This article is part of Open Book, a Slate series about the new school year.
When I began my teaching career in 1999, I never imagined I would spend my 21st year in the classroom outside of the classroom, teaching my fifth grade students from the quarantined comfort of my own home. I’ve shepherded students through national tragedies like 9/11, a space shuttle disaster, and the Sandy Hook shooting just down the road in my own state, but this past spring demanded more from me than ever before. I have never worked so hard as a teacher, nor have I ever felt so ineffective.
But as March turned to April and May, I became more adept at distance learning. By June, my students and I had settled into a routine—one that included both mundane and imaginative ways of connecting with one another, as well as weekly individual meetings, small group sessions, whole class lessons, and even lunchtime gatherings. I have no doubt I’ll have occasion to put the strategies my students and I developed together into further use next year. And as my colleagues around the country scramble to wrap their heads around a fall teaching landscape vastly different from the norm, I thought it would be helpful to share some of the videoconferencing teaching tricks of the trade I’ve developed.
Teachers are used to setting up classroom expectations at the start of the school year—a sort of student-teacher contract. These will be even more important this year. I established these ground rules last spring with my fifth graders, and they served us well:
Be fully present. It’s perfectly fine for a student to work on the couch, the patio, or even the bed. Comfort is important, and sometimes, the only quiet place in the house might be inside a closet (which was one student’s preferred workspace). But wherever a student worked, the expectation remained the same: Sit up straight and engage the camera with your eyes, the same way you would any person speaking to you.
No pajamas allowed. The mindset of students should be that it’s a school day, even if they are not physically present in school. This means getting dressed and ready for the day.
Cameras on. I expected all students to leave their cameras on whenever possible. Unless an older brother was walking through the living room in his underwear, or a student needed to blow her nose, there was no need to hide behind a deactivated camera.
Treat online class like classroom class. Students were not permitted to eat while engaged in videoconferencing, nor should they be using their phones or any other software or video game on their computer. The latter was more difficult to monitor, but setting the expectations is important.
Attend individual meetings. Every week, I set aside time for one-on-one meetings with students, which I encouraged parents to attend as well. These meetings were critical to student success. In these meetings, we reviewed the previous week’s performance, discussed changes in the home—like the arrival of a new puppy or Mom’s new work schedule—addressed any new challenges that had arisen since we last met, and set expectations for the coming week. If a parent could not attend the meeting, I recorded the meeting and sent it directly to the parent for review at a later time. As a parent myself, I knew full well that not every parent was available to monitor their child during the school day. But the communication with parents helped, and I was thankful for every little bit of help they could offer.
The Practical Stuff
It can be tough to get through to students via videoconferencing. A supportive or disappointed look through the camera pales in comparison to a private in-person nod of encouragement or a stern warning. But the following practical guidelines really helped with my communication:
Light yourself well. Students should be able to see you clearly, and if you’re recording videos, they should also be well-lit. Simple lights that can be affixed to a laptop screen help, but opting for a room with strong overhead lights also does the trick.
Get eye level. Camera placement is important. Prop your laptop or phone up on something eye level. Don’t look down at your screen. The kids don’t want to look up your nose. Well, they might enjoy that—for a laugh. But they don’t want to regularly look up your nose.
Look into the camera on your laptop or phone. This will give your students the feeling that you are making eye contact with them.
Stand up! At least some of the time. Your energy will translate so much better than if you’re sitting. And if you’re energetic, your students are more likely to listen.
Avoid using digital backgrounds. Authenticity and vulnerability are much better than an unrealistic or falsified background. For the first time in human history, students have the opportunity to glimpse into the home of their teachers. We all remember thinking as kids that teachers had no life outside the classroom. Make the most of this. Allow your students into your life. When the physical distance between us makes it difficult to connect, these little windows into our home life can bridge a bit of that distance and allow us to forge connections in new and interesting ways.
YouTube is your friend. My students have always told me, “You can learn anything on YouTube.” They are right. As you record videos for your students, YouTube has a wealth of information for how to make them better. When I wanted to make a video of me positioned in the corner of a Word document so that I could explain and demonstrate simultaneously, YouTube taught me. When I needed to purchase an external microphone to improve my audio, YouTube told me what to buy and how to integrate it into each platform. When I needed to find a way to use a game-based learning program like Kahoot in conjunction with Google Meet, a YouTube video showed me everything I needed to know. Turn to it often, and share your findings with your colleagues.
How to Connect
The following larger guiding principles had an impact on my ability to connect with my students. As we head into a new school year, I know these guidelines will be even more imperative. Finishing off the last three months of the school year online was hard, but my students and I already had foundations for our relationships. If we begin our school year online, it’s critical for all of us to get to know one another well.
