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Four Lessons for Teachers Navigating Distance Learning During COVID-19

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT
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The New Normal – For Now

Yoni Lichtman, LMFT, is a teacher and school counselor at Valley Torah High School (VTHS), a private all-boys high school in Los Angeles, California. Like other schools around the state, COVID-19 forced VTHS classes to shift all classes to an online format. We were very curious to learn what this new distance-learning experience has been like for both his students and for him.

Here, Lichtman shares some insight on the lessons he’s learned so far, and generously provides helpful tips to other teachers navigating the shift from in-person to virtual teaching.

1. Be willing to adapt your teaching and testing style.

Flexibility is essential as a teacher navigating distance learning, Lichtman says. Before COVID, his Advanced Placement (AP) Psychology class included lots of open-class discussions. But “cross-talk is much more difficult on Zoom,” he admits. Especially when slow Internet connections cause voices and comments to lag. That’s why Lichtman now incorporates more lectures, videos and in-class writing assignments in his virtual classes, compared to his pre-COVID classes.

Long essays have also become his testing method of choice, instead of his usual multiple-choice exams or fill-in-the-blank quizzes. One reason is that proctoring traditional tests is complicated over Zoom. While teachers can require students to turn their cameras to show their entire upper body to try to prevent cheating, that’s not at all foolproof. And once students have computer access during a test, a teacher is limited in how much they can fully monitor the class. But the greatest benefit of essays – more than tests – is that they require students to more holistically apply their knowledge into practice. Written assignments give Lichtman a better idea of how much of the material his students actually understand.

And with less student interaction during class and a slower learning pace, overall, Lichtman has more time to provide individualized feedback on these projects. Sometimes, when he asks students to work on their essays during class, he scrolls through each of the shared documents in real time to provide direction, offer comments, or answer questions. Before COVID-19, the pace of class was too fast to allow for such detailed, live feedback.

2. Distance-learning isn’t distraction-free learning.

Like in traditional school, some students thrive in the new format, while others struggle, Lichtman says.

The absence of in-person peers makes it easier for certain students. Distance learning takes away some of the natural classroom distractions and social pressures. Of course, each student may have a plethora of distractions of their own at home, “but those are usually of a different nature,” says Lichtman. While students can get distracted by siblings in the house, or by a telephone conversation their parents are having in the kitchen, “you don’t have the same temptation to talk to the person sitting next to you, or make a joke during class,” he observes. This, he adds, is a huge benefit especially for students with ADHD. “There are fewer impulse-control issues.”

At the same time, he admits, virtual teaching and learning come with its own challenges. It’s no secret that across the nation, high school students are taking advantage of the informal class setting to play video games during class or scroll through social media while they’re supposed to be listening. And in the virtual milieu, a teacher has no way of knowing what they’re doing.

“But these are largely self-made distractions,” Lichtman says. “Disciplined students realize they’re just putting themselves at a disadvantage if they do that.”

2a. You can incentivize participation.

Teachers also have ways of incentivizing students to give their full attention to the material. While reading from a textbook, some of Lichtman’s colleagues will arbitrarily call on students to continue reading – and deduct participation points if the student doesn’t know what paragraph they’re on. Other teachers give in-class assignments. Yes, students can choose to zone out, message their classmates, or scroll through social media, but if they don’t finish the assignment by the end of class, it affects their grade.

“Thanks to these initiatives, some students are now even more focused over distance-learning than they were beforehand,” Lichtman says.

3. Take advantage of Zoom features.

One benefit of videoconferencing? Controlling the classroom is more seamless, Lichtman says. Teachers can mute the whole class if they want to lecture without any questions or interruptions. They can also mute a specific student who’s disruptive, or whose parents or siblings are talking loudly in the background.

Zoom features are especially valuable for a teacher struggling with student behavioral issues. Muting a student who disturbs the class, or sending them into the virtual “waiting room,” is much easier than talking over them or sending them out to the principal. Most video-conferencing platforms also allow hosts to disable participants’ cameras when necessary, which becomes helpful if a student engages in inappropriate behavior during class.

For teachers of young students especially, this is a golden tool. Elementary school student building Lego in front of his screen? Just turn off his camera. Student making silly faces or jumping up and down in front of the screen? Same. Turning off video immediately removes the distraction for the rest of the students while giving the student some time to calm down. Even better, the student doesn’t even have to physically leave the room. He or she can still listen in on the class, and see everyone else, too. In a traditional classroom, this wouldn’t be possible.

4. Build in time for socializing.

In his added role as school counselor, Lichtman has come to understand something fascinating. Many of his students look forward to his Zoom classes.

Why? For some, it’s the only time they’re socializing with friends. There are no more after-school clubs, parties, or sports games to attend on the weekends. Given that Zoom has replaced traditional school – for now – it has become students’ main source of peer interaction and maintaining school connections.

“I’ve noticed a certain excitement in our students about sitting together in class, about being together with their peers, which is interesting,” Lichtman observes. “Virtual schooling makes it all the more apparent that teens really crave and need socialization, even if they didn’t show it before the pandemic.”

Always Be Flexible

If you’d ask them, of course, most students would be hard-pressed to admit they actually enjoy being held accountable for homework and classes. “But they still do very much appreciate the social component,” says Lichtman. That being the case, he advises flexibility when teachers realize their students are itching to talk to each other. While other schools implement the “mute upon entry” Zoom feature to eliminate the banter that inevitably arises when everyone shuffles into class, he intentionally allows his students to chat a little until everyone arrives.

“As much as we encourage them to reach out to each other throughout the week, they usually don’t, unless it’s with their immediate social circle.”

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