Virtual teaching: A study in handling distractions and encouraging students

Hannah Nandor’s home office has a laptop, a tablet, an external monitor, a periodic table mouse pad and a calendar open to November 2020 resting on a music stand.

Above it all hang two reminders: “Be Nice to Yourself” and “This is why you’re still a teacher,” surrounded by handwritten letters from former students.

Talking with her colleagues a few months ago, as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold of another school year, Nandor came to a worrisome conclusion:

“There’s going to be a whole group of kids that might have enjoyed science that are just going to hate it after this year,” she said. “That breaks my heart a little bit, but I don’t really know how to fix it.”

Nandor is one of about 1,500 classroom teachers in Columbia Public Schools pouring their energy and empathy into connecting with students online.

She and three others — Susie Adams, Monica Miller and Lindsey Mueller — share glimpses into what teaching is like right now and how they keep going.

‘Most teachers are trying to do the best they can’

Nandor teaches Advanced Placement and honors chemistry for Battle High School from her home office. The headboard and frame of a crib lean unassembled against the back wall as the office slowly transitions to a nursery in anticipation of her second child.

“It’s bringing students into my home, but I have kind of gotten past that,” Nandor said. “I kind of just have to embrace the weirdness.”

Her students are understanding when she experiences technical glitches, her dog, Peanut Butter, goes crazy barking out the window or her 2-year-old daughter stays home from day care because of illness.

“She doesn’t understand, ‘Sit there and play quietly while Mommy works,’” Nandor said. Her students’ patience has made it a lot easier.

However, sometimes it all hits her. Recording AP chemistry lessons in unflattering lighting. Cutting hands-on labs designed for exploration. Missing conversations with colleagues during lunch and passing periods. Muted students. Distracted students. Struggling students.

“I didn’t realize how much in a normal year I rely on building those connections with my students,” Nandor said. “Not having those relationships when things started to get hard was kind of like running into a brick wall.”

Nandor leans on her friends, most of them educators. She tweeted openly about feeling “defeated as a teacher” and received tons of support and encouragement from her coworkers. In the spring, she was able to social distance in driveways, but the workload builds in October and November and the weather gets colder.

“We all got more honest and real with each other. We cannot just be optimistic all the time. That’s not healthy,” Nandor said. “We have to address the struggles. We have to talk about them. We have to figure out ways to get through because this isn’t changing. How can we make the best of it?”

“Virtual teaching sucks,” she said. “But I do think most teachers are trying to do the best they can. I know, I am.”

‘It brings back those feelings of normalcy’

It is a Thursday morning. Susie Adams walks along the empty, locker-lined hallway at Battle High toting a pink-and-black messenger bag, mail from the week before, a Thermos sporting the Spartans’ insignia, an ID badge dangling from a black and yellow lanyard and the recognizable “Freaky Fast” white paper bag.

Inside the bag is a No. 1 Pepe Unwich without tomato, a No. 6 veggie, a bag of chips and a chocolate chip cookie.

She pops her head in to say hello to the secretary, Tanajia Douglas, keeping her distance at the doorway. She passes two book reports of “Four-Four-Two” by Dean Hughes and “Step Up” by Monica McKayhan, written in marker on yellow construction paper, still hanging from when classes were in person.

Finally, Adams enters the double classroom she shares with Anne Borgmeyer. They teach AP Squares together, a combination of AP U.S. History and AP Language.

On Thursdays, they order the same sandwiches, split the cookie and plan their lessons while they Zoom their student teacher from MU.

“It’s kind of embarrassing when you call Jimmy John’s and they’re like, ‘Is this Susie?’” she said. Adams raises her finger. “It’s me!”

They started the tradition when Battle opened eight years ago. In the beginning of the semester, they met outside, alternating between each other’s front porches. As the weather grows chilly, they continue by social distancing with masks in the empty classroom.

“It brings back those feelings of normalcy,” Adams said. “It was just another thing that was like, ‘Oh, hey. We’re going to be OK. No matter what, we’re going to be OK.’”

‘They didn’t have the language to describe what was happening’

Monica Miller teaches third graders at Paxton Keeley Elementary School. Technical difficulties, distractions and misunderstandings arise in their virtual worlds.

Sometimes, Miller notices the glow of the iPad on their little faces from a game or video. Sometimes, a dog barks or a person walks by. Sometimes, the students just stare at her when a question goes awry. Sometimes, they cannot figure out an issue on their tablets.

“They didn’t have the language to describe what was happening on their end,” Miller said. “Those were your bang-your-head-against-the-wall moments. Those were your most frustrating moments.”

During the four weeks elementary schools were open for in-person classes this fall, from mid-October to mid-November, Miller heard what she called the murmur of learning: paper rustling, pencils moving and students chatting.

Their responses to her questions did not delay or freeze, and she was not alone in the now-eerie quiet of her second-floor room. However, recess altered as students were relegated to four zones on the playground, lunch period changed as they were served in the hallways and ate in the classroom, and the social dynamic shifted as desks were put into rows instead of pods.

Before returning to virtual teaching for a second time, Miller guided her students through the technical challenges and sent them home with their writers’ notebooks, math materials, art supplies, laminated card stock in place of a whiteboards and a special activities packet.

“We stuffed their backpacks,” she said. “They were falling over.”

Some of her students do not have access to printers, have poor or no internet connectivity or rely on the help of older siblings. She uses the breakout rooms online for small-group time to meet individual student needs. She dedicates time for her English Language Learners to modify the class for their language acquisition and understanding.

“You have to structure your materials in a way that is reachable, that is attainable to all,” Miller said.

‘More than paper and pencil as far as showing what you are learning is really important’

Lindsey Mueller’s laptop is disconnected from her first-grade class while she runs through the morning meeting calendar routine. It is the first time she has lost connection.

She crosses her fingers as she tries to rejoin her students but then realizes she can restart Zoom with her tablet.

Mueller carries the iPad around Room 115 at Two Mile Prairie Elementary School as she talks. She holds the tablet against the window and proceeds with the daily weather report.

The students analyze the big, leafless tree across the street and the cloudy sky. The fog becomes a topic of discussion.

“For some of our kids, it is a little bit harder virtually to fully explain what they mean because on top of trying to learn a curriculum, they are trying to navigate things virtually,” she said. “That can be tricky.”

Mueller trains other teachers how to use SeeSaw, an academic application purchased by the district as way to connect with students. SeeSaw enables students and teachers to leave voice comments, screen casts or video clips. Mueller uses it to encourage learning through vocalization.

She uses the screen-casting feature to help a student struggling with math. She can circle key points, send a voice comment and ask them to rework the problem.

If they still do not understand, she enters SeeSaw as the student while on a Zoom call. Mueller controls the page, and the student explains the thinking while she writes it down.

“Having them explore different apps and be able to think about how they are sharing their work, and knowing that there is just more than paper and pencil as far as showing what you are learning is really important,” she said.

Students use tablet applications like PebbleGo for scientific research and nature exploration or create virtual posters with voice recordings of their explanations.

“Anything they found that they thought might be interesting, it popped up on camera and then became a part of the conversation,” she said.

A student lost a tooth and shared it with the class. Some gave tours of their bedrooms. Mueller has met younger siblings, dogs, cats and several horses.

“That’s one of those things that I think that works both virtually and in person,” she said. “When kids share things and it becomes interesting and everyone wants to know more about it, you kind of dive in and go with it. You just have to be willing to take the time to do it.”

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