After a two month hiatus, I'm so glad to get back to blogging each week with the goal of providing a place of encouragement, and maybe a few tips, for teachers. My hope is that this tiny spot on the internet can be one that you routinely, albeit quickly, visit to fill up your cup as you take on each week as a virtual teacher. But, you know what I blame for a two month interlude from consistently blogging each week???? Three words...
Back to school.
The months of August and September this year were incredibly unique and I think it took most of us, or at least it did me, by surprise. As a child, I was one of those kids who secretly geeked out about the back to school season. School shopping, picking out my own supplies that were color coordinated for my classes (#extra), setting out my outfit for the first days of school, and getting back into the fresh start that is the beginning of the school year, year after year, was something I always looked forward to.
The same was so when I eventually became a teacher. The summer was a much needed chance to recharge and rejuvenate, and then August came and I was ready to hit the ground running. Ready to explore how my classroom could become a more efficient and welcoming environment for my students. Ready to fine tune my practice as the educator of my students. To be honest, for me, it really was nothing short of exhilarating. Maybe that makes me a total teacher nerd, but I’m good with it and I’m here for it.
This year, though, was very different. And I'm betting most teachers feel in their core how different this back to school season has been. It's been nothing short of incredibly stressful.
Whether your school is back face-to-face full time, in a blended setting, completely remote, or somewhere in between, it's been like starting back at square one. I can’t tell you how many teachers have said to me, “It’s like I’m a first year teacher.” And for many it hasn't necessarily been a season of rejuvenation or exploration of ways to become a better educator. Instead it's been steeped in more basic (although complex) necessities that take precedence and priority even over our students' education... their safety has been our focus.
As it should be.
The collective amount of work that teachers have done to prepare their classrooms (both physically and virtually) is nothing short of monumental.
And so as we get back into our routine of bringing encouragement and sustainability to teachers through our weekly blog posts, we're starting a series that will not only focus on providing both encouragement and sustainability for virtual teachers, but will highlight the monumental work being done by actual virtual teachers. Let’s not just talk about how to do it well, let’s showcase folks who are in the thick of it.
Our hope through this series and in our little corner of the world wide web is to showcase the work of teachers during this time and spread positivity around teachers and their classrooms in the virtual setting (or some variation thereof). And before we’re finished, we’ll provide a way for you to participate.
Welcome to part one of the Virtual Teacher Series. In week one we'll focus on YOUR influence. Meaning that of a teacher, especially when it seems our influence is waning.
We've already gone over how stressful this back to school season has been. We know this. We also know that the stress isn't necessarily letting up as the wheel of virtual teaching keeps turning faster and faster - the hamster wheel, that is. Not to mention, there may be a few other transitions thrown in the mix as some schools plan to go back to full time face to face classes, while others plan to retract and go virtual. This year will be like no other.
And especially for teachers who don't see their students face to face every day, we are questioning our influence... our impact with our students. The very thing that brought us into this field, the ability to have impact with our kids, or at least so we feel, is lacking.
We feel that we aren't as connected with our students as we have been in years past. We feel as though many of our students are unreachable through the computer screen or through the inconsistency of being with them in our classroom.
We are practitioners, but those who our practice is for are just short of absent or seemingly unreachable. Many of us lose sleep over our inability to reach certain students, or at the very least wondering if any of this work we’re doing is sticking for the kids who show up, let alone for those we haven’t heard from in days or even weeks.
Take heart, my teacher friend. As is true in the in-person classroom setting, you have more influence in the virtual classroom than you know.
I was chatting with a friend last week about how his kids are doing now that everyone is back to school, his kids being all virtual. In spite of the stressors of having both working parents and learning kids, as he called them, all at home at once, everyone was doing well. He shared that it’s interesting to see how some teachers just really “get it” and are thriving in the virtual set-up. I asked him what he meant by this, and he shared that it seemed that some of the teachers, more than others, grasped how to capitalize on this situation and make the best of it using the tools at their disposal while remaining enthusiastic for their students.
As he shared this I couldn’t help but think of how incredible it is that this parent (and his children) could have this awesome experience even though I knew without a doubt that the very teacher he spoke of was probably either up to her ears in stress, or working close to every waking minute of her day to make sure she remained effective for her students.
