How Do You Teach THAT Online?
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought enormous upheaval and changes for almost everyone in society. In the field of Education, teachers at all levels are acutely aware that most schools were forced to provide some form of emergency remote learning in place of traditional on-ground instruction (Kelly, 2020). New, sudden, and ever-changing teaching and learning modalities became the reality for instructors and students this school year (Supiano, 2020). Now that teachers and instructors have experienced this abrupt and massive change toward online instruction, they may find that the pivot toward more hybrid and remote instruction continues even as the COVID-19 pandemic begins to wane in the United States. Many teachers and students who had never before heard of holding classes on Zoom or Teams paired with more self-directed asynchronous components (such as Google Classroom and Schoology) are now well-versed in what it means to teach and learn online in 2021 and beyond!
Teachers who successfully made this transition should certainly be applauded for all they have done for their students across various modalities this year. Newer teachers’ achievement during 2020/2021 is especially relevant considering that even under normal circumstances an alarming 40-50% of new teachers typically quit the profession within their first five years (Will, 2018). These numbers are even higher in urban and rural schools and in schools that serve larger numbers of students who are more at-risk and less privileged. Another thing that can make those first few years of teaching even more daunting is the feeling that you are alone and do not have the necessary support. Some new and even experienced teachers may feel as if they are a small fish in a large school, due to the unique nature of their content areas and roles.
While all teachers have had to pivot agilely this school year, a certain group of teachers have had additional challenges due to the nature of the content areas they teach. I refer to this group as teachers of Less Commonly Taught Content Areas (LCTCA) (Broderick, 2021). Under normal and traditional teaching and learning circumstances, being a teacher of an LCTCA can be uniquely daunting in many ways. These teachers tend to be one of only a few teachers (or the only teacher) at their schools who teach what they teach. Additionally, many of them teach more performance-based content areas that do not naturally lend themselves to standard practices for online teaching and learning. Consider for example contents areas such as Music, Art, Foreign Languages, and Physical Education. Some more commonly taught content areas, such as English and Mathematics, are simply more natural to teach and assess in the online learning environment. Online teachers of LCTCA may find themselves alone and with unique challenges. In a nutshell, being a teacher (especially a new teacher!) is challenging but being a new teacher who is a small fish in a big pond can be even harder. In my book chapter (Broderick 2021), I included some anecdotes from teachers who teach content areas such as Russian, Spanish, Visual Art, English as a Second Language (ESL), and Music. These veteran teachers provide insight and guidance for newer teachers of LCTCA.
Consider what it’s like under normal and traditional teaching circumstances for teachers of subjects that may be even less commonly taught that most LCTCAs, including: dance and theater/drama, vocational and technical education programs, newer concepts such as STEAM, gifted and talented programs, less commonly taught languages (such as Mandarin Chinese or Arabic), specialized areas of specific content areas (such as engineering courses at the high school level or highly specialized Special Education content areas), and many more. Teachers of LCTCAs often find themselves advocating for their content area, their students, and sometimes even for things like basic funding and respect. Teachers of LCTCA must navigate their own path within the political landscape and their own schools, which can lead to additional stress and burnout. Acheson et al. (2016) describe the crucial and oft-overlooked burden of Emotion Labor that teachers of LCTCAs can experience, due to a perceived lack of community and institutional support which can create an excessive burden for motivation and energy creation. Additionally, some very specific logistical concerns are noted in the literature on the teaching of specific LCTCA, such as the reality of “Art-on-a-Cart” (Nolte-Yupari, 2019, p. 14). You might be surprised to consider certain other content areas as less commonly taught, such as Physical Education. Consider however Physical Education classes in US schools have been on the decline and have sometimes been pushed aside over the past few decades, due to stronger emphasis on core academic subjects as defined by policy makers. Simply put, if you are part of the group of LCTCA teachers, you know who you are and what unites us!
Circling back to the expansion and explosion of online teaching and learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s important to