How to Succeed in Distance Education

Tom Beeman offers expert advice on teaching from afar

With the recent outbreak of the COVID-19 virus, many schools are closing their doors and shifting students and faculty to on-line study with little-to-no advanced notice nor training. I know one’s first reaction might be to panic or to get upset with administrators for doing this. But remember, they are following guidelines from the Department of Education as well as state and federal officials. You chose this profession because of your passion for imparting knowledge on students, so take that passion and turn it in to an opportunity to learn a new skill that will not only benefit students, but you as a well.

The first tip is to maintain the relationships you’ve already built with your students. Your students are going to need that familiarity when it comes to their education even more than ever. You know your students, their likes and dislikes, how they learn, etc. How many times have K-12 educators wished they had office hours to provide small group or individual support to students? Well now you can because you won’t be teaching six hours a day non-stop.

There are various websites such ss SignUpGenius that allow you to create slots for students to sign up for a specific time to meet with you. This is also a great time for you to get to know parents better. With many of them at home as well you can make some great connections with them as well. I have the chance to speak to many parents on a weekly basis and they provide me with valuable information.

I can’t tell you the number of times I have come across parents who are so appreciative of these opportunities. You may be thinking yourself, “Yes, I have great relationships with my students, but how do I maintain them now that I won’t see them every day?” Fear not! Technology to the rescue!

Just because you’re not in the same building with them, doesn’t mean you can’t see those darling faces that light up your day and remind you why you teach. Zoom is a great tool; especially because it’s free and the 40-minute time limit on the basic free account has been removed for K-12 schools affected by the COVID-19. It can be downloaded for free and then you can use your computer audio and webcam to have a “face-to-face” meeting with your students. The basic package allows up to 100 participants so you can meeting with your entire class at once. This is also a great way to “meet” mom and dad who aren’t able to make it to Back-To-School Night or Open House.

What about parents who don’t want students to use their web cam or maybe you’re having an off day, not looking your best, then Skype is your best friend. You can set up Skype and your students can add you to their contact list. They can chat with you while they are doing their work or just to say hello. In fact, many distance education schools require teachers and students to check-in with each other at least once a month. This is also a great way to stay in touch with your colleagues and/or ask a quick question so both of you can keep working without having to stop what you’re doing to talk on the phone. And of course, you can’t forget about texting either.

The current generation of students would much rather communicate via text than talk on the phone and many parents are often so busy that it’s easier to send them a quick text as opposed to finding a time when they can talk. There are even websites where students can enter their cell phone numbers and you can enter short messages on the website such as “Remember there’s a test tomorrow” and it will send a mass text to everyone in that class. Now that you have the tools, let’s talk curriculum.

With many publishers making their content digital, it’s still easy for students to access their textbooks remotely should they not have access to physical copies. If digital access isn’t available, you can always scan key pages and use them in your live sessions just so long as you don’t allow them to download copies and keep them for classroom use only, similar to what College Board permits for Advanced Placement practice material. And if none of those are viable options, use the web for free resources or create your own material. Relationships? Check. Communication? Check. Curriculum? Check. You are now ready for delivery.

I mentioned Zoom earlier. You can use Zoom to share with students what is open on your desktop. They can see files, websites, and you can even create PowerPoints to share, so students have a visual of the material you are presenting. As an added benefit, you can record the session and send the link out to students so those who are too sick to even attend online schooling won’t miss out on any instruction and the rest of the class can use the recording to help them review/study.

There are also other platforms such as Moodle and Canvas that can house curriculum so that your session recordings, supplemental material, and weblinks can be housed for students to see, Plus, many of these also have dropboxes and gradebooks so students can upload their assignments, receive feedback, and see their grades in real time.

There is one last tip which is very important, and that is balance. Having taught online working from home, I can tell you how easy it is late at night or on weekends to fire up my computer and start working or sending off e-mails. Make sure you take time for friends and family, even if it’s at a distance, or even just time for yourself. Your students need you now more than ever, so make sure that all aspects of your being are in balance.

Remember, your relationships, your ability to communicate, and the curriculum haven’t changed, only the platform by which they are delivered. Let’s end the year strong. To quote Lorelai Gilmore, “Copper boom!”

Tom Beeman is a High School Spanish teacher at the California Virtual Academies as well as a member of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages Distance Learning Special Interest Group who has been teaching all levels of Spanish online for the past 10 years.

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