Teaching Virtually During the Pandemic: Lessons Learned from Long-Time Online Teachers

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Author: Digital Learning Collaborative

First a note from Richard Bitgood, Director, StudyForge:

It has been a fascinating year in online education. More people than ever have been exposed to the idea of learning outside of a traditional classroom and we have seen the reactions to this run the gamut from eager adoption to vehement opposition. Because of this we wanted to highlight a post from the Digital Learning Collaborative’s (DLC) blog that online education has been a successful option for many students and teachers, long before the COVID-19 pandemic. 

So as we tie off the 2020-2021 school year, and start to prepare for the next, here are five lessons that two experienced online teachers learned during the pandemic. They point out some fantastic observations that we can attest are confirmed by our other clients who have also been in this game for a long time.

The Digital Learning Collaborative works to illuminate key issues in digital learning, disseminate data and best practices, and guide practitioners, policymakers, the media, advocates, and interested observers. The DLC actively engages in creating resources and reports that help move the field forward in practice, policy, and research related to K-12 online, blended, and digital learning. StudyForge is proud to be a member of the DLC.

Teaching Virtually During the Pandemic:

Lessons Learned from Long-Time Online Teachers

By Summer Hooten and Leann Flynn, Florida Virtual School Teachers

As the school year comes to an end, and for many of our students, the first full school year attended virtually, we have been looking back and reflecting on a year unlike any other. As teachers, students, and parents adapted to a new way of life during the pandemic, we thought we were excluded from many of the challenges of adapting to remote learning, as our everyday experience for 20 years (for Leann) and five years (for Summer) has been teaching students online at Florida Virtual School (FLVS).

Even though we had extensive knowledge of how to teach virtually, the pandemic still challenged us. As the school year started and we connected with our students, we realized that this new way of life still impacted us through our personal lives and students’ experiences. From learning from home alongside parents working from the same space, to adapting to an online learning environment – all while trying to remain positive despite the ongoing tragedy on the news – our new students had to acclimate to an immense amount of change.

Additionally, FLVS saw a significant increase in enrollment going into the 2020-21 school year, with a 57% increase in course requests for our FLVS Flex option and a 98% increase in the number of students for FLVS Full Time. Despite the influx of new students and navigating an emotionally difficult year, we, and the other teachers at FLVS worked quickly to provide our students with solutions and resources to ensure their success and lift them up in challenging times.

As school districts around the nation continue to announce their plans for the 2021-22 school year and parents and students make decisions on their future with online education, we wanted to share our four key learnings from teaching virtually during the pandemic to highlight what teachers can do to keep students engaged and help them succeed in a virtual setting. 

1. Building real relationships is still #1 (Summer Hooten)

As a teacher who comes from a traditional brick-and-mortar school, I was initially worried about changing to teaching in an online environment because my strength has always been building connections with my students. But what I have learned over the past five years, is that teaching virtually has allowed me to connect with students and parents on an even deeper level because I spend more time one-on-one with them. From texting, to live lessons, to emails, and beyond – I am constantly in communication with my students and their parents, discussing their successes and challenges, as well as learning about their personal lives.

Teaching virtually gives me the time I need to fully understand each student’s goals and help guide them in their educational journey. Plus, during the past year when we all felt a little scared and unsure, building those relationships not only helped my students and parents feel more comfortable but it also gave me strength when I needed it most.

2. For digital natives, schedule is a must (Leann Flynn)

With Generations Z and Alpha growing up in an era of tremendous growth in technology, it is important to work with parents and students to find a balance between schoolwork and play or relaxation time. Some students may prefer to get their schoolwork and lessons done in the morning, and some may be able to concentrate more in the evening once extracurricular activities, sports, or clubs are over. Either way, it is important to find a schedule and stick to it so that students and parents can become accustomed to an online learning environment.

3. Kindness goes a long way (Summer Hooten)

The pandemic has been a time of adjustment for everyone, so giving grace to students and parents makes all the difference. For example, one of my students was not completing assignments in a timely manner, but rather than jumping to conclusions I decided to speak to his parents. During that conversation, I learned that the student was going through a difficult time and had some personal challenges he was trying to overcome.

I wanted him to know I was there to support him and that he had someone in his corner, so during his low moments I tried to lift him up by sending him books to read, stress balls, and motivational messages. I told him that I did not care how long it took him to finish the course, as long as he did. By approaching the situation with kindness, the student was able to pass the course and felt understood and supported despite going through one of the hardest times of his life.

4. Provide reassurance through real-life examples (Leann Flynn)

Seeing real-life examples of people who have endured times of uncertainty can help reassure students that they are not alone, and that will get through this pandemic and be stronger than ever. I teach a leadership course that exposes my students to different stories of tragedy and how people overcame their challenges with grit and perseverance.

The pandemic brought a lot of anxiety into student’s lives. Being able to teach them that throughout history there have been chaotic moments that tested mankind, but that we grew stronger through trials and tribulations has been instrumental to their healing. It also reassured them that they too will get through this. I feel truly privileged to be able to help my students see this and help them develop a positive mindset about the future.

5. Listen to your instinct (Summer Hooten)

When a student is not as engaged as they used to be, teachers cannot be afraid to dig a little deeper. When one of my students did not log in to FLVS for weeks, my gut told me to continue trying to get in contact with her. What I found out is that she did not have access to a laptop anymore, so I decided to raise funds for a new one. Not only did we send her a laptop, but she also successfully completed the course because I followed my instincts. Even in a virtual environment, your gut instinct is your most valuable asset, so listen to it!

If one thing is certain in an online learning environment: every student learns differently. By being flexible and adapting to each of our student’s individual learning needs, we have been able to maximize their true learning potential. Whether in challenging or joyous times, students and parents want to feel supported and they look to teachers as their resource and guiding light.

Regardless of if you are new to online education or have been around the block a few times like us, we hope that these learnings help inspire you next school year.

Thank you Summer and Leanne! We couldn’t agree more that building relationships has always been, and will continue to be, the first priority of the online teacher. In light of that, I would like to offer a sixth observation into the mix:

6. Having insight into your online student’s engagement is more important than ever.

Coaching your students effectively requires an awareness of where their effort levels are at, what they are spending their time on, and their trends over time. This will allow you to help them feel noticed and, as Summer described, will give your gut instincts a fighting chance.

Here’s a link to the original article. Check out the DLC’s blog for more great information.

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