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.
Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)