After just over a month of online coaching and two weeks of monitoring my own sons’ remote learning, I feel like most parents and educators I know: utterly exhausted. Six months of isolation, worry, and fatigue are catching up to my optimism and counting blessings. Now I am just tired, irritable, and often just plain mad.
I know what it feels like to facilitate virtual learning: it is isolating, hard work. You get limited feedback from the participants and, if you’re like me, you sweat profusely and drink very little until the whole thing is over. It’s hard work for the teacher, but I did not fully grasp how much work it is for the students (and the grownups who facilitate their learning) until this week. It’s sweaty on this side of the screen too.
I have seen some truly amazing teachers do the best they can. I have seen kindergarten teachers laughing and building relationships at all costs. I’ve seen teachers of gifted students stop the flow of perfectionist tears. Teachers are finding ways to do what they do best despite what seem like insurmountable odds.
I have also heard from parents walking a tightrope between supporting and hovering. They are more present in their children’s education than they’ve ever been and they worry. They worry about screen time, they worry about their own work, they worry about sibling overlap, they worry about the state of public education, and they worry about well-being of their children’s teachers.
Remote learning is hard and different for the kids. It’s unfamiliar and unnatural and disruptive. They’re running out of enthusiasm for learning from home and they just want to be with kids, to meet their teachers, to talk more, and listen less. To move more and sit less. They want freedom but also structure and support. And many of them cannot express any of these feelings.
What can we learn from this experience?
This is the question I return to when I’m feeling stressed. There are lessons worth learning, on both sides of the screen. Here are some lessons we’ve learned on this side:
1. Words can hurt… and help.
I haven’t spent more time in a classroom since I was a teacher myself. Now, every day, I am in my sons’ teachers’ classrooms and they are in my living room. It’s weird, and easy to forget. We overhear every word, sound, and tone. Here are some words we’ve heard that help and hurt.
Words that Hurt
Words that Help
Asking kids for help from their “parents” or “mom and dad” – I’ve seen kids’ faces fall when the caregiver is none of these.
Calling kids by their name, frequently, and referring to the class as “friends” – small gestures that go a long way and light up my sons’ faces.
Scolding or redirecting without sensitivity - when it’s the only time a child hears their name, it feels like a dagger and makes them feel ashamed… but from what I’ve observed, not more likely to comply.
Responding with genuine empathy… and 1:1 if possible. Phrases like “I know it’s hard to sit still, but this matters because…” communicate understanding and respect.
Visible, naked frustration is a bit scary on the other side of the screen. It’s totally, understandably human, but when the only thing on the screen is the teacher, it’s amplified and intimidating for children and their caregivers.
Humility and flexibility are deeply appreciated. Kids and their caregivers are feeling frustrated too. To see a model of how to handle those feelings allows the entire class to mimic the behavior, creating a calm and productive learning environment.
Misunderstanding a situation - it is so, so difficult to know what is happening on the other side of the screen, especially when kids are muted or screens are blank, but incorrect assumptions can wound and inflame anger, making a bad situation worse.
Expressing curiosity- phrases like “It looks like ___ is difficult for you right now. I wonder if ___ could help” allow a child and their caregiver to respond with “No, that’s not it” if the situation was misunderstood by the teacher.
Phrases that are hard (for me) to hear specifically:
“I know this isn’t normal…” (this reminds us all that no, it is not normal, which we don’t really need to be reminded of).
“I need your patience…” (we know you do, but there is just so little to spare).
2. Live instruction is the least flexible part of the day. Use it wisely.
It seems like turning the screen on and leaving the child in the capable hands of their teacher is ideal, but it can be stressful for kids and their caregivers when it is not productive. What you can’t see during live instruction is caregivers attempting to balance the schedules of multiple children plus their own work needs, including live meetings and in-person errands that cannot be interrupted. Here are the most and least effective uses of live instruction from our family’s viewpoint these past two weeks:
Ineffective Live Instruction
Effective Live Instruction
Lecture - keeping the attention of 15 or more kids is difficult in person. It is nearly impossible online and caregivers have a hard time monitoring what is focused attention with a bit of wiggling and when a child needs to be directed to listen more/better.
Developing relationships - no video can replace the live interaction of a class meeting or small group meeting with a teacher. Spontaneous response is needed here and it has been a lifeline for our sons.
Showing videos whole group - especially ones that last longer than 1-2 minutes. Little kids get impatient during longer videos and breaks are sometimes needed, while others can power through.
1:1 assessment - I’ve not seen much of this yet, but although it can be time consuming, this is a worthy use of time to get targeted information about what individual children need.
