By Charlene Ammons
Remote learning presents many challenges, especially for classroom teachers who never anticipated these unprecedented times in education. Distance learning is not necessarily a foreign concept, as it has been in existence for several decades in various forms.
For most classroom teachers, teaching has been and continues to be centered on the joys of relationships with students through face to face interactions.
Being forced into a digital realm meant Great Falls Public Schools had to recruit and equip classroom teachers to facilitate the learning for students who opted to learn from home. There are definite daily struggles to overcome, yet there are also glimmers of hope that the joy of teaching is not entirely lost through remote learning.
The greatest struggles for remote learning teachers are building relationships with students they have never had the pleasure of meeting in person and meeting their individual learning needs. The old adage, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,” is a popular mantra among educators because it has proven true many times over in the classroom.
Students need to feel safe and cared for in order to be ready for learning, because learning new information is hard work and creates a high demand on the brain.
If the brain is attempting to learn both new information and navigate new relationships, it is unable to manage both tasks well.
Classroom teachers typically spend the first three weeks of school dedicating their time and efforts to building relationships to create those safe places for learning. Amy Sterling, the seventh grade science teacher at the Roosevelt Remote Learning Center, notes,
“The hardest part of being a remote teacher is connecting with students in a meaningful way. It is so much easier when the kids are right there with you every day.”
Connecting through screen time, such as Zooms, is simply not as effective.
Trying to identify what each of those students needs in order to learn and learn well is inhibited by a couple factors. While technology offers some supports, it also has its limitations. Some students learn best through audio supports, some through visual supports, and some through hands on experiences.
Tammy Good, the first grade teacher at the Roosevelt Remote Learning Center, points out, “There is something very important about knowing the whole child when trying to teach academics. When to use movement, humor, collaborative work… teaching is both a science and an art. Teaching remotely feels like it might only be science.”
The other factor affecting remote teachers’ attempts to know and support each individual student is the sheer number of students on a remote learning teacher’s roster. Good says, “Trying to [differentiate instruction] with 100 diverse young students who log in when it is convenient for their families and are dependent on their support with technology is… no words here. I do not like the word impossible, but I haven’t been successful yet.”
Dedicated educators like Good carry the weight of students’ success as a personal burden.
Because students are doing schoolwork at different times of the day based on their families’ schedules, remote learning teachers have had to figure out a daily routine of answering emails, text messages, and phone calls, not to mention group Zooms, individual Zooms, planning lessons, recording lessons, publishing lessons and assignments, and troubleshooting technology.
Teachers thrive with routine and organization, but finding routine in remote learning has proven to be a moving target as the needs change. Sterling acknowledges, “Without a schedule, and alarms and reminders, it is easy to lose track of time and meetings.”
Losing track of time is also easy to do when striving to respond to the many demands for communication. Communication is a critical component of remote learning, but with a single conversation lasting on average about 15 minutes, there are only so many minutes in the day to be able to manage the never-ending task list.
Sterling shares, “I spend a lot of time texting, emailing, and calling kids to help with work or troubleshoot tech issues. Communicating with the student’s parents and guardians, my teammates, special education case managers, counselors and administrators also takes a large part of my time.”
“We have found with remote learning that communication is one of the biggest factors in a student’s success.”
In spite of the challenges of remote teaching, it is not without its highlights. Sterling candidly says,
“This year has challenged me on every level, from my technology skills to my organization and time management, to my ability to reframe what teaching and lesson delivery looks like from a remote standpoint, to learning a brand new-to-me curriculum. The time has flown by, and I am grateful for this opportunity to grow, but I am also grateful that we seemed to have worked through most of the ‘growing pains’ that we were inundated with at the beginning of the year.”
Some of those highlights include parent appreciation for their tireless efforts to improve the remote learning experience, student appreciation for flexibility and points of connection, and student success in the remote setting.
Sterling remarks, “Most of our parents have been supportive and encouraging, especially the first trimester as we navigated what remote learning looked like, and are appreciative that their students have a means to continue their education safely during the pandemic.”
Remote learning this school year was a learning curve for all parties involved, from teachers to students to parents. It is rewarding to know that parents were willing to extend grace and recognize that remote learning is a joint effort for the success of their students. Good also values how parents have appreciated her efforts to provide recorded instruction and especially the individualized feedback on student work, a time-consuming task with so many students, but worth the time and effort to guide students’ learning.
Students also have communicated their appreciation for their teachers’ efforts. Good and Sterling both receive positive feedback regarding their Zoom sessions, underscoring students’ need for connection with their teachers. Good offers “drop in” Zoom times, in which students can wait for a turn with their teacher for some one-on-one support and conversation, which she indicates has been highly successful and meaningful.
The measure of any teacher’s success, however, is the success of their students. Working diligently for that goal, Sterling encourages success by identifying, “The students who are excelling with remote learning are the students who have figured out how to best organize their time, they attend seminars and help sessions, and finish their work in a timely manner. If they get stuck, they ask for help. They are proactive in their education and have learned to communicate with their teachers well.”
Many students have indeed made remote learning a successful journey and are the reason that remote teachers like Good and Sterling persevere in spite of the obstacles. Sterling confidently states,
“I am so proud of the program that we have put together and the way we all work as a team to provide a safer alternative for students to attend school during the pandemic.”
“We have learned so much in such a short time and have really come together as a group and as a program. It has been an insanely busy first trimester, but when all is said and done, one that I am extremely proud of.”