Like many educators, I’d never taught a lesson on Zoom or used tech like Nearpod until this year. Now it’s my new normal.

These are the most important things I’ve learned during my remote teaching journey.

Give grace

It’s easy to make assumptions about why people on screen may not be showing their videos (or even cursing at their computers not knowing their mic was on). It’s especially easy to jump to conclusions when we lack the confidence we had in the physical classrooms and are feeling particularly vulnerable. 

To date, 100% of the assumptions I’ve made about people I thought were disinterested have been wrong. What I’ve found is that people are either new to the tech and are scared and frustrated or they have major things happening at home. Just like in the physical classroom we should: 1) give people the benefit of the doubt, 2) build relationships, 3) identify the obstacles to learning, and 4) work together to best connect students to the learning opportunities. 

We are all learning this year. We’re going to have to give grace to students, colleagues, families, and ourselves during this journey.

Trust the process

Remote teaching feels different. Until you get used to teaching using videoconferencing technology, it will likely feel that you are not doing as well as you really are. Trust the process.

One thing to help with this transition is finding new ways of “reading the room.” Use tech like Nearpod or Flipgrid to get more frequent feedback than you may have needed in the physical classroom. Not only is this good formative assessment, but it can help put your mind at ease knowing things are going better for students than you think they are.

Be a lead learner

This year has shown us the importance of developing thinkers who are nimble and collaborative problem solvers. Right now, we have an opportunity to help students build these skills by authentically modeling the learning process for students as we walk through this new territory together. 

Be transparent about what you are thinking and doing when things aren’t going as planned. Leverage tech issues as teachable moments by collaborating with students to collectively solve challenges that will arise.

It may feel different to let go of the control and expertise we’ve become accustomed to. But, by embracing the process of learning collectively, we can inspire students and ourselves as we collectively experience the power of authentic learning in PBL.

Collaborate in new ways

While teachers are not excited about many features of this school year, there are opportunities for positive transformation. For instance, we can break free of the constraints of the classroom walls when teaching remotely.

– An interdisciplinary project team can host a Zoom call with all the grade level’s students. One teacher can take the lead while the other teachers host breakout rooms during work time.

– An English department can teach a project together with one teacher doing the lead instruction while the others focus on providing timely feedback as students submit work.

– A group of computer science teachers who are all at different campuses can hold district-wide tutoring sessions in support of projects.

– A 7th grade class can get consistent feedback from a 1st grade class in a children’s book-writing project.

– A teacher in Yellowknife, Canada can co-teach a project with a teacher in Buenos Aires, Argentina. So much is possible!

This year is going to be challenging, but let’s not waste the opportunity for transformation.

We can use this year to better prepare our students’ to thrive in an increasingly interconnected and rapidly changing world.

Something that has helped me embrace the change required of this year is a poem I heard in March when schools first started to close. The poem helped me realize that true resiliency is not about returning to what we once were, but about permanently reshaping in new and beautiful ways.

More and more I have come to admire resilience.
Not the simple resistance of a pillow, whose foam
returns over and over to the same shape, but the sinuous
tenacity of a tree: finding the light newly blocked on one side,
it turns in another. A blind intelligence, true.
But out of such persistence arose turtles, rivers,
mitochondria, figs -- all this resinous, unretractable earth.
– Jane Hirshfield

This year let’s focus on giving grace, trusting the process, being lead learners, and collaborating in new ways so that powerful learning may emerge for us and the students we serve.

Ryan Sprott, National Faculty
Ryan is a public high school teacher at the International School of the Americas in San Antonio, TX and the recipient of the James F. Veninga Award for outstanding teaching of the humanities. In his work as co-founder of Borderland Collective and as a National Faculty member for PBLWorks, he strives to extend learning beyond the classroom walls so that students and teachers may develop greater capacities for collaboration, critical thinking, and empathy.