During a virtual lesson, one student asked: “Why do we have to be on Zoom?” She preferred to be back in school. “I know how you feel,” I responded. “I would rather be learning in person, too.”

Risking a “In my day…” story, I shared the available technologies when I started teaching:

  • Apple 2E computers were lined up in the back of the classroom.
  • My “smartboard” was a retractable canvas screen.
  • The projector was on a cart; we used transparencies and markers.

“Imagine if we had to teach and learn during a pandemic back then! I am thankful we have Zoom and all of these digital tools that make school the best it can be right now.”

As we continue with virtual learning, we could all use more perspective these days (myself included). There are at least two ways of looking at any issue. We can be frustrated with our current situation, yet we can also see the positives.

For instance, a recent study found there has been less student learning gaps than were expected, and no reading loss for the students assessed. This is attributed to the teachers’ admirable efforts and professional expertise.

As an example, during a primary grade lesson, the teacher modeled how to write a math equation on the digital whiteboard. “Now you try it,” invited the teacher. On their physical mini-whiteboards, the students practiced the skill from home and then showed their results on the screen. The teacher affirmed their responses and offered an additional demonstration to clear up confusion.

In an upper grade Zoom session, the students were placed in small literature groups. Their task: discuss character actions to better understand the story they read. “I could tell the character was lonely when…” started a student. The teacher joined each breakout room briefly to check in on the discussion and provide feedback or support as needed.

Another positive I have observed is how relationships can be developed from a distance. During Zoom sessions I have attended, the teacher greeted students as they arrived. “Good morning Eli, so nice to see you.” Students shared what was happening in their lives with the class.

Developing trusting relationships is a prerequisite for successful instruction. While the Internet can be a poor substitute for in person interactions, being physically together is not possible right now. In response, teachers have been creative in how they connect with their students and with creating a classroom community in online spaces.

For example, one classroom had “hat day”. Everyone donned their favorite headwear during the Zoom session and shared why they wore it. Students and staff learned about each other’s interests, an entry point for bonding by finding common ground. In addition, teachers offer office hours and individualized instruction via Zoom on Wednesdays to provide additional support.

It would be wise for us adults to remember that students have been developing relationships online way before the pandemic. Social networks and messaging tools are utilized by our youth outside of school when they are not able to hang out in person. Teachers have been leveraging technologies to foster a similar sense of belonging and well-being.

A final point worth recognizing is home-school communication can be strengthened with digital tools.

One example is this year’s parent-teacher conferences. Because we could not be together physically, we offered a Zoom meeting or a phone call. For some families with multiple children, this was preferred. They did not have to get their kids quickly fed, dressed, and come back to school for the conference. Instead, they could have a discussion with their child’s teacher from their own home.

Because of the frequent online communication via Seesaw or Google Classroom, some teachers reported conferences were less of a surprise and more of a conversation. They could better talk about what was and was not working.

Feeling like a partner in their child’s education can have a positive effect on student achievement. Kids see how their teacher and the adults in their lives interact. If there is a positive relationship between home and school, a student’s trust in school subsequently increases.

I hope I did not paint too rosy a picture here regarding virtual learning. Education has and will continue to be adversely impacted by our situation. In person instruction ensures all students can attend successfully. It is more efficient than online interactions. Families are provided with support and supervision during the day.

Yet our reality does not allow us to engage in this way. So, what can we do about it? An optimistic outlook can also be accurate if tethered to reality, supported by evidence along with a belief that virtual instruction can work.