Successes, Challenges, and Tips for Virtual Teaching & Learning

What has school been like so far this year? What are the biggest challenges? What’s going well? And what can educators learn from the first few weeks of 2020-2021?
We reached out to people in various roles in education, and in various places throughout the U.S. Here is what they have to say. (Responses have been edited and condensed for clarity).

Hector Montenegro, Former Superintendent:
Meet students’ social, emotional as well as academic needs

BACKGROUND
Hector Montenegro is a former superintendent of three districts in Texas. He is currently a Senior District Advisor with the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) and works with districts nationally and internationally on implementing Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) strategies.
CHALLENGES
These are difficult times for both students and adults. The level of stress, anxiety and uncertainty among adults and children is considerably high. Whether it be remotely, hybrid or in person, teachers and students are having to adjust to an entirely different way of teaching, relating and managing personal health and responsibilities. Virtually, districts are experiencing major challenges with connectivity, access to equipment and the availability of computer programs and instructional strategies that are user friendly, support learning and address the basic needs of belonging, feeling included and having social and emotional needs met. The COVID Slide is already having an impact on student achievement at all levels.
SUCCESSES
Now more than ever, SEL strategies are needed to balance out the focus on academics, achievement and accountability. Teachers’ own personal health and wellbeing need to be a priority in order for them to be able to better manage their own emotions and stress while navigating the complexities of new equipment, new programs and pressures to get students focused on academic achievement. Working with teachers in establishing daily routines, whether they be 10 or 30 minutes, to calm the mind through breathing exercises, mindfulness practices such as a body scan or stretching exercises have contributed to their ability to refocus, relieve and manage stress more effectively. Likewise, students also need adults to guide them to be able to understand and manage their own emotions, feel personally connected, participate in a safe learning environment, and ask for help as needed. Teachers have successfully implemented practices such as Three Signature SEL Practices which facilitate the development of regular routines such as Welcoming Rituals, Engaging Activities and an Optimistic Closure. Just as in person, teachers are also using virtual morning meetings and community circles to allow students to touch base with each other, creating a greater sense of community and support. One welcoming activity that I have seen done successfully in the virtual classroom is to give students quality time together in breakout rooms to check in, to connect, to tell their stories and to support one another. This is best done within the context of further developing SEL skills and competencies such as empathy, compassion, relationships, and a growth mindset rather than it being an unstructured free-for-all. Teachers are finding out that spending quality time focusing on social and emotional needs first makes managing the demands of virtual learning much easier and even enjoyable.
LOOKING AHEAD
Creating a sense of community virtually is not only good for children but also good for adults. All adult interactions should also have welcoming rituals to check in with each other to further build SEL competencies, offer support and lighten the load. Virtual meetings shouldn’t just be focused on training and disseminating information but on sharing and practicing skills that could be used with students. Adults need time in breakout rooms to process new information, to make meaning out of what is being required of them and to confide in one another and never leave a meeting without doing an Optimistic Closure to keep spirits high and self confidence intact.

Solon Hefner, Student:
Make it more efficient!

BACKGROUND
Solon Hefner is a middle school student in a large urban district that started the year 100% online.
CHALLENGES
Many schools have begun the year using a virtual platform that can be confusing or messy. So far, teachers could work on cleaning up the pages for whatever platform they are using whether that be canvas or google classroom or something else entirely. If there are too many pages or posts on this platform, it could cause students to become confused and not understand what they are supposed to work on. If the number of posts could be reduced and made more brief, then this would be greatly beneficial to the vast majority of students. Another problem I have encountered is attendance taking up class time. This seems to be an unnecessary problem but still takes up 10-15 minutes of already limited class time.
SUCCESSES
On a more positive note, something that has been going well this year is communication between teachers. They mostly seem to be on the same page on subjects such as timing, due dates, and not overloading us with work.
LOOKING AHEAD
For schools going forward I would suggest having teachers use a link for attendance that either automatically logs absences or lets teachers do attendance at a time other than the middle of class.

Lisa Tartaglia, Assistant Principal:
Be flexible, and don’t panic!

