Lessons Learned from Remote Teaching Amidst Chaos

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Last week, I sat in on a second grade Zoom class and observed students deftly muting, unmuting, and working independently while the teacher coached several on their writing after the class lesson. While so much of the setting looked vastly different than brick-and-mortar teaching (the teacher gently reminded one student that toys weren’t allowed on screen with them, for example), many practices remained the same. The relationships between teacher and student were mediated across a screen, but were present nonetheless.

I was reminded of this again as I watched third grade students use electronic forms to collect data, and quickly built their own “quizzes” to share in the chat feature as the teacher applauded their creativity. All they needed was an example, an invitation, and agency.

Across many classrooms, students and teachers have learned to take care of one another in clever, compassionate, and often unexpected ways. As always, children have been our best teachers.

As a district-level educational technology specialist, my days are filled with visiting remote classrooms, working to support teachers, and figuring out how to use technology platforms to teach effectively and equitably. While certainly a bumpy road, I am in awe of the colossal work that teachers, families, and students have accomplished while pivoting to a completely new school environment amidst ongoing levels of trauma and chaos in an ever-changing norm.

Technology and remote learning has forced each and every one of us to rethink our practices, our conversations, and our convictions to students. Now, as many schools and districts across the country look to transition to a hybrid model, questions and heightened emotions remain. While we won’t want to carry everything from remote education with us when we return to in-person teaching, we can take what we’ve learned about growth, innovation, and resiliency to make our classrooms and schools even stronger.

We should remember that for each student who has struggled in remote teaching, others (typically those unsuccessful or disenfranchised in traditional school settings) have perhaps suddenly found themselves thriving and able to take risks. Those who have difficulty finding connection and belonging in a traditional school setting are seeing one less barrier to their learning and school experience. Our educational systems must serve all of these learners.

Therefore, rather than viewing remote learning as solely a bandage helping get us through the pandemic, what are the ways that it has nudged us to rethink what teaching and learning might look like?

Oftentimes we see technology as static, a means to an end, or perhaps as a new resource to master until it inevitably evolves into something new. Teaching, however, is a changing profession, one that inherently demands our creativity and flexibility. Instead of trying to master technological products and virtual pedagogy in this short-term environment, I encourage us to shift our mindset to consider the creative work that is occurring in virtual classrooms across our country. I have often found that foregrounding the process of innovation (rather than a tool or product) has freed me from the need to have technology unfold seamlessly or without issue. In fact, it has given me permission to fail, learn, and to try again.

For many of us, the past ten months have meant a shift to remote learning, the possibilities of moving back to a hybrid model, and the fluctuating stress on each and every educator, student, and caregiver in our school system. Despite this, I have seen the way that our communities have risen to the challenge in profound ways.

Although the coming months will bring uncertainty, I want us to remember the moments of human connection, inquiry, and learning that were afforded in spite of technology and remote learning, but also because of technology and remote learning.

How we tackle the lingering questions that remain, approach the tensions in hybrid learning, and navigate and respond to both will shape our immediate next moves (as well as our lasting impact) as an educational system. In doing so, I hope we remember to tell the stories of what we’ve already accomplished.

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Alyson Rumberger, Ed.D

Alyson Rumberger, Ed.D

Learner, teacher, author, scholar and passionate advocate of education.