Care and Feeding

My Child’s School Zoom Meetings Are a Disaster

What should the teacher do differently?

A computer monitor and keyboard with a teacher holding up a piece of paper saying "Lesson 1" and other classroom images in the background.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. In addition to our traditional advice, every Thursday we feature an assortment of teachers from across the country answering your education questions. Have a question for our teachers? Email askateacher@slate.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

My child’s elementary school teacher is having trouble controlling her students via the Zoom lessons being required by our school district right now. Do you have any tips or best practices for teaching on Zoom that might be helpful for other teachers who might be in the same position?

—Not Learning With Distance Learning

Dear NLWDL,

I think the first thing that teachers need to accept is the fact that it’s not going to be possible to manage students remotely in the same way teachers can manage them in person. Almost all of the tools that we have to manage classrooms of students are removed in the virtual environment, beginning with our eyes and ears. Teachers see their class in a way others cannot. We can detect, deflect, and extinguish problematic behaviors before they even start. This is exceptionally evident when I watch a student-teacher work with students for the first time. It’s almost as if they don’t have eyes.

Students using a program like Zoom are obviously also on a computer while listening to the teacher, which affords students unfettered access to the internet. Have you ever been in a meeting where attendees have laptops open? Adults can barely focus in these conditions. Children will be impossible at times. Add to this a teacher’s inability to impose consequences and the students’ need to connect with classmates who they have not seen in weeks, and online classes like this become exceptionally challenging.

This is why the most effective forms of instruction in this era of distance learning are largely self-guided, with frequent contact from the teacher to assist, motivate, and reduce anxiety. In my district, this amounts to a learning plan that students engage with on their own, coupled with at least two individual meetings each week, teacher-created videos to accommodate asynchronous learning, and the implementation of online resources like Khan Academy in order to facilitate instruction.

The meetings I have with my class throughout the week focus much less on instruction and instead on using that time to help my students collaborate with peers, continue to socialize, and find ways to connect while remaining socially distant.

Despite all of this, there are some strategies that I have found effective. They include:

1. All student should mute microphones during instruction. When a question is asked, the teacher chooses which student should answer, at which point that student’s microphone is unmuted. Teachers can’t teach effectively with multiple microphones on at once.

2. Combine visual elements with the presentation. If students only have a teacher’s face to watch, their attention will quickly waver. When text, images, and the like are made a part of the presentation, attention and engagement will increase.

3. Rather than one 45-minute class, consider doing three 15-minutes classes with a third of the class each time. When instruction is delivered this way, the rate of student participation greatly increases. Plus, groups can be designed to keep certain personalities apart. While there is considerably less time to cover content, the content that is covered is at least taught with a greater degree of efficacy.

4. Invite parents to join the class when possible. The presence of an authoritative adult is sometimes enough to keep students engaged and attentive. This might be exceptionally difficult for many parents given the present circumstances of our country, but sometimes teachers only need to extinguish the behaviors of one or two students in order to regain control.

Best of luck in these trying times. Every single teacher who I know is working longer and harder than ever before, so supporting your child’s teacher in any way is an enormous help.

Be well and stay safe.

—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

What obligations do public school teachers have to their students during extended school closures?

I have three children, two of whom are in the local public schools (one in middle school and the other in elementary school). Like kids across the country, they have been at home as part of our country’s efforts to limit the spread of the coronavirus. It’s been a struggle to keep them on a routine, but we’re trying.

The schools have done very little to help. The district provided a link to download third-party worksheets … and not much else. Our oldest kid’s math teacher has been a rock star, posting instructional videos on Google Classroom and answering questions online. He’s done so on his own accord without any support or guidance from the school. I have a lot of respect for what he’s been doing to keep his students engaged.

But, the other teachers haven’t really done anything. While we are just beginning this process, I’m skeptical things will change. That has left us to fend for ourselves, using whatever tools we can.

Our society is facing big challenges right now, and my concerns may be low-stakes by comparison, but I wonder: Should our local schools be doing more?  Should they be embracing technology to reach kids at home? Or do issues of equality and fairness prevent them from doing so? Could they issue Chromebooks to kids who don’t have access to computers?

—Sheltering in Place

Dear Sheltering in Place,

What schools should be doing and what they have the resources to do are two different things. I teach eighth grade English, and I’m pretty much doing what your kid’s math teacher does. I post QuickTime or YouTube videos on Google Classroom. I link online resources. I respond to questions by email. I meet with my students on Zoom once a day to answer questions about assignments.

But, first of all, I teach at a charter school, and my school is what they call a one-to-one school, i.e., every kid brings a laptop, and if they don’t have one, we give them a Chromebook. Naturally, I did my lessons in the classroom before, but pretty much all my assignments were already online.

Second, the kids I teach are more sophisticated and independent than elementary schoolers. What I’d be doing if kids didn’t have access to technology, or if I were still teaching third, fourth, or sixth grades, would be very different and probably a lot less.

Third, my own children are old enough that I can tell them to buzz off for a bit so Mommy can talk to her students and they’ll mostly do it. (Both boys made brief appearances in this morning’s Zoom.) Teachers who have younger kids or disabled kids at home might not be able to swing something like that.

U.S. public schools are expected to provide students a free and appropriate public education. What’s appropriate right now? Who can say?

I’ve told some parents and students who are worried about “getting behind” that spring 2020 is going to have an asterisk next to it for everybody. Accommodations will be made. Poor performances will be forgiven. Forgotten content will be retaught.

I think what you should expect is nothing, and then you leave yourself the space to be pleasantly surprised.