Don’t get me wrong; I was happy for him and his kids. And, as a parent myself with kids in school during this pandemic, I’ve seen the hard work of teachers from the lens of a parent and it’s brought me to tears on more than one occasion to witness the amount dedication and thought put into making sure my babies have a solid education during this craziness.
I can’t help but wonder, though, if that’s the experience for all parents and their kids. I can’t help but wonder, too, how much longer teachers can keep up this pace and amount of work. I can’t help but wonder how many teachers won’t be returning after this school year and how in the world we’ll handle an already dismal turn over rate getting any worse.
I am not here to give you the tips and tricks on how to be the best virtual (or blended or just a plain ol’) teacher out there. You’ve seen plenty of those tips already. But I do hope that in this post, and perhaps throughout this 5-week Virtual Teacher series, that I can offer encouragement to you so that you may see your impact, and how you can preserve your… well, how you can preserve YOU in practical ways so that you will return to this career field next year. That is our most important endeavor here at Teach On A Mission.
You are out there doing immensely significant work with our kiddos. I hope to do the next most important thing and that is preserving your ability to do that work.
The first way I know how to do this is for you to see this one main point…
No one tool or strategy’s impact will ever match the sum of your influence with students.
What I mean by this is that the tools and strategies, especially now, are simply ways to get you in front of your students so that you can do your immensely significant work. Put another way, all of these tools that you’re probably getting overwhelmed with and losing track of which tool to use for what strategy, have one main purpose, and that is to help you do your work with students.
Look here’s the truth… and it’s no secret, especially to teachers… online teaching and learning is not as effective as in-class teaching and learning. Various research supports this claim, including a study written about in this article in Education Week.
But, as this article states and is very correct in doing so, your presence online is better than no presence at all. You are having impact. And if you compare your impact of this year to that of your impact in the classroom previously, you’re NOT doing anyone a favor.
Let’s just say that you’re here reading this article and you get it - you in fact believe that you can still have impact with your students in this virtual setting. Well then, what does it look like to hone that impact and optimize it, much like what my friend’s experience has been with his children's’ teachers. I’d like to offer some manageable advice in this regard.
Step one is truly believing that it’s there; truly believing that when you show up on Zoom or in person for your blended classes, that everything about you exudes the fact that although the situation is not ideal, you are there for it and you will reach your students simply by being there.
Step two is knowing when you have impact, and to keep as much consistency as possible in those areas; namely online (including your website, virtual meetings, video recordings, etc.) and in-person. Think of your demeanor and presence in the classroom. Is it the same when you are present online? Is your website or learning management system (i.e. Google Classroom, Canvas, etc.) helping you reach the goals of your in-person classroom? Is your presence on your recorded videos consistent with your presence in your classroom?
This seems like such an easy YES answer. Of course they are - it’s you, right?!? But if you really look, are you as encouraging and positive or upbeat (or humorous and witty) on your videos as you are in person? Is your website organized and easy to navigate much like your classroom?
Maybe it is an easy yes, but that doesn’t make the impact any less significant. And that’s just the point. As complicated and overwhelming as our daily tasks may be, our impact with students really comes down to one simple, easy yes to the question, do you believe you can have impact with your students even in the midst of a pandemic.
Your answer to that question will have more impact on your abilities than most will recognize.
Step three in recognizing and optimizing your impact with students is this.... Comparing your current students to that of students you’ve taught in the past is not comparing apples to apples. It’s not even apples to oranges. Rather it’s more like comparing apples to asparagus.
One of a few undercurrent trends in education has been the desire (and necessity) to focus on student growth rather than achievement. Personally, I feel like we’ve done a good job of talking a big game making it seem like we care more about growth than achievement, but it’s all been a facade. That’s another topic for another day.
This year though, there’s never been a better time to focus solely on growth! Here’s how you do that - pre-assess your students ever chance you get. Show them where they are when they start, and then where they are when the finish. And both of you should live happily in that space of growth, no matter how the achievement scores compare. Take your wins where you can get them. See where you are having impact, no matter how small, and keep those in the front of your brain.
To help you believe in your influence with your students I want to give you a reminder of it, as well as a tangible takeaway from this 5 part Virtual Teacher Series. In our hustle to understand the best practices in reaching and remaining effective with our teachers, we may be getting bogged down by the tools. We also may feel like our virtual classrooms are all over the place, having twenty locations for any one aspect of our curriculum and that’s not manageable either. To help you with your organization of tools, as well as to satisfy your teacher-creative sweet tooth, I’ve created the Virtual Teacher Tool Kit.
