It’s halfway through the academic year, and schools across the United States are still wrestling with how to keep students enthusiastic about learning through a computer screen. According to a recent survey of high school students, more than half (54 percent) reported being less engaged during remote learning than during in-person classes.
In a virtual environment, educators are continually competing with diversions that aren’t present in the classroom, such as social media, television, and video games. Family distractions are also at play, particularly for older students who may care for younger siblings while parents are at work. Amid these disruptions, it can be challenging to get students to consistently log on, stay on, and participate in learning.
As educators, we are always thinking about who our audience is. What academic, social, emotional, and behavioral challenges are our students dealing with? We then use that information to brainstorm how to best approach online lessons, build and maintain critical school culture and relationships, and enable other wrap-around supports, such as counseling and therapy. This can be particularly complex when meeting the needs of students experiencing trauma.
During this time of remote learning and social distancing, myriad factors contribute to increased trauma in children. Rising anxiety, loneliness, fear, isolation, and lack of structure and routine have a disproportionate impact on the lives and health of already vulnerable populations. Creating an engaging virtual environment for students can be difficult, but a few insights, best practices, and strategies can help you craft your remote teaching approach.
First and foremost, be yourself.
This advice applies to administrators, teachers, staff members, and the school as one community. Your students know you and expect to continue the same relationship with you even when they’re not physically in the school building. For example, it is crucial to maintain the norms you’d have in the classroom. Continue to review your classroom expectations to give students a sense of normalcy and show them that even though learning looks a little different, the classroom is still a familiar place for them.
It’s also important for the remote learning environment to mirror in-person learning. When virtual and in-person education reflect one another, we create a seamless transition between the two settings, which is critical, given the unknowns associated with COVID-19. Also, consistency can promote a healthier relationship with students. Change can be challenging, especially for those who are already experiencing trauma. School can often be the only constant in a student’s life. When you maintain consistency, you reinforce the foundation of your culture and expectations, which keeps students connected and eases any uncertainty.
More flexibility, more accolades.
To further support students, you may want to consider having resources available during non-school hours. Additional support for academic, social, emotional, and behavioral needs can ensure students in crisis or who cannot fully participate in synchronous lessons during the day remain engaged and on-track. Try to provide access and opportunities for students to participate in daily individual and group counseling sessions to know where and how to get help with complex feelings and traumatic situations.
Positive reinforcement during this time is critical. Consider a reward or positive recognition system that offers socially distanced, hand-delivered awards, mailed certificates, and other acknowledgments that recognize students who remain engaged and committed to learning.
Aim to make education more entertaining.
While effective educators have always weaved some degree of entertainment into their teaching, it’s even more critical now as we compete with other distractions in a remote environment. When thinking about making online lessons more engaging, it can be helpful to start by translating some of the effective strategies used during in-person lessons. Create fun and entertaining presentations such as virtual pajama week, virtual creative-character week, or even TikTok week.
Try using music to keep students engaged and motivated. By beginning each day with a catchy tune that includes a positive message you can improve students’ morale, and get families involved too.
Use distance learning to do more.
Bringing in guest speakers remotely from the community, such as scientists, firefighters, and nurses, can also be a compelling way to flesh out concepts or spark conversations around current events. Virtual visitors can also help students maintain focus on post-secondary goals. Consider bringing in school alumni to share information about their experiences and reinforce the importance of working toward college acceptance and career-related skills. Including speakers in conjunction with virtual college visits and presentations can have an even more profound impact on students.
In this current environment, parents play a central role in keeping their students connected and involved in their education. It is essential for teachers to foster strong relationships with their students’ parents. Communication is the key to success. Try using monthly video conference meetings with parents to reiterate expectations of students and update parents on new developments, tools, resources, and events. It can also be helpful to relay the same information that is being given to students to maintain transparency and consistency between the home and school settings.
To keep students and families up to date, consider creating an online mobile-friendly resource hub where parents can access critical information at any time, even when they are not at their computers. Outside of the hub, social media is a great tool to connect with parents.
One of the benefits of teaching students while they are in their homes is that you can reach everybody in the student’s household within earshot of the computer. Consequently, it allows us to empower the entire family. When teachers view this time to extend involvement and engagement across the family, the impact can be much more powerful.
To further support parents, consider providing tools, such as informative training on topics like social-emotional learning, to foster at-home learning as an extension of their child’s school day.
Embrace a “no excuses” approach.
There is no question, teaching through this pandemic is tough and something for which we didn’t have a blueprint. However, it’s essential to seek out the opportunities and not get caught up in the challenges. Try to approach any hurdle with a “So what? Now what?” mindset, meaning intentionally shifting focus from the problem to potential solutions. In our opinion, there’s no reason you cannot translate what you do in the school building into a virtual model. We instill the same expectations, the same guidelines, and we preach the same message.
In the end, we all must take advantage of the opportunities we have to be a champion for our students regardless of the setting. If you’re passionate about teaching, that passion will come through virtually, helping transform lives in new and different ways than what we’ve ever seen before.