What I Learned Teaching in a Remote Classroom

It’s Wednesday morning, and I’m sitting at a desk shoved into the corner of my bedroom, piles of unfolded laundry scattered on the bed behind me, staring into a row of silent black boxes on my screen. “Anyone want to share what they wrote for that one?” I ask. I’m sure my students can hear the pleading tone in my voice. Please let someone have mercy on me and take themselves off of Mute, I think. I can’t talk to myself for the whole hour.

The silence of this Zoom room stands in stark contrast to my “real” classroom. Room 005 is colorful and loud. (A former student described it as looking “like a unicorn threw up in here.”) I miss the things that used to annoy me, like inappropriate jokes and random asides shouted out in the middle of lessons. I miss my students’ greetings in the morning and being able to see their “a-ha” moments, like light bulbs clicking on over their heads. I miss silly interruptions and flashes of brilliance. I miss being able to check in with a student by kneeling down beside their desk and asking if they’re okay. I miss seeing their faces.

I have been teaching high school humanities for almost 15 years. But this spring’s COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting school closures have left me feeling like a new teacher again. My students are out there, some out of contact, and I’m scrambling to figure out how best to do this work.

This abrupt shift to virtual teaching and learning has challenged many of my beliefs and practices as a teacher. So many of the tools I rely on in my physical classroom seem irrelevant or unhelpful when I’m teaching through a screen.

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At the same time, these last three months have forced me to get creative. So, even though I would much prefer to be inside Room 005 with my kids, there are some ways that remote learning has helped me become a better teacher. I’ve gotten better at giving clear, step-by-step directions that students can understand whether I’m standing in front of them or not—and using online tools to create audio and video versions of those directions to give more kids access.

I’ve learned how to embed videos and quizzes into streamlined online learning materials to reduce clutter and cognitive overload in kids’ mental and digital workspaces. And teaching during this moment in history has reminded me of the importance of connecting the curriculum to current events.

As I have worked to become more effective in a virtual environment, I have had to reckon with myself about the ways in which I have been overly reliant on teaching strategies that incentivize students’ compliance, rather than encourage true engagement. When the threat of failing grades no longer held sway over students, I had to ask myself what would keep them coming back to my classroom. I hoped that the relationships I had built with them during the first six months of school would get them to log on. But what then? Was the content of my class actually compelling enough to convince a fifteen-year-old to choose it over the warmth of their bed?

The first thing I did was scrap my carefully planned calendar for the rest of the year. I took a hard look at the standards and whittled them down to the ones that seemed most crucial to set kids up for success in the next grade. And then I thought about kids like J.

When we were in school, J. was a master at hiding his Chromebook on his lap so he could watch football videos on YouTube during class. He was sleepy-eyed, slyly funny, and almost totally disinterested in my class. He did enough to skate by with a passing grade and tried to fly under the radar after that. I didn’t exactly think J. would be clamoring for online assignments.

So I posted a short story. It’s one that I love—“A Sound of Thunder,” by Ray Bradbury. It’s got time travel, dinosaurs, and gore. I posted a video “trailer” of myself telling students why they should bother reading it, and then I waited.

A few days later, I got J.’s response to the story in my inbox. He wrote, “Usually I am not into reading but this story is probably one of the best stories I’ve read in school.” Reading that sentence made my entire day. After six months, it wasn’t cajoling or threatening that got J. to engage and reimagine himself as a reader. It was finding him the right story, one that I would not have considered if this spring had gone according to plan.

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Having my plans pulled out from under me helped me find my way forward in a more student-centered way. In the subsequent weeks after reading J.’s response, my co-teacher and I rethought our plans again and again. We gave students more choices about what to read and how to participate in class. We made space for small group discussions about racism and police brutality and asked students for their ideas about how our school should observe Juneteenth. For their final project, students wrote letters to next year’s class reflecting on their year and offering advice.

As this school year comes to an end, teachers face uncertainty about what the fall will look like. We don’t know if we will return to our classrooms or continue teaching online. We don’t know the impact of school closures on students’ mastery of standards or their mental health. We will launch a new school year during a global health crisis, a national reckoning with white supremacy, and the lead-up to a presidential election. The number of unknowns is unnerving.

But I’m approaching the coming school year with tentative optimism. Somewhere amid the anxiety and messiness of teaching through this pandemic is an opportunity for me to recommit to being the kind of teacher my students deserve: one who is creative, flexible, and student-centered. Whether I’m teaching from my bedroom or my classroom, I won’t be the same teacher I was last September.

Sydney Chaffee is a National Board Certified Teacher who teaches ninth grade humanities at Codman Academy Charter Public School in Massachusetts. She was the 2017 National Teacher of the Year.