In the kit you’ll find three resources. First, a table that we want you to make your own. The toolkit table can serve as a way for you to link the tools you need quickly accessible but can also help you see what tools you use for what purpose(s) (I provide instructions on the resource as well).
Second, a simple and editable Digital Interactive Notebook. I’ve found many teachers who are interested in the digital INB but then give up on the notion realizing the work that’s necessary to even make one accessible to students. I totally get it. But I also don’t want you to miss out. So I’ve provided a template along with instructions on how to make it your own and make it work for your course.
Third, and what I see as most important, are some quotes, both printable and screensavers. I find these quotes to be most important in the kit because they speak not to your tasks but to your influence. If you can maintain your belief, to your core, that you’ll impact the children you call your students this year, then it will happen. And I hope these printable statements (maybe hung on your mirror or sitting on your desk) will help with that.
To get your toolkit, complete the quick form below and I'll send it straight away. You'll also be subscribed so you won't miss any of the next 5 weeks in our Virtual Teacher series :)
Each week as part of the blog series, The Virtual Teacher, we will be showcasing a virtual (or some variation thereof) teacher who is making an impact in his or her classroom everyday. Our goal, as stated previously is to shine positive light on this monumental work and maybe offer a few tidbits of advice along the way.
This week I am so happy to introduce you to Brenda Thompson, a 4th grade teacher at Boze Elementary School of Tacoma Public Schools in Washington State. Brenda has been working in education for 15 years, and has been a 4th grade teacher for six years.
This year Brenda is teaching her 4th grade students remotely where she meets with students during scheduled subject-specific small group instruction time and during whole class meetings or instruction. Students begin and end their school day with independent practice, and also have scheduled brain breaks throughout the day.
Brenda and her colleagues currently use Office 365, including Microsoft Teams (which you’ll find included in the Virtual Teacher Toolkit table if you are a Microsoft school as well), but are also being trained to use Schoology as their primary learning management system before giving access to students soon.
Although Brenda’s biggest struggle in her current teaching situation is some of her students’ lack of consistent access to a device and a very small amount of live instruction time, she shares with us that being able to differentiate between home and work, unlike in the spring when she was unable to escape her in-home classroom/office, has been refreshing in her attempt to find the work-life balance we’re all desperately needing right now.
When asked what she can’t do her current teaching job without, I was so inspired by her answer that her teammates and colleagues have been most supportive.
Brenda says, “I have such amazing team mates, I couldn't do my job without them. I went through the Flipped Classroom Formula program, and they have jumped on board, so we can video record all of our curriculum for the whole 4th grade team. I also have two great administrators who support all of what I do.”
I can’t echo Brenda’s sentiments here more that now more than ever teachers need each other. Not just as an open door or listening ear to vent to during this time, but as someone who is willing to stand beside you as a teammate and take on the task of educating the kids in front of you together.
In our Flipped Classroom Formula program that Brenda was such a rockstar student of, I encourage teachers taking the course to reach out to their colleagues (and administrators) to ask them to jump on board. It’s a much easier task to make your classroom accessible when you do it as a team. Instead of making your 4th grade classroom accessible to your students, as in Brenda’s case, work as a team to make all of 4th grade accessible to them.
Lastly, I ask each of our Virtual Teachers to give a piece of advice or word of encouragement to all teachers who may read these posts, and this is Brenda’s…
“Take each day with flexibility and grace for yourself and others. When preparing plans be specific and detailed,” so your students aren’t questioning what is expected of them.
I’m so thankful to Brenda for taking the time to be featured in our Virtual Teacher Series. She deserves a shout out as do all teachers working their tail-ends off to reach their students and remain effective in these ever changing classrooms we find ourselves in. And that’s exactly why we’re doing this series… to shine positive light and energy on the hard work of teachers, and we sure would love your help in doing so.
If you are or know of a virtual teacher who deserves to be applauded, please get on social telling the world about their commendable work using the hashtag #virtualteacherfeature, and be sure to tag me so I can share it as well - @Teachonamission (@Teachonam1ssion on Twitter).
Don’t forget to grab the Virtual Teacher Toolkit, and stay tuned for part two of the Virtual Teacher Series next week.
Until next time,