Student engagement is one of the most overused terms in education. We talk about engagement in the classroom, between peers, with families, with the content, and now, virtual engagement. Engagement is certainly important if we talk about it this much, but what does it really mean?
There is no question that our lives have been flipped around over the last few months. For many of us, we are adjusting to redefining our workspace and even our roles. Our work has changed and so has how we interact. One role that has significantly changed is the role of the parent or guardian of school-aged children. We know that active adults make a huge difference in a child’s success in school but the level to which this is needed has been redefined. While teachers navigate a new normal, the “job” they now must lean on guardians for is to assist in supporting students. This upcoming school year is going to require a level of flexibility from all parties involved and we want to support the parents and guardians as they collaboratively navigate the year with their child’s educators.
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In an effort to reconnect with students to truly understand their experience with virtual learning and what they will need from their teachers going forward in an educational landscape irrevocably impacted by this year’s events, we decided to embark upon a two-week long empathy interview tour with students themselves. We searched high and low - from reaching out to former students through email, connecting with former colleagues still in the classroom, to scouring Instagram and LinkedIn accounts. Not only did this allow for a mind-blowing retrospective of my twenty years in the classroom - what the students shared in an honest, open platform enlightened us to their relationship with school and opened our eyes to how kids are actually interfacing with the technology that has functioned, and will likely continue to function, as a central vehicle for instruction.
As teachers everywhere gear up to go back to school in various settings this Fall, one thing is for certain: they need to be prepared to deal with a number of issues caused by the coronavirus pandemic, chief among them being impacts to student mental health. If they’re lucky, teachers have a team of support staff in the form of school counselors and psychologists to help assist students, but even so, much of the work will fall to teachers to help keep students in a headspace where they are able to learn. As the people who spend the most time with students, teachers must incorporate support for mental health into their classrooms.
What a time to be alive. Many of us, particularly educators, are wearing hats we never even thought to try on before. I think of the everyday woman who now has multiple full-time jobs: her actual job, parenting, and remote learning management of her children. I think of the parent of a differently-abled child who now has to lead that child’s physical, occupational, or speech therapy daily. I think of BIPOC who now are called to serve as knowledge banks and on-call historians for their white friends who recently discovered (spoiler alert) that racism isn’t dead. It’s as if the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor were a wake-up call to sleeping America.
Regardless of where students are physically learning this school year, educators must orient their instruction towards distance learning. An orientation towards distance learning allows for continuity of meaningful learning experiences despite changing circumstances or disruptions to the school calendar, whether it be an isolated power outage or a global pandemic. It is important to note that highly-effective distance learning doesn’t just happen with the flip of a switch. It requires thoughtful, intentional design decisions fueled by a desire to empower students to drive their own learning. Ultimately, distance learning requires a student-centered approach to ensure more impactful and equitable learning outcomes for all students.