Teen girl waves to her teacher on her laptop screen, who waves back.

EdTech & Design, Engagement, Promising Practices

Teaching Through the Screen

Making a remote connection with students

The spring of 2020 will be described as “unthinkable” in our future textbooks. Grocery shelves were emptied, parks banned, classrooms closed, and businesses boarded. The world as we understood it was paused. But through the challenges, perspectives started to change and priorities shifted. Despite the fact that we were physically separated from one another, we came to a common understanding: that the “busy” of our lives was a glorification of exhaustion, discontent, and fear.

Teachers, with no classrooms to teach in, found themselves having to transition into digital educational spaces. My position was a little different. I was an online educator long before the days of COVID-19. However, the forced isolation led me to re-evaluate my own professional practice, in order to answer the many questions that were coming forward at that point. I was forced to reflect. In doing so, I realized that I needed to translate digital learning into an authentic and valuable experience for my students, and I needed to shift my own mindset about online practices, opportunities, and capabilities. We needed to come together, not just for academic success, but for our well-being as a group.

I thought I knew all there was to know about online teaching. It was my specialty, after all. However, despite my familiarity with the platform, I never fully understood or appreciated its potential benefits. Initially, its service for me was as a connector for learning and one-to-one Q and A. Honesty is key here, and as an online teacher, I will frankly admit that prior to the pandemic, I was quite resistant to online interaction. I believed the benefits of face-to-face connection could not be replicated through a screen, nor were they reliable enough in that context for professional practice. When it was necessary, I used it sparingly and in short intervals, as we were instructed to do by our administration. It felt forced and cold.

However, circumstances of these past months allowed for time to understand the potential and value of online learning. It was my bridge to students who, otherwise, would not be able to continue their studies. My mindset shifted. Mediums such as Google Meets and Zoom helped to alleviate the feelings of isolation. I scheduled meetings multiple times each week, with no filters, and no staging of my table or background. I let the clutter of home and the sound of my toddlers’ Netflix cartoons be part of my presence. In order for this to feel authentic and genuine, I had to first be an example of that for my students. Slowly, as both my students and I became comfortable with the process, I was able to answer their academic questions, but also ask about the pictures on their wall or the scenery at their cottages, and have them giggle with me at the many cups of pretend coffee my daughter would pour me while interrupting my lesson: “Mommy needs more coffee?!”

In the absence of physical contact, technology allowed me to build relationships – and those relationships extended beyond our scheduled times. Students informed me that there were others in the class who were struggling with the course because of issues like Internet connection, transportation, and accessibility. I made the taboo move of passing along my personal number (GASP – I know, but I did it!) to have those students reach out to me. I would make the arrangements necessary to ensure they had support in completing their tasks, and/or resources beyond their academics, if needed. I arranged phone conferences, created live docs through shared Google drives to provide immediate feedback, and when necessary, reached out to my administration to send paper copies of the material through the post for the students in more remote areas. I sent text reminders when I could to those who needed the extra push.

I found that trust could be established through the monitors, not in spite of them. I began to approach this platform with a newfound appreciation for its ability to cradle interconnection and create a new dimension of teacher/student relationships.

I know each teacher’s practice and experience will be different, whether online or in the classroom. However, I have come to three key factors that were instrumental in making the online experience successful and fun!

  • The first is consistency. Set times for meetings and support, and be there! Even if you do not see or talk to anyone that day, show up. Make it known and clear that you will be there.
  • The second factor is to be real, be authentic – no filters. Get comfortable in your discomfort and allow that to come through. The honesty in clutter, piled dishes, and disarray creates the best small talk.
  • The last factor that I believe is a key to success within an online classroom is to set boundaries and abide by them. Despite the fact that you want to be accessible and available for your students as much as possible, it does not mean that you should be available 24/7. When you turn off your devices, keep them off. Respect your own downtime. Taking care of others is sequential to taking care of yourself.

Let’s also admit that despite its benefits, online teaching is hard! As e-learning teachers, we must combat the inconsistencies of attendance and daily logins, missed assignments, and students’ overall struggle with time management and motivation to engage with a screen for their academic benefit rather than social pleasures. We have worked very hard to do this, and continue to do so, to help our students find success within themselves, regardless of the unexpected circumstances they may find themselves in.

Our learning does not end when we become teachers. As we transfer our binders and printed lessons onto digital platforms, and blend our classrooms into interactive and accessible hubs, we need to embrace a new vision of what an educator can be. It is not the end of the role, but rather a transformation of it, which we get to be part of. Change is inevitable and remains one of the only constants – but our growth is an optional component.

Photo: Adobe Stock

First published in Education Canada, January 2021

Meet the Expert(s)

Stephanie Cortese

Teacher, Simcoe County District School Board

Stephanie Cortese has been a teacher for the last decade, completing her Masters of Education degree with focus on Adult Learning and Leadership; she continues to be a creative and restless learner, both in and out of the classroom. The proud mother of Nathan and Madelyn, she is kept afloat through the combination of the Food Network, Cabernet Sauvignon, and naive optimism.

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