—Ms. Scott (eighth grade teacher, North Carolina)

I have a 15-year-old freshman who was diagnosed with ADD. He is very respectful, caring, and well-mannered. He isn’t hyper—in fact, he is the most chill kid I’ve ever seen. He hates school, and he always has. He’s very disorganized. When he is disinterested in something, he tunes out and zones out. He doesn’t complete his homework. He often loses schoolwork. He has an IEP and all the help that comes with that. He’s currently unmedicated because he’s been unresponsive to ADD meds. (I feel like he’s tried all of them.)

He’s failing multiple classes. He’s currently retaking one class online after school, and he’s taking another class over at school in place of an elective. (Bear in mind he’s only been in high school for half a year!) He’s definitely smart, and he understands that he can’t keep failing classes. But having said that, he doesn’t seem to be making any effort at all.

I don’t know how to help him. I don’t know what else to do. I talk to his teachers and advisers. I’ve taken away all of his electronics. We don’t have any money to spare, so programs like Neurocore are not an option for us. He’s been to counseling, and he’s not depressed. He just wants to play video games with his friends.

I’m feeling like the Worst Mom Ever, because I don’t know how to get through to him, and I don’t know how to help. Any suggestions?

—Helpless, but Don’t Want to Be Hopeless

Dear Helpless Not Hopeless,

You are not the Worst Mom Ever. I’m so sorry you’re dealing with this—I know it’s very stressful. Ninth grade can be an incredibly difficult year, and it sounds like you’re trying everything in your power to help him.

Apparently, right now, his passion is for video games. Perhaps he can earn back some video game time (you say you took away all electronics) each night by doing homework, studying, or making progress in his online course. It’s tempting to keep all electronics away until he’s passing, but immediate rewards tend to work better for kids with ADD. You’ll have to work with him to determine what is a reasonable goal: If you set the bar too high (“you need straight A’s”), he’ll feel defeated before he starts. However, continue to raise the bar as appropriate. Be sure to make note of his honest efforts and praise the progress, no matter how small, that he makes toward improvement. WebMD has some “better study habits” for kids with ADHD that might help the two of you structure this time.

If video game bribery doesn’t work, then he may have to experience the natural consequences of his choices. I’m not suggesting you give up on him—continue to support him as best you can, whether that’s helping him organize his backpack or just continuing to enforce your rules. But ultimately this is up to him, not you. If he finds himself spending his summer retaking classes or, even worse, still a freshman a year from now, that will be the result of his own decisions. I know that’s a scary prospect, but it doesn’t mean he’ll “never get it.” I have taught many students who climbed out of a hole they dug themselves. Some kids take longer to mature.

In the meantime, I encourage you to find a community of parents with similar issues. Some PTA members at my daughter’s school started a group for parents of children with learning and attention issues. Online community can be helpful as well. Understood is a website with a wealth of resources to support kids with learning difficulties, including discussion groups, and of course they are on Facebook. I think you would benefit from knowing you’re not alone in this; many parents are experiencing these same challenges right now.

Hang in there, Mama.

—Ms. Holbrook (high school teacher, Texas)

I have a 4-year-old daughter in preschool who won’t go to kindergarten until she’s nearly 6 because of her birthday relative to local cutoff dates. The teachers are kind, but whenever I’m there, they are always busy with classroom tasks like putting snacks together, or preparing future or completed craft projects, and they’re rarely talking to the kids. Granted, I’m only there for pickup and drop-off, but the work I see being sent home doesn’t impress me much, either. The artwork sent home every day, for example, seems to be mostly created by teachers (highly elaborate paper plate forest animals, for example) and not normal, 4-year-old scribbles.

We recently moved to the area, and I can’t stop comparing this preschool with our former one. Our old preschool was a dream—the teachers were always child-focused, and the work my daughter brought home was much more interesting.

My question is: How can I evaluate if this preschool is any good? Besides the artwork of a 4-year-old, I don’t feel like I have a lot of tools at my disposal to assess this school’s quality. And if you think I should change schools, what should I look for in a future school?

—Concerned Mama

Dear Concerned Mama,

It’s very hard for parents to evaluate preschools. Elementary schools and beyond have easy metrics—you can meet the teachers for conferences, and you can compare the rigor of the academic work to the standards for your child’s grade to make sure they match up. But most states don’t have standards for preschools, and those that do are less concrete because the skills we teach are difficult to measure. There are still a few things you can do.

Does your current school’s mission statement or philosophy align with your own? You said the teachers are nice, but what does the day look like? At my school, we send home a weekly lesson plan with what I plan on teaching/doing each day—from crafts, to snacks, to larger lessons we’ll be learning about things like the weather, sharing, or counting. Does your child’s teacher communicate anything about what types of activities your child is doing, or does she provide parents with a review that says what the class has done? You can look at these materials and bring the teacher specific questions to try to get to the root of what skills are being taught and how.

Depending on what the teacher says, you could ask to visit the classroom. My school has an “open door” policy where the administration insists parents can come into the classroom at any time for any reason. Ultimately, regardless of what sort of intel you’re able to collect, I wouldn’t dismiss what your gut is telling you. If you feel like this school isn’t quite the right fit for you, it probably isn’t.

As for how to evaluate new preschools? Take a tour or ask to drop in and see what the school looks like in action (bearing in mind that every work place is on its best behavior when a prospective new client is touring, and a school is no different). Read up online to see what other parents say about the school, whether on local message boards or review sites (bearing in mind that these can often tend toward the negative, at least in my experience). When you’re at library story time, or your child’s dance or music class, talk to other parents and ask them about the schools their children attend. And look at the schools’ philosophy. My personal preference is for play-based programs, versus programs like Montessori and Waldorf where I feel like they’re overpriced for what you get, but ultimately (and obviously), it’s a matter of your personal preference. Good luck!

—Ms. Sarnell (preschool special education, New York)

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