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Distance learning: How to really reach students

Open communication and innovative engagement can help strengthen the remote teacher-student relationship.

6 min read


Distance learning: How to really reach students


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Considering the speed at which most schools were forced to transition to remote learning, it is understandable that the predominant focus has been on academic continuity. However, limiting the focus to academics misses a vital factor of our work as educators: helping students feel safe, cared for and connected. 

This is especially important for vulnerable or at-risk students. Think about the student who is now spending all day in a potentially unsafe environment or one who is tasked with caregiving for younger siblings. Although they faced many of these challenges before March, remote learning amplifies the stressors present in these circumstances. 

During this continued time of distancing and wide-spread social unrest, many factors are contributing to increased trauma. Those increases in anxiety, loneliness, fear, isolation and lack of structure and routine are having a disproportionate effect on the lives and health of already-vulnerable populations across the country. 

For these reasons, educators must also remember that we ourselves also are being tasked with more. As adults, it is critical that we take inventory of ourselves and focus on our own social-emotional development too. It is important for us to ensure that we take time for self-care so we can be available to connect with and support our students.

Amid all these challenges, it is critical to try to establish a new normal for our students. Regardless of whether we are all together in a school building or engaged in physical distancing, our relationships, support systems and connections remain important stability points for vulnerable children. Now is the time to double our efforts to cultivate and strengthen relationships, and offer an even higher level of support to those in need. 

How can we create new norms for this “new normal”? 

As educators, we must rely on the expertise that we’ve cultivated in the classroom and apply it to this continuously evolving situation. This includes looking for new ways to engage students and open communication channels that help strengthen relationships built when we were together in school. Here are a few of the strategies and execution tips we’ve employed so far to reach and teach our students from a distance:

  • Go out of your way to have more intentional conversations with students. When we are in school, there are many moments throughout the day to check in with our students, like in the hallway, lunch room and before and after school. That is not the case in a distance learning environment, so you must be intentional about creating time and being purposeful in asking students how they are doing while you have their attention. For instance, plan enough time to catch up with kids at the beginning of virtual lessons and meetings. This engages students personally and invites them into the learning environment. Teachers should rely on relationships they’ve built with students to uncover news and information and ask relevant and student-specific questions. This will help uncover any anxiety, concern or fear the student might be experiencing. As with all healthy dialogue, adults should offer their personal perspective on an issue or topic to give students a platform from which to respond, helping them go a little deeper than a run-of-the-mill answer. 
  • Confirm norms and set expectations before starting to teach. This involves reinforcing expectations for virtual classroom behavior to establish a safe space. First, you should touch on those pre-existing and understood norms that existed in the physical school building, such as reminding students to listen to others, encouraging constructive comments and expecting them to conduct themselves in a way they would expect from others. This may also involve reminding students that these times can be unsettling or scary, and to keep an open mind and help create a safe space for all students. Other norms, like muting microphones when not speaking and keeping video on at all times, that pertain to the unique lesson plan you have for the day are also important to mention to set expectations.
  • Leverage new channels to communicate and meet classroom and student needs. A valuable feature of online communication platforms is the chat function. This allows students to communicate solely with the teacher during a lesson. For instance, if a student must turn off his or her camera to tend to a sibling, he or she should use the chat feature to send a quick note to teachers explaining the reason for disengaging video. This gives students a constructive method for handling disruptions without embarrassment, and it avoids derailing lesson flow. It also gives you an idea of how long the student will be distracted, so you know to reach out if he or she has been gone for longer than anticipated. 
  • Watch for behavioral “red flags” during virtual lessons and respond accordingly. Another critical component of our remote learning model is understanding how to identify the signs of a child experiencing trauma. We look every day – multiple times a day – for cues to let us know that something may be happening in a student’s life that needs our attention. Things like behavioral cues, verbal and non-verbal cues, posture, energy level or missing check ins can tell us much to help us identify a potential issue. 

Looking for and identifying these signs is challenging in a virtual environment. At Camelot Education, we have a behavioral health team in place that our teachers reach out to with concerns about specific students. Identified red flags prompt a one-to-one call between the student and a behavioral health counselor, allowing them to discuss issues in a private setting and affording them the chance to course correct. In addition to reinforcing the expected norms, these interactions also provide an opportunity to spot serious underlying issues that warrant attention.

Given the stress and unknowns at this time, we are seeing an increase in students who exhibit depressed, anxious or suicidal behaviors and may issue a cry for help during the virtual meetings. This might manifest itself in emotional outbursts, giving one-word answers, detaching from the group, disengaging video and so on. If you have concerns, don’t hesitate to act.

Dr. Joseph Carter is the superintendent of schools for Camelot Education.


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