5 Lessons Teachers Can Learn from Teaching through a Global Pandemic

May 04, 2020

In the thick of a global pandemic, where much of our instruction has migrated online, there are plenty of days where you've likely felt like this whole online teaching gig is simply *not* part of your calling.

And just when that feeling is at its height and breaking point: school gets cancelled for the rest of the year.

Like any Charles Dickens reader, I prefer the best of times.  So today’s post is your full glass of water in these worst of times we face...

So here’s the deal:

You may not see it from the thick of the trees in Failure Forest, but what we're doing *right now* to keep our classrooms afloat while learning from a distance is *actually* the penultimate example of what it means to be a student in the real world.

What you’re doing as you toggle new platforms and test out hyperlinks, track assignments online and--heck, figure out the ‘mute all’ button: this fumbling-and-figuring models exactly what it means to take risks, be gritty, and to fail relentlessly forward for the sake of learning.


As we fumble through this experience of teaching from afar during the COVID-19 crisis, we are demonstrating for our students a true, 21st century experience...

what learning looks like without an answer key.

Write that on a sticky note, and put it on your monitor because there is seriously no better teacher out there right now than us!

And while you’ve made it this far, you still have a little ways to go...good learning involves deep reflection.

In today's post, we’ll look back on 5 important lessons we're learning as we teach from a digital distance. Along the way, we’ll consider some important questions we need to ask ourselves before making our way back into the comfort of our classrooms.

#1 Culture, connection, and community deserve more credit in the classroom.

Sure, we all have that first-week-of-school activity that helps us get to know our students while simultaneously painting a picture of who we are, too. Some, super-fun activity or way-cool project that gets them on their feet, makes them smile, and offers just the right engagement to trigger that, 'I think it's gonna be a good year in here' effect.

But building classroom culture has taken on a whole new hue these days. Maintaining community and continuity is the best thing we can offer our socially-distant students, and it’s taken precedence over any other activity or project we could ever assign.

This lesson we're learning forces us to reconsider the way we’ve created culture and community in our classrooms in the past by asking:

  • how can we build and measure community throughout the year?
  • how can we ensure that our students are achieving growth in the human connections they make with others AND in the character they're building in themselves?

#2 When it comes to communication, consistency is key.

Before the pandemic, we had plenty of ways to communicate with our students. We lectured our thoughts in person, wrote goals on our board, sent deadlines via apps like Remind, posted due dates in Google Classroom, added frequent updates to class-wide blogs. All of this was our effort to keep our kids on point and to make sure they had every opportunity in our grade book.

Meanwhile, amidst the pandemic...when we communicate with our kids, it's more about trust than anything else. They're not relying on us to remind them when an assignment is due or that a new task is posted. They're relying on us to be there when we say we're going to be.

Being consistent in showing up live, answering emails promptly, offering solid windows for ambient office hours.  Just knowing they have a means of communication to rely on can do so much to minimize stress and reduce anxiety. To them (and us!), the unknown is pretty scary, especially when you can't follow up in person the next day, so simplifying and streamlining protocols for consistent communication is key in keeping things afloat.

#3 Differentiating instruction isn't as complicated as it looks...

I get it. When you've got 30+ kids in a room, how in *the heck* do you tailor to their every, individual need? Plenty of times...teachin' ain't e-zay.

But the good to come out of this digital teaching biz is that we've had the chance to 'think different' about differentiation.

Right now, we're finding all the ways to teach a class of students who aren't all online at the same time (or at all, for that matter). We're tapping into synchronous and asynchronous methods for instruction, busting out choice boards, allowing multiple mediums for creation, and softening deadlines to better meet our students where they are in the present moment.

I don't know about you, but I like what I'm seeing.  We’re trying new things, experimenting, and making it work!

And the challenge our new 'teacher' is placing before us is this: 

How will we better blend learning upon our return?

We've been exposed to so many new tools, strategies, and methods for delivering instruction. What role will these play once we're back in the classroom?  

I know Zoom is probably the last thing on your mind once this is all said and done (am-I-right?!), but now that you're such a wiz-bang expert, you'll have zero fear, for example, inviting primary-source experts into your classroom, setting up interviews for your students to learn from community members, digitally dialing up guest speakers, and beyond.

#4 Put the emphasis on the process, not the product!

In a previous post, I explored the realm of standards-based grading as a possible ‘new normal’ to come out of our experiences in teaching from a digital distance during COVID-19.  As an important and necessary adjustment, many schools are shifting away from traditional grades as the means for measurement and toward markers like ‘proficient’ versus ‘not yet.’  

A simple shift in the language we use to communicate progress to our students can be the game-changer we need to help them see learning more as a process than a product. In other words, we’re teaching them to ask less of ‘what did I get?’, and more of ‘what did I learn?’ or ‘in what ways have I grown?’.

As one way of getting your students to communicate more effectively about the learning process, why not start by leveraging this experience we’re working through right now:

Create a collective timeline with your students, chronicling the many hard-knocks lessons you’ve learned together as you navigate digital teaching and learning.  

  • Who were you when you started this journey?  
  • What did you know (or not)?
  • What have been the milestones along the way? 
  • How have you transformed as teachers and learners? (Noticing, perhaps, that each of you occupy *both* roles at varying points throughout this experience!)

A conversation like this puts the microscope on what you know now that you hadn’t known before, how you’ve navigated hurdles, and the triumphs you’re able to celebrate because of the progress you’ve made.  This is way more valuable than converting percentages and bartering for points as the measuring stick.

The questions we’re met with now emerge: 

  • how can we continue to adopt this kind of language upon our return?  
  • How can we make our students’ experience more about what they’re doing than what they have done?

#5 This experience is *the* catalyst for change in the modern classroom.

I think we can agree that change is hard.  Like it or not, though, we are undoubtedly coming out of this experience a changed educator.  We won’t be returning to ‘business as usual’ in the classroom any more than we’ll filter back into society that way.  

A new normal in education is on the rise, and quite frankly, I’m happy to see it.  In a system that’s easily 100 years old, change has been a long-time-comin’.  

And while I’m not suggesting a complete overhaul overnight (cue the ‘Rome’ cliche), if any change is going to come *any* time soon, it’s going to be an inside job.

As in, inside our classrooms.

What micro-adjustments will we make to account for the changes we’ve undergone?

Just before the pandemic struck, we were used to--perhaps even dependent upon--the traditional setting of our four-walled classroom. Exchanges took place live, we showed up in person, and assignments were always available in hard copy.

While we’re in the quarantine queue, it’s the exact, opposite extreme.  We’re as ‘live’ as our streaming tools allow us to be, we roll up in our sweatpants, and assignments are strewn about the digital stratosphere.

What we know: 

neither of these worlds will endure.  

We won’t be all digital, but we can’t keep living in all-analog, either.  

(And not to be all glass-half-empty here because it’s *so* not my style, but there’s no guarantee we won’t see the likes of COVID--or something like it--again).

What we are therefore being incensed to figure out: 

How can we balance the scales so that our students get the very best of *both* worlds while learning with us--a better blend of:

  • digital AND analog methods
  • classic AND creative means
  • cognitive AND social-emotional growth?

To wrap it all up...

As trying as these times have been, I have to admit, COVID-19 may just be up for Macy’s Teacher of the Year award yet.  In fact, I strongly recommend her class.  

As we emerge from this pandemic, she’s taught us what it means to ask more questions, teach without answers, remove deadlines and improve connections.  She’s given us both opportunity and license to be bold yet vulnerable, take risks and trust the process.  

And she’s reminded us that we are both leader and learner, teacher and student.  

She’s taken us to the breaking point in our zone of proximal development, but somehow she’s re-opened our eyes to endless wonder and eager problem solving along the way, some of the stuff that can easily drift into autopilot otherwise.

But most of all, she’s delivered the ultimate lesson that we truly are superheroes who are capable of anything..and that those who CAN, teach.

What unique lessons has this experience taught you? Share your wins, epic fails, beautiful disasters, (and everything in between!) in the comments box below!

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