Detailed directions - a video allows the child and caregiver to pause and rewind. Best paired with live option for specific questions.
Drop in meeting times - teachers can use the time for planning and wait for students who need help. They can respond quickly to short, trouble-shooting questions and schedule time or refer to other resources for more challenging ones.
“Follow along with me” activities that last longer than 5-10 minutes - teachers have to pause and catch students up, which means the majority of the class is off task and cannot always self-regulate and get back on track.
Small group instruction - literally the only kids’ names my sons know come from the other students in their small groups. This has been invaluable and is often their favorite part of the day.
Technology demonstrations - these can be painful live! A short video that can be reviewed in the moment it is needed goes a long, long way.
Deeper learning - challenging concepts, meaning-making and transfer type activities are best led by an expert teacher. I’ve seen some great examples of these kinds of lessons that leave me in awe of the instructor.
Things I am not sure about yet:
Read Alouds - sometimes these are really effective live because reading to a child creates a relationship, but with time strain, there is not much lost when the teacher records this or links to a celebrity or the author reading their own book.
Brain Breaks - they are SO important in real life and in remote learning, but not everyone needs them the same way at the same time. I’ve seen kids get very wild quickly and not able to settle down. Some of them make my own sons deeply uncomfortable. Maybe having some brain break options to choose from could make up for this. I’d hate to lose them entirely.
3. So many of our caregiver’s feelings, wants, and needs are contradictory.
We know this is true on both sides of the screen. We’re struggling, because every time we name a need, we follow it up with exactly why we know that need can not be met. Here are some of the most obvious examples for me personally:
I want my children to be independent and I know that the more they are, the prouder they will feel and the more things I can get to.
If I let too much time go by, I can’t catch behaviors that are likely to escalate and the teacher can’t see them.
I feel deeply (and hear plenty) about what teachers and schools are going through. I don’t want to make more trouble for them.
My own children have needs. I have thoughts and feelings about how things could be better from this side of the screen.
Public education is very important to me. I know there are many kids and families who simply need it to exist. I know decisions have to be made for the greatest good for the largest number of people.
Some decisions directly affect my own children and family. Speaking up about our needs is important, even when I know a decision has been made for the majority.
We are all craving a return to normal. I simply cannot work during the day while my kids are learning (not yet) and I’m getting further behind. The thought of putting my kids on a bus where they can see their teachers’ faces and be with other children fills me with hope.
I don’t want to rush back because this is difficult and inconvenient. I don’t want anyone to be sick because of a decision I made. I don’t want my kids to be traumatized and disappointed by the reality of in-person schooling. I don’t want live instruction to be even worse than what is happening at home.
In a follow-up post, I’d like to humbly suggest some thoughts and ideas I’ve had for how we can do long-term remote learning better. In the meantime, I’d like to end this post with a list of the things I’ve absolutely loved during remote learning.
Let me be clear: My children’s teachers are absolutely rocking it.
They are kind, caring, loving, respectful, and simply wonderful. I am in awe of them, proud of them, deeply concerned about them, and so, so grateful. I see the rest of you online and in the neighborhood and on the phone. You are doing everything you can with every ounce of your being. I see you, I hear you, I admire you, and I am sending you all my very best wishes.
Things I Love About Remote Learning
Pete, my five-year-old, literally thinks every person on the screen is directly speaking to him, even recordings. He answers every time and it is hilarious.
Jude, my-seven-year old, gets to see his teachers and specialists taking risks and explicitly modeling the dispositions they require every day. He knows he is not the only one doing things that are new. By talking about it and pointing it out, he is learning a life lesson I hope never leaves him.
Pete ends each day with the biggest smile after his closing meeting, which is full of laughter, games, and joy.
Jude blushes and grins every time he responds in class. He wears headphones most of the time, so I am not sure what is said, but it is obvious that he thrives on the feedback his teacher and classmates are giving him.
In just two weeks, both kids have an increasing a sense of routine and independence. They are asking for and needing less and less support. Their teachers are magicians.
Choice opportunities allow both of my kids to do what they love best: get their work done quickly so they can move on to other things. This flexibility is imperative for their motivation. After a break, they are often more curious about what they learned that day and ready for more because they are choosing it.
My sons’ teachers have both shared publicly how much they admire and respect the kids they are teaching. They genuinely mean it and as a parent, it is pure gold to read and hear.
Meghan Raftery is a freelance educator and founder of Edjacent, a design collaborative for educators. Find out more about her work at https://www.meghanraftery.com/ and follow her on Twitter @meg5han.