For Teachers

Closing the Gaps in Distance Learning: Strategies to Meet Educators’ Toughest Challenges

Educators, let go of your preconceived notions and expectations. Classroom learning does not resemble distance learning during a pandemic. And we cannot let perfectionism or stubbornness keep us from taking small steps that make a difference for our students. The most critical thing we can do right now? Connect and support.

Teacher conducting an online remote learning class through video
Teacher conducting an online remote learning class through video

Remote learning during a global pandemic is challenging for everyone, but especially for children with special needs, multi-lingual learners, and other school-dependent students who rely on supports and structures to learn. As an assistant principal and history teacher at a New York City high school, I am asked often about the challenges that this unique learning situation presents for educators. I am not an expert in remote learning, but the conversations and struggles at my school may shed some light and offer solutions to educators during this extraordinary time.

We are teaching during a crisis, and the physical and mental health of our students is far more important than the assessment measures on which we relied during normal times. The first step is to remember that our school’s goal is to be there for students and stay connected. We know that we will not always be able to provide what our students deserve. So we need to let go of our usual expectation of what learning looks like. We cannot let the desire for perfection keep us from taking small steps that make a difference for our students and, perhaps, ease their transition back to school.

ADDitude asked educators to share their toughest challenges related to teaching remotely and distance learning. Here are some answers to help educators establish new learning goals and navigate this new landscape with a fresh perspective:

CHALLENGE #1: How do we help students deal with the lack of structure at home?

Students with diverse learning needs, especially those with ADHD, struggle with the lack of structure inherent in remote learning. Even adults struggle to stick to schedules while working from home.

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Consistency is key. Teachers scheduling “live” video sessions at the same time everyday help students structure their time — and set the whole day’s schedule. Moreover, teachers can use texts and phone calls to provide the type of in-the-moment prompts that we might otherwise do in person in the classroom. Group text apps like Remind are helpful, but personal phone calls are most effective in getting a student’s attention.

CHALLENGE #2: How can we manage to communicate with so many parents everyday?

It is especially hard to know what is happening at home for our students at this time. Streamlining communication with parents is important. Our school splits up students evenly among teachers so that everyone has a group to focus on during outreach. Schools without this system in place can still use existing teacher teams to divide and conquer. Mass emails and texts can also help cut through wasted time.

Whatever structures exist in your school, try to avoid redundancy and let go of typical expectations for a student connecting with you each day. If the family spoke to the social worker or a member of the IEP team, that is a valuable connection and may mean that, for today, you use your time to reach out to someone else.

CHALLENGE #3: How do I help students who are falling behind or not “attending?”

We have encouraged our teachers to redefine “falling behind.” Students will likely not achieve the same standards each day that they would in school. In the remote learning context, the key is to think about defining your learning goal for the student each day. If an in-person history lesson might involve vocabulary terms, a timeline, and a question about the motivations of a specific leader, a remote lesson might focus just on that high-level question at the end. Ask yourself: Can a student answer it in a text message or email?

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Remember that keeping students thinking is the core of good teaching. This goal can help us let go of some of the extra weight of worrying that they are “keeping up” and instead push us to ensure that they are cognitively active while at home.

CHALLENGE #4: What is a realistic expectation for my students right now? How do I—and should I—hold them to a high standard?

We have no idea what students are experiencing. They are likely bored, afraid, confused, and stressed. It is easy to worry that they are not learning enough or that they are losing motivation because remote learning is challenging.

Students are more resilient than we think, and we have to be realistic with ourselves as educators. It is not “dumbing things down” to have students do as much as they can under the circumstances. I would also encourage teachers to have honest conversations with students about fair and reasonable expectations. Our school has engaged students in conversations about scheduling, workload, and grading, and it has helped us be more responsive and fair.

CHALLENGE #5: How do we support students with special needs and what is a reasonable expectation?

This challenge is particularly acute and comes with higher stakes than the challenges for other populations of students. However, even with special-needs students, our toolbox is limited.

For one student who struggles with organization and has limited technology, our teachers have begun texting a one-pager of weekly assignments to a the parent’s phone so that her student has a fair shot of engaging with remote learning in a setup that is already organized for her. Our school has tried to bring together some social events like “Spirit Week,” including Pajama Day and Twin Day (all done on video) to engage a special needs student who was looking forward to it. But, ultimately, we want to remind these students, who are likely struggling, stressed out, and more anxious than neurotypical students, that we are here for them, they will get through this, and we will help them when they return. Relieving special needs students from the burden of feeling lost is important. Beyond that, using technology to simulate support for students as much as possible is our best bet.

Educators, parents, and students need to remember that this is not a normal time, that this is nobody’s “Plan A.” Achieving more modest goals — some learning, some connection, some support — is always a positive. If we keep our eye on making things a little better than they are and being present for our students and each other, we will get through this as well as possible.

The viewpoints expressed in this piece are those of the author, Matthew Yellin, Ed.M. not those of the New York City Department of Education.

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