Work / Life

Adapting to a Virtual High School Classroom

Remote worker doing telecommuting at home office environment. Work from home. Colorful conceptual illustration.

As a high school teacher, I knew I was lucky in that I could keep my job and work from home during the coronavirus pandemic. At the same time, trying to manage my newly virtual classroom and figure out what my new work day should look like has not been easy.

In addition to my job as a teacher, I’m also a mom with an active preschooler at home. I’ve found that it’s almost impossible to balance my work and his needs (physical, emotional and educational). This is likely a difficulty faced by many working parents, and furthermore, one that existed before the coronavirus wreaked havoc on our communities.

But in my case, there was no time to plan or prepare, or to figure out how this new normal should look.

The difference between online courses and suddenly virtual classrooms

Adapting to this virtual classroom is not the same as designing an online course. The latter requires a full curriculum intended for an online audience. That includes planning for and incorporating multimedia lessons and assignments.

The challenge that we educators faced now was different. We were asked to deliver meaningful, rigorous instruction–with little to no planning time–during a pandemic. Face to face instruction in a traditional classroom does not just transfer to a virtual space–even under the best conditions. It’s not seamless. It takes planning and planning takes time. Time is what we did not have as we prepared to provide educational continuity.

I was lucky enough to work for a school district that had already embraced technology in and out of the classroom and had had a plan in place before schools closed in March, working to distribute tablets and electronic devices to students and teachers.

But even with the push to get all that equipment into students’ hands, it was and remains difficult.

In many ways, I see teaching as a sort of performance art. Yes, there are exams and data, facts and figures, but teaching involves a human element: reading a room, gauging body language and making eye contact. Teachers manipulate the classroom, often subconsciously, using facial expressions, gestures and their proximity to students. How could I do this virtually?

The blurred boundaries between work and home

In addition, the physical act of going to a separate place to work is no less important than the psychological compartmentalizing that we do when we leave our homes and enter our workspace. When work and home were in the same location, it was difficult to transition between roles, to resist the urge to work at all times and to eliminate distractions.

During what was supposed to be spring break, I pored over educational sites and learned about learning management tools, in an attempt to prepare as best as I could I searched for online copies of the texts I would teach and created new assignments. In short, I overdid it.

Lessons learned

I did learn a lot in the process. I learned that creating a schedule is vital, and that emails, texts and phone calls will come in at all times. I turned off email notifications and set aside specific times for sending and answering emails. I also set aside a special time for grading–during my son’s nap time and after dinner, when I could focus.

I learned to create a “clocking-out” time. Teachers are not good at maintaining work/life balance as it is, and for me working from home blurred those lines even further. 

I had to avoid opportunity overload and tell myself to tackle one thing at a time. Every textbook and educational software company was suddenly interested in communicating with teachers. Everyone suddenly had some level of insight and expertise on how teachers should approach this latest challenge. And although it was great to have options and to learn about new programs, the sudden onslaught of emails and information I received was just too much. There just wasn’t time to vet all these programs and then redesign a curriculum to fit them.

What I quickly realized was that these tools were meant to facilitate lessons and enhance learning. Overdoing it is gimmicky, leads to superficial results or wasted time trying to learn platforms that may not work well.

I also learned to let go of perfectionism, perhaps one of the biggest obstacles facing teachers as we continue to transition to the virtual classroom.

I was working non-stop. From the moment that I woke up to the moment I went to sleep, I was working: preparing assignments, answering emails, grading and hosting Zoom class meetings. At the same time, I was also teaching, caring for and entertaining my preschooler who was now also home, away from his friends and nursery school lessons. It was not possible to keep this up, and so I forced myself a step back and reevaluate what I was doing and how I was doing it.

In addition to these challenges, teaching can be, paradoxically, lonely. We are surrounded by students and totally alone. From bell to bell, our classroom doors are closed and it can be difficult to find time and energy to interact with our colleagues. But now, when everyone was trying to figure out how to make their virtual classroom work, I realized how important it was to connect with other teachers and to pool our resources.

I also experimented with how I was going to use my resources. I was careful not to drone on, especially on video calls. Could some information be emailed or posted online? Could lectures be recorded? I tried both.

Everyone remembers that one professor that talked and talked and talked. That was certainly not an effective method. Imagine listening to that on a web call. Studies indicate that video conferences are draining and people have a more difficult time retaining information disseminated in them. Effective communication is also important in face-to-face teaching, but in a virtual space, it was especially important to make that communication meaningful and succinct.

We’re human, and so are our students

I also reminded myself to consider the human component. These were not normal times. I knew my students were missing their school routines, their friends and their lives before quarantine. 

High school students are teenagers, just learning to understand their own tumultuous emotions. They’re already at a higher risk of experiencing and developing anxiety, depression and mental health issues

Just as I struggled to juggle my home life and work life, while also dealing with the anxiety of the current moment–so too were my students. Their lives were out of whack. They would miss out on milestones like prom and graduation, and they, too, had to figure out how to balance their home lives and school work. And they were just kids.

I practiced flexibility and empathy. One student might not have reliable internet service or may need to share their devices with their family. Another might not have a quiet space to work and study. Yet another might also have to juggle responsibilities at home–caring for family members or helping younger siblings with their school work.

This didn’t mean I did not hold my students accountable. I graded their work and provided feedback on their progress. But I found that providing extensions or flexible deadlines not only helped students that were facing personal and technical hardships, it also encouraged them to complete the assignments.

I also had to accept the fact that I couldn’t totally separate my home life from my teacher persona in class, either. My toddler might crash a Zoom lecture to show my students his action figure. My faculty meeting might be scheduled during my son’s lunch time.

Teachers aren’t just teachers. We’re also part-time parents, financial advisors, friends, disciplinarians and life coaches. Given all of these responsibilities, it wasn’t easy to adapt to a virtual classroom environment. But by acknowledging my own human limitations, while remaining flexible and empathetic to the needs of my students, I am learning to face these challenges as an opportunity. 

August 26, 2020