When a Virus Forces Teachers to Go Online

I first learned to appreciate the options for online learning during my last two years teaching in Indiana. The 2014 and 2015 winters were brutal. The winter of 2014 I went the first six weeks of second semester without teaching for a full week. Even before my administrators and the state board of education said we could make up days of missed school by using online learning, I was using our school’s online platform to send assignments to my AP students. We were losing valuable time leading up to the exam and I needed them to keep working and learning.

I had no idea how valuable that crash course in online education would become six years later.

None of us were really prepared for all of this to happen, but here we are. I am fortunate enough to teach at a school that has students with the tools to continue online learning. On Monday we met as a faculty on what was supposed to be our day back from spring break. Instead, we were devising a plan for how we were going to potentially finish the school year online. We switched to the Google platform three years ago and I have been regularly using many of the tools in Classroom and the Google suite during that time.

While this is far from the perfect way to end the school year (and many of us are hoping that we will be allowed to return to our buildings by May so that we can finish it out), I have been working hard this week to get my students ready for full-time online learning. I’ve been doing this while helping my own children with the online work that their teachers have started assigning to them.

If you are one of the many teachers who have been instructed to finish out the school year online, we’re all in this together. I know that I will be making changes during the next two months, but here are some tips on how to get started:

1. Decide what your students really need to learn.

When I met with the rest of the English department, I told them to pick the most important things that they had left for the year. For two of our teachers that meant dropping Shakespeare so they could focus on research writing. For me that meant dropping some of my favorite enrichment activities from past years of teaching The Things They Carried. And that’s ok. It really is. If anything it is forcing me to look at what I teach and how I teach it and focus on the most important stuff which is good for both my students and me. It also means I have to be honest with myself about realistic expectations for my students during the best of time. That’s not a bad thing either. 

2. Plan for the rest of the year.

Our classes are “meeting” twice a week starting on Monday, so I scheduled out attendance for each of my six classes through the end of May. I also scheduled out my whole next unit. I would love to believe that this won’t last until the end of May, but I will plan as if that is the case so that my students can plan for what is coming from me. I’ve slowly worked on getting on top of my grading and will make that a top priority next week since the planning for at least four weeks is done. Veteran teachers know that classroom teaching means constant adjustments and I expect the same for my online classes, but having a plan for how to proceed will help with making those necessary changes.

3. Use this as an opportunity to try a couple new things.

During our Monday meeting, I learned how to use Flipgrid, which I’ve heard other teachers talk about for years. Now I’m wondering what took me so long. My own children have been using Google Hangouts to meet with their teachers and classmates during specified times this week, which has been fun to watch. I’m carefully picking two to three new things and working them into online tools that I already know work for my students and for me as a teacher. We shouldn’t go overboard trying all the things, but this is a chance for us to try some of the things and hopefully implement them once we are back in our physical classrooms. 

4. Share what you’re doing outside of school with your students.

The first day that I informed my students the plan for the following week, I also attached my Instagram post with pictures of my kids making sugar cookies. I have a pile of books to start working through and I will share those Goodreads posts on my Google Classroom. I want them to know that life keeps going and they can find other ways to interact and enrich themselves outside of the classroom. We are in unprecedented times and the emotions are running strong. Our students need to know that even as they are stuck at home, life goes on and they need to see us both taking this seriously and making the best of it.

5. I’m setting a schedule and sticking to it (I hope).

We were told to make our office hours 8 to 4 and then focus on our family. I’m learning what it really means to work from home, which does mean that while I’ve been planning and writing and grading this week, I’ve also been doing laundry, cleaning, exercising, and parenting. Like many teachers, I fault to work-a-holic mode during the school year. While I vowed this year to take more time for myself and my family, there are weeks that I fail in doing so. Maybe I will finally learn to keep a consistent work schedule now that we have to work at home. Hey, a teacher can dream, can’t she?

Schools all over the country are closed and teachers, students, and parents are scrambling to figure out what that means for the fourth quarter of the school year. For better or for worse, COVID-19 is shining a spotlight on a lot of aspects of American life. As an educator and a parent, I’m finally seeing non-educators recognizing the flaws in the system that we teachers have been proclaiming for years. I know that the above doesn’t apply to all of us, but for those of us who have been instructed to teach from home, we need to support each other. Thanks to social media, teacher collaboration is at an all-time high. If we work together, we can come out of this better and stronger than before.

And maybe we’ll all learn some new tricks along the way.

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Sarah is a high school English teacher and yearbook adviser in the Houston area. When she's not lesson planning, grading, or revising yearbook pages, she enjoys biking, running, reading, writing, and camping with her family. She spends her "free" time writing about camping, faith, family, and occasionally politics on her personal blog Accepting the Unexpected Journey.

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