Move. Try to include some physical activity into your lessons. Once per week, my students and I would have a virtual scavenger hunt using a random object generator to determine what we would bring to the screen. Not only did this get my students moving, but they often brought objects back to the screen accompanied by stories that helped bridge the distance between us. Other movement activities we engaged in included yoga, calisthenics, plank competitions, and Simon Says. An increased level of physical activity can translate into increased engagement.
Vary where you teach every day. Give the kids a reason to join you by surprising them with new locations throughout your home and the outdoors. Throughout distance learning, I taught from seven different rooms in my home (eight if we include the staircase), as well as places outside like my deck, front stoop, and garage. One day I even took a bike ride to a park and taught from a bench using my phone. I parked myself outside our classroom, accessed the school’s Wi-Fi, and taught a lesson with our classroom as a backdrop. I also changed my position in each of these rooms, allowing my kids a new and potentially interesting peek into their teacher’s life. As we all know too well by now, quarantine days bleed into days, and any variety is appreciated. By turning each session into an almost “Where in the World Is Mr. Dicks?,” it helped make students excited to sign in, increased their interest, and made each session as memorable as possible.
Welcome guests. Acknowledge and even encourage the appearance of cats, kids, spouses, and any other living creature onto the screen. This type of variety can keep students curious about what might happen next. A curious student is an engaged student.
Be a role model. As teachers, we constantly set examples for our students. I took full advantage of this by strategically showing off aspects of my home that would serve me well in this regard. I showed my students the pile of books that I was reading, and the bookshelves of books that I’ve read in the past. When teaching from my bedroom, I made sure that they saw my bed was made, my room was clean, and there were books on my bedside table. One day I joined a session immediately after a bike ride and kept my helmet on to emphasize the importance of fresh air and exercise.
Have fun! Give students a reason to join you each day by creating opportunities to be creative, silly, or personal. I encouraged students to send me photos and videos throughout the day of anything they wanted, and what I received was extraordinary. Some students began seriously studying photography, taking photos of flowers and clouds. Others staged hilarious photos of pets and siblings. Some took embarrassing photos of their parents dancing or struggling with a lawn mower. We opened many sessions with these photos as a means of connecting and laughing together.
Other times I might ask kids to arrive to a lesson wearing their ugliest shirt, a homemade hat, or accompanied by their favorite stuffed animal. Show and tell became a part of our day, as did the sharing of poetry, stories, and angry screeds about the coronavirus.
Storytelling should play a crucial role in teachers’ “classrooms” this year. Telling stories is one of the best ways to foster connection between human beings, and thankfully, it can be done via Zoom. When we tell stories and allow ourselves to be vulnerable and authentic, people get to know us, trust us, believe in us, and feel connected to us. Students work hard for teachers who they understand, respect, and love. I know that opening my heart to my students and encouraging them to do the same will be the best way to forge a relationship that will allow learning to take place.
Get to know the parents. It’s going to be critical for teachers to make the same kinds of connections with parents. While the teacher-parent partnership has always been important, it’s more important than ever in distance learning. As a teacher, we can only see and do so much through a computer screen. We will need parents to assist as best they can in support, compliance, practice, reteaching, and so much more. They’ll also be key to letting us know how their kids are faring emotionally. In lieu of a summertime letter to my parents and students, I will be sending videos instead, hoping that a voice and a face will connect more than ink on a page. I’ll introduce myself, my wife, my kids, my cats. I’ll let them into my home and my life. I’ll also be sure to spend the first weeks of school speaking to parents as much as kids, in order to gain a better understanding of the specific needs of each child and the particulars of their home life, like schedules, siblings, technology needs, and more.
I recognize that some of this advice may seem unconventional. For many teachers, the blurring of professional and private life can be unsettling and seem unprofessional. As unsettling as these suggestions may seem to those teachers, these are radical times that demand radical teaching methods. Our students need us to do everything possible to bring stability, connection, and engagement to their academic days. “Unsettling” cannot be a barrier to teaching our students.
For those who find this advice unprofessional and worry that parents will not respect them, or that students may take advantage of them, or that they may be less effective teachers if they employ these methods, I can assure you that—pandemic or not—I have taught this way for 21 years, and I have only found the opposite to be true. While of course there are lines of professionalism teachers must always respect, the more I let students in, the more they let me in. The more they trust me, the more effective teacher I can be. The more I share with parents, the more they support and respect me. And when we have a screen between us, we need these connections more than ever.
Distance learning will never be an adequate substitute for the learning that students do alongside teachers and peers. But as educators, we must ensure that it is as effective as possible. Committing yourself to this remote learning craft will be an important part of every teacher’s development until this pandemic is in our rearview mirror. I hope that when you find yourself staring into a computer screen at a class of students—some enthusiastic, some disinterested, and some playing Fortnite but trying like hell to hide it—these tips will be of service to you.