What teachers need to make remote learning work


By Tara Laskowski

By now we know that the ways schools look and operate this fall will be far from “normal.” But what are teachers’ major concerns about potentially going back to distance learning, and what do schools need to focus on to prepare for learning during the pandemic?

A new report, “What’s Lost, What’s Left, What’s Next: Lessons Learned from the Lived Experiences of Teachers during the 2020 Novel Coronavirus Pandemic,” reflects back on the experiences of teachers in Spring 2020 in order to project forward with recommendations for the future. The research team, from MIT’s Teaching Systems Lab, interviewed 40 teachers about their experiences teaching remotely during the Covid-19 pandemic.

In a recent webinar on the paper, lead author Justin Reich and co-authors Dan Coleman, Farah Faruqi, and Lauren Lark discussed what they heard from teachers and what they think is going to be on the minds of educators this fall.

The interviews, they said, highlighted teachers’ concerns about being able to do their jobs effectively and reach students in the ways they are used to after the switch to remote learning last spring. The researchers continuously noted an acute sense of loss and even grieving experienced by the teachers they spoke with, who suddenly found that the job they’d been doing all these years had changed. “It’s kind of like they had spent a great while getting really good at being a giraffe, and all of a sudden they were supposed to be a fish,” said Coleman.

With day-to-day responsibilities moving largely to computer screens and video technology, one teacher noted, “One of the saddest things in my teaching virtually is I don’t have those same ways to show my students that I care.” Another teacher discovered how much her students were missing the structure and predictability of school itself—of seeing teachers and being with their classmates physically.

Along with those personal losses came the frustration of learning new technology and losing the pedagogical benefits of an in-person classroom. Teachers often felt they were lacking on knowledge of best practices in virtual education.

“They were trying to translate an in-person experience into an online place, and without support, it was really difficult for them,” said Faruqi. “I think teachers were trying to do everything in their power to facilitate some group discussions and collaboration. Sometimes it was working, but most of the time it didn’t work.”

The report highlights several important areas for educators to focus on in the fall, whether schools are opening virtually, in-person, or through a hybrid model:

  1. Building relationships and student motivation

When teaching remotely, it is much more difficult to create a sense of community—and different grade-levels need different types of supports to create those relationships.

 “Moving forward,” Faruqi said, “I think we need to be very mindful about how to build relationships in the virtual space because teachers are going to get a new set of students and they’re not going to have had any in-person interactions before the school shut down.”

Teachers’ first tendencies might be to quickly try to catch up on what students may have missed, but Reich and colleagues recommend slowing down and really focusing on community-building. While traditional relationship-building techniques may not translate well to screen, the study suggests “looking at communities built through social media and gaming platforms for inspiration” and using asynchronous video sharing platforms such as FlipGrid to allow students to share something from home or talk about a subject they are passionate about.

In addition, many teachers found it difficult to motivate students through a computer screen. Reich and colleagues suggest that intrinsic motivation might be the key to effective remote learning, and empowering students to follow their interests could help.

“The best way to avoid punishing students for struggling to participate in schooling is to make schooling so compelling that they choose of their own volition to overcome those struggles,” the report says.

2. Boosting Teacher morale and well-being

In addition to feelings of grief, sadness, and uncertainty, many teachers right now are experiencing burnout. Teacher mental health and well-being should be a focus for schools this fall, and administrators should work to help teachers manage their workload, time, and stress levels.

In addition, schools should provide ample opportunities for collaborative planning, so that teachers do not feel “at-sea” about how to plan lessons and teach effectively online.

Ongoing, authentic communication between administrators and teachers is key. “I think our report shows that if you go and talk to your teachers, you will find out more about what their needs are and how they’re feeling about their challenges,” said Reich. “Do teachers in your school feel like they have enough support and time amongst themselves to identify and solve challenges? Or are they feeling completely overwhelmed and lost and really want something much more comprehensive to help support their work?”

3. Addressing Inequities

The pandemic has highlighted and deepened issues of inequity in school systems. Some older students are having to work outside of the home to support their families, and some lower-income students do not have access to wi-fi or computers. Schools have had trouble reaching many students who are undocumented, homeless, English language learners, or disabled.

In addition, certain home situations may make remote learning extremely difficult or even impossible. One teacher interviewed for the report relayed, “My students are living in situations where it’s four or five to a one-bedroom, with kids sleeping on the couch in the living room or on the floor. I have kids who call or Zoom in from their closet because it’s the only space they have that’s somewhat private.”

The MIT report points to the the need for better school and community infrastructures to support students and families. Nutrition, health, housing, and mental wellbeing—what the researchers call “the bones” —need to be in place before effective learning can happen. It is up to policymakers and school leaders to fight for dramatic increases in funding and resources for these infrastructures to not “break” again.

“There are no easy ways to make right the inequitable systems that surround the most disenfranchised of our students,” the researchers said. “Nonetheless, as educators, we must do our part by building into our reopening plans a fundamental commitment to our least well-served students.”

The 2020-21 school year will be fraught with many challenges and changes. However, if administrators can remember that “school systems are not merely technical assemblages, and human emotions and relationships are at the heart of the learning enterprise,” then they can get through not only the short-term pandemic, but build “more robust, resilient systems in the long-term.”

About the author

Tara Laskowski is a senior editor for Educational Leadership magazine.