BACKGROUND
Lisa Tartaglia is an assistant principal in one of the fastest-growing school districts in Virginia.
Our district went back to school on Tuesday, September 8, 2020. We are 100% virtual at this time. We are using a new platform, called “Schoology,” and Google Meet.
CHALLENGES
The biggest challenge was training the teachers and the students in the new platform. The second biggest challenge was the intruders in the Google Meets. This occurred several times the first week. Students were exposed to inappropriate language and pictures. We are learning how to ensure safeguards are in place when running Google Meet.
SUCCESSES
As teachers are settling in, I am beginning to see more students on camera and more engaging lessons. I’m seeing some effective management techniques and I’m seeing everyone doing their part to make this successful.
LOOKING AHEAD
My advice is to be patient and flexible and not to panic. Technology issues will occur, but by relaxing and not worrying, it assures the children that it is okay and that learning will continue once the issue is fixed. Having a back up plan is also helpful. Lastly, constant communication with the families is so helpful. We are all in this together.

Carlos Ramirez, Principal:
It takes a village.

BACKGROUND
Carlos Ramirez is principal of an IB Title I elementary school in Arlington, VA.
What a first couple of weeks of online learning! Lots of challenges, yet many success stories, were the prevailing state of affairs.
CHALLENGES & SOLUTIONS
From connectivity issues to lack of technology savviness to language barriers, each family’s story and need was vastly different. Nevertheless, we went from 60% percent connectivity rates the morning of the first day of school to 95% by the end of the first week. As we closed the second week of online learning, we were able to reach a 98% connectivity, attendance, and participation rates.
LOOKING AHEAD: SUCCESS STORIES TO LEARN FROM
How was that possible? By looking at individual needs and providing targeted supports. We taught parents how to log in, how to connect, how to help their children navigate through the multiple learning platforms. This was safely done either in person or via teleconference. The support team we put together grew by the day in numbers. We started weeks before school opened its virtual doors and were able to recruit 10 staff members (instructional technology coordinator, test coordinator,  bilingual family liaison, administrative and instructional assistants, and teachers) who spoke different languages, were tech savvy and willing to “return” to work early. These individuals called the families of every single student enrolled at our school equipped with a series of scripted questions to find out whether or not they had internet access at home, Wi-Fi, a school-issued device, log in information, etc. Additionally, these callers also inquired about any possible needs each family might have had in terms of applying for internet access, obtaining a new school-issued device, food insecurity, imminent eviction, etc. As the reported issues began piling up on a common spreadsheet, more staff were added to this accoined “Connectivity Team” to ensure proper communication, follow up, and support in a timely manner. Our connectivity team grew to more than 20 staff members during pre-service to all staff once school started.
That was the key to success and the so many stories that each team member relayed in the process of getting every student connected, attending, and participating in online learning. As the adage goes, “It takes a village.”

Elizabeth Montes, Private School:
Start the world, I want to get on!

BACKGROUND
Elizabeth Montes has over 35 years of experience in education, in roles spanning from teacher to assistant superintendent. She currently serves as Head of School at a private K-8 academy in Texas.
SUCCESSES
The year 2020 provided us with 20/20 vision to see other people, ourselves, and the world more clearly. As humans went on lockdown, the natural world was revitalized. The oceans and other waterways were cleaner. The air quality was improved as people worked from home reducing carbon emissions. Our credit card bills were negligible without dining out and shopping. Families in lockdown spent more quality time together.
CHALLENGES
The greatest challenge for parents, teachers, and students has been virtual school. Working from home and teaching from home is like juggling several balls. Parents who did not have the opportunity to work from home had to find childcare, but nannies and grandparents were on quarantine also. Remote instruction is based on the assumption that every family has access to a laptop and internet connection. Schools have stepped up providing hot spots and equipment as needed.
LOOKING AHEAD
Many schools and universities have created hybrid schedules this fall. When will we return to normal? Or will it be a new normal as we live with what we need, not what we want? Having been characters in the play, “Stop the World, I Want to Get Off”, we are ready for the remake, “Start the World, I Want to Get On!”

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