Finding your feet with remote (and online) teaching

Helping early career teachers and training teachers to move their lessons into a virtual space

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This week I was contacted by a former tutee who is an early career teacher.  They asked if I could talk with them about the challenges they are facing moving to a live online classroom.  Trust me, this is not because I am well-renowned for my technological prowess (that would be a ridiculous notion).  Rather, they were seeking a mentoring conversation.  They needed an opportunity to be ‘heard’ in their struggle and desire to be a better teacher.  They wanted the opportunity to diagnose and identify possible solutions for themselves but with the guidance of someone asking probing questions and building their confidence around the possible approaches they might go on to try. 

As I write, I am acutely aware that I am no longer at the sharp end of teaching pupils in this new remote-learning environment.  Consequently, this blog does not intended to explore different online teaching methods; instead I will leave that to the plethora of blogs and peer-to-peer advice that has necessarily emerged in the last few weeks, of which Miss Tappenden’s guide to Remote Learning with Microsoft Teams is just one example.  I’d also thoroughly recommend looking at the #DistHist twitter thread which has crowdsourced tech solutions, app recommendations and shared pedagogical adaptations from the history community. 

So why am I writing this blog? Although it would be fair to say that most teachers are currently operating outside of their pedagogical comfort zone, for early career teachers the ‘experience toolbox’ from which they can draw their pedagogical approaches is necessarily more limited. Therefore, as always, I’m interested in how we can support beginning teachers (initial teacher trainees, NQTs and RQTs) as they try and navigate this strange new world of online teaching. 

The challenge of remote learning

The scenario that led this teacher to contact me was one I have heard frequently over the past few weeks from both early career teachers and more experienced colleagues: how can we ensure students understand what we’re asking them to do and are actually learning? Can we really ask the same of students in the virtual environment as we do in a classroom?

The teacher concerned had thought carefully about a lesson they were teaching to a KS3 class.  They had structured the lesson to begin with a short live input explaining the context, leading into a short documentary clip linked to the lesson focus, followed up by a guided reading task similar to tasks the pupils had completed many times before in the classroom setting.  However, at the end of the lesson when the children came to submit their independent work, it became apparent many had not understood the task and the quality of work submitted was far below their usual standard.  How could the teacher ensure this did not happen again? 

And so, we chatted it through.

In the mentoring conversation they were encouraged to identify the points in the lesson where they felt the pupils had lost their way. We focused on their instruction giving – both the presentation and the content.  We talked through the assumptions they had made about the pupils’ ability to learn in a classroom context transferring to their home context.  We explored their use of modelling and the assessment for learning built into the lesson that could have alerted them to the misconceptions and confusion that was arising during the task.  We discussed the challenge of getting pupils to speak in the lesson or engage in ‘group’ discussion, and the reluctance of some to use the ‘chat’ to respond to or ask questions.  Through this mentoring conversation the teacher was able to clearly articulate the issues and also begin to offer suggestions of how they might approach things differently.  Their pedagogical toolkit may be more limited than that of a more experienced colleague but, as their confidence was rebuilt, they realised they did have sufficient tools to find ways around this never before experienced challenge. 

Some key reflections:

From this conversation several key aspects of planning and practice emerged as areas it might be worth revisiting as (or with) an early career teacher wrestling with how to ensure effective learning takes place in the virtual space:

  • Consider the assumptions you are making about the pupils’ capacity to replicate their classroom behaviours in their remote learning.  Learning from home is an entirely different experience; from anxiety around making live virtual lesson contributions, to motivation, to technological challenges, you cannot assume that pupils will be able to replicate your usual classroom approach (even in ‘bread and butter’ tasks).
  • Instruction giving and modelling are vital.  Providing instructions verbally (through a voiced ppt or a voice note) as well as in written form can be really beneficial for instruction clarity.  Adopting modelling such as an ‘I do, we do, you do’ approach (within live or asynchronous lessons) is important for scaffolding pupils into tasks (even tasks you assume they can access due to their classroom-based experiences). 
  • Revisit your understanding of how regular low stakes formative assessment embedded through a lesson can make pupil participation more routine and give opportunities to identify and address misconceptions earlier rather than later.  This can be done in a number of different ways in the online environment – quizzing, polls, virtual mini-whiteboards, breakout rooms – all of which provide opportunities for the teacher delivering a live lesson to address obstacles to understanding and, in asynchronous lessons, to alert the pupils to the need to revisit previous aspects of the lesson or seek help before moving on. 

Supportive encouragement

We all need to be a bit kinder to ourselves the moment.  This covid-19 enforced move to remote learning has been the steepest learning curve.  For beginning teachers, the self-doubt that creeps in means they are sometimes not able to see they do have the tools available to be able to think through these pedagogical challenges and achieve good outcomes for their pupils.  As mentors we need to support them to recognise this, and make time for those important mentoring conversations. 

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