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Distance Learning - Tips on navigating this strange, new ‘normal’

I am by no means an expert on delivering distance learning but as the school ‘Digital Champion’ (or chief fixer of whiteboards) I decided to gather some thoughts to support my colleagues. I am grateful to have been offered the opportunity to share with a wider audience.

Here are some of the key lessons I learned from my first week of teaching from home:

Set aside time to engage with pupils and families

As well as facilitating distance learning, it is likely that you will have a list of school work to complete, too. In order to manage my workflow I have found it helpful to schedule certain times of the day to answer emails, offer feedback and respond to comments. At the beginning of the week I found myself in a constant cycle of just replying to pupils and families. I was constantly refreshing my email and Google Classroom stream - akin to an addictive tendency towards social media. Indeed, being there to offer detailed support in the early stages is crucial as everyone gets used to things, but it isn’t somewhere you should get stuck. I strongly suggest that you limit this to times within your control once you get the ball rolling in order to manage your other commitments in work and life.

Limit contact with families

The above point also works in reverse. Parents and carers really care about their child’s education and most appreciate a great deal of information. However, they also could have multiple children attending a couple of different schools as well as private music tuition etc. Throw in their own job expectations when working from home and you contribute to an unsustainable amount of information. Based on feedback from families I work with, hearing from the teacher at the beginning of the week with a list of learning is sufficient . Parents/carers can always get in touch if they require more information. This should help with the balance between being helpful and being irritating.

Consider families who have English as their second language

I thought I was being immensely helpful by providing families with very detailed instructions on the tasks I was setting. Then I considered those who may need support in reading English. Without wanting to patronise families (some who have lived in Scotland for years) I reached out to those where English is not their first language. Most said they were fine with English but appreciated the sentiment. For a few who did not, it was a sigh of relief. Of course, there are many online tools to aid teachers in translating their messages but here are a couple that I used:

Translating an email using Gmail

Translating a Google Doc

Encourage your learners to come up with a timetable

As ‘a creature of habit’ routines have always been important to me - there's a certain comfort in predictability. In these uncertain times it is crucial for people to get some sense of order back. I encouraged the children in my class to come up with their own weekly timetable (click here for a template) in order to find a sense of clarity that works for their household. This will be vastly different from the ordinary school day but will be important in fostering a positive learning environment.

Avoid ‘Live Lessons’ if possible

This is based on feedback from the families I work with - things may be different for you. There has been a boom in educators and staff using video conferencing tools to deliver distance learning. These technologies can be a great benefit in times like these. What I will say though is that in this busy time for families, live streaming lessons does not work for most. If you do want to go down this route I suggest pre-recording your lessons and uploading them for families to complete in their own time. You don’t want families to be disadvantaged because the time doesn't suit them. This also avoids 20-odd excited children all talking at once on camera! I know it's unnatural for most to take videos of ourselves (myself included) but the children really do appreciate that personal touch. Now’s as good a time as any to push yourself out of your comfort zone.

Don’t try to recreate the school day

I was rather ambitious with the amount of tasks I set the first week. I tried to keep it much the same as a normal week at school with one literacy, one numeracy and one other curricular area per day. This was overwhelming for most. It is not feasible for most families to achieve this amount of work. In my experience, it is better to give the work at the start of the week and let families work through the learning at their own pace. Each school leadership team will have their own ideas on what works and it is crucial to speak to the families you work with to make it manageable for all involved.

Extra challenges

There will always be some that devour every learning experience you set - meaning some families will require more. To extend learning you could provide a list of good websites to support learning (there are so many out there). Perhaps you could challenge pupils to learn some new life skills or develop their fitness. The last thing you want is for families who need extra to be scouring the internet for more resources - provide them with extras to use when required. This will also support your workload.

Share examples of great work

In class we share ‘what a good one looks like’ providing children with a standard to aim for. The same should apply to online learning environments - come up with your own examples to share before the task and share the hard work of the members of your class to raise the bar in this new learning environment.

My final point would be: relax and roll with it. Not one person is an expert in this current situation. Take it easy and use it as a learning experience. We need to look after ourselves and each other more than ever.

Watch the video to hear Marc discuss his top ten tips for teachers supporting home learning during the Covid-19 pandemic: