation. In fact, they may need more time if online testing is a novel environment. The changes in format can lead to increases in anxiety or decreases in attention regulation, which may put an added burden on students’ cognitive load. Most learning management systems allow teachers to add time to individual students’ accounts or tests. If you’re assigning traditional summative assessment, it’s a good idea to require a reflection after students complete it, so you can get a sense of how students perceive their experience of testing in the online environment.
Executive functioning deficits may need additional support. Asynchronous work requires a whole suite of executive functions, including self-awareness, self-motivation, planning, and problem-solving. For students with identified challenges with executive functioning, it’s important to engage explicitly with how students are learning, not just what they’re learning. Many times, these students have developed their own systems to compensate for their challenges; when school moves online, those systems may not be as effective, and students will need help adapting them to a new setting. We use a host of tools (both analog and digital) to help us understand what students’ patterns are in order to help them make changes. For these students, it’s often helpful to bring paper resources into the mix--printing out assignment lists, adding them to paper calendars or planners, and writing out daily work plans or playlists.
Teachers have transformative powers, both online and in person. We all know that strong relationships between teachers and students correlate to higher achievement in the classroom. The same pattern is true in online courses. When a student believes that a teacher authentically cares about their experience, they deepen their engagement. Demonstrating that caring is second nature to most teachers when they’re in the classroom, but it may feel awkward or antithetical when teaching online. It’s not! Meeting with students regularly on videoconferencing gives teachers the opportunity to ask the same questions they’d ask in the halls: How’s your sports season going? Seen any good tv lately? If a student is having a hard time mastering material, start by strengthening the teacher connection.
We’re going to be talking about effective online student support--including helping to provide accommodations--in our Academic Leaders webinar on September 2 at noon ET. In this webinar, our student support team will share the strategies they use to assist students who are enrolled in a wide range of courses at very different schools. Sign up to join us at https://bit.ly/2JnNrf2
Interested in learning more about supporting students in this coming year? Join us for in Steady in the Storm: Protecting Student Mental Health in Hybrid Learning Environments with Dr. Lisa Damour and Liz Katz
This fall, teachers are being asked to teach in new ways that feel foreign to their educator identities. Students are sitting in desks that are not to move from the spots marked on the floor. Masks and social distancing play out differently, depending on the age of the students. In kindergarten, there will be no tying of shoes or letting an exhausted, tearful child snuggle for a moment. High school teachers will not be able to lean over a struggling student’s shoulder to gently offer assistance or have students work in groups around a lab table. Adding to their stress, some teachers are uncomfortable as they are asked to broadcast this “not best” version of themselves live for several hours a day and simultaneously engage remote students in class.
What’s concerning with this scenario is that it impedes the progress schools are making in becoming more learner-centered, with a more personalized approach to learning. When a teacher is responsible for simultaneously instructing remote and present learners, instruction may very well end up being focused on the teacher’s voice. We may move backwards to personalized teaching this year, and if that is the case, we need to be mindful of that and do our best to ameliorate this unwanted shift.
Add in a necessarily heightened responsibility for social emotional support of students, and best-practice pedagogy may get shoved aside. Research tells us that students cannot learn if they don’t feel safe and connected. There is nothing more important for teachers to do in these early days of school than to ensure that all students, no matter their location, know that they are safe and that they matter to their teacher. (Note: the same might be said of the support academic leaders need to provide for teachers.) Social emotional safety is the snowplow and rock salt on the highway of learning in a blizzard.
How can academic leaders support teachers in these scenarios? One thing they must not do is assume that teachers can “figure it out” with some tech training. Once again, you need the tech, but it’s not about the tech. Teachers need augmented reality skills (we know they can already see behind them with the eyes in the backs of their heads, but now they need to see into multiple students’ laptops, too) and tools to: supervise multiple break-out groups, design rubrics that provide formative feedback instantaneously, provide differentiated pathways for learning that meet each students’ abilities and interests, and the list goes on.
Is it any wonder that “how to teach in-person and online simultaneously” turned out to be the largest webinar we’d ever hosted? Large enough that we exceeded our account settings and encountered some challenges in sharing the video. We want to thank Lindy Hockenbary, author of a viral post, for joining us to present her thoughts. We’ve shared the recording and her slides here. There are thousands of teachers in informal social media groups of educators asking the same question.
This is new, but we have some knowledge to draw on. For example, telepresence robotics have been around for a while to assist students who are (usually temporarily) learning from home. Yes, most teachers have never worked with a split model in these numbers, but many have had a student video in for a class or two. In addition, there were some predictions and models developed by the Christensen Institute around blended learning that can be useful to school leaders. There are shades of Disrupting Class (2008) in the NAIS job board postings for “remote learning supervisors” who will partner with teachers this year.
What the limited experiences we’ve seen so far (from international schools and schools opening early this year) suggest is that students (learners?) experience more success when they are actively engaged in learning experiences designed by teachers, no matter what their location. This is not a surprise, since active learning has always been a key component of independent schools’ programs.
What can be shared among all students, regardless of their location, is the digital space—whether it is an asynchronous discussion board or a small group breakout session. When teachers design for active learning for students, the trappings of “all eyes on me and my slides” can fall away. Instead, the right balance of synchronous and asynchronous is driven by the school’s mission, values, and culture as student learning moves back to the center. Teachers can design jigsaw activities, pair students, hold office hours in which students work independently while in a video conference, and design countless other ways to provide “just right” learning experiences.
Ultimately, it’s not about finding what teachers can do in the classroom that works for students connecting digitally, it’s designing what students do, whether it’s digital or not, that leverages the shared digital space for connection and feedback. When students are engaged in activities designed by a teacher, grow in response to feedback, and can communicate how they’ve learned—that’s excellent teaching...no matter the venue or mode.
A recurring theme in some of our classes for school administrators this summer has been reluctance to interfere with the “autonomy” of teachers by asking them to systematize practices and structures. In our own work we’ve learned that this systematization, which does not seem to impede creativity or content selection, works in the interest of better communication with students and families in an online learning situation. But at some schools administrators seem afraid to ask teachers to engage in consistent framing of expectations, work collection, and offering of feedback. But is dodging this work actually making things harder for teachers and setting them up for more stress?
Autonomy is often touted as the big reward in independent school teaching—no rigid state standards or testing, no iron hand of arbitrary coverage expectations. One might still teach to a test or to some other external standard, but it’s the school’s choice to let the teacher do that.
But autonomy comes with its unfortunate side, too. When pressed, many independent school teachers—including me—will confess that being left purposely alone in one’s early career was isolating and professionally unhelpful; some direction and some feedback might have served us and our students well. I’d even call this very common scenario neglectful. It can certainly be isolating, building cultural wall between teachers and their colleagues and too often between faculties and professional learning.
Isolation and neglect aren’t really much of a reward. If some teachers compensate by becoming professorial caricatures or petty tyrants, or by dismissing “professional development” or evolving school policies and practices as an imposition, it is understandable.
In the COVID Spring of 2020 teachers were sent home to figure out how to run their classes online. The preparatory training many received may have been dismissed or ignored in the name of autonomy; guidance offered in practice or tech tools may have fallen on unhearing ears. As problems in communication and presentation emerged, what happened to the confidence of these autonomous teachers?
And who was there to help them, beyond technical issues—much less with any issues of self-doubt and anxiety? Not leaders whose hands-off policies were born not so much of principle but of fear of meddling with cultures of autonomy.
The glue that holds independent schools together and the fuel that powers them are the same: relationships—being known, cared about, and supported. We talk about this all the time in the context of students and admission, and we like to throw it around when we’re hiring.
But what relationship exists to support the dispirited, exhausted autonomous teacher? Do your job and all will be well; we’ll not interfere with your work or inflict on you our perhaps well-meaning but (we understand) unwanted support and guidance; you’re autonomous!
Autonomous, like a Mars rover, millions of miles from home and connected to any chance of support and repair only by a tenuous radio link.
It’s time to scrap cultures of autonomy. If school leaders are timid about confronting this, start by going relational. Your autonomous teachers are probably still feeling pretty down after Spring 2020, and they need personal, emotional support. What can you offer? Not further isolation and neglect. Counseling? Mentoring?
You might start with a confession: “We inherited and sustained a culture of autonomy that didn’t support you in being your teacherly best in this global crisis. It’s gone on way longer than we could possibly have imagined, and we have to do more for you. We’re offering you tools that are designed to be helpful, but it’s even more important that we know and care for you better as people and professionals. We left you autonomous and alone when there was way too much alone-ness. That stops now. We’re in this together, and we need to support one another, as a unit and with the love and caring that characterizes this school.”
Alone in their Zoom spaces or plexiglass pods, will your autonomous teachers burst into virtual applause? Probably not. But you will have laid out your case for supporting them and for welding them into a team and not a display of miscellaneous tin soldiers on a shelf.
Have you the courage needed to make this plan stick? Only you know that.
Note: This September, One Schoolhouse is offering a course designed to guide academic leaders in developing and practicing strategies that build healthy and supportive trusting relationships with teachers. The result is a professional culture that mirrors the schools’ concern for and support of students. Find out more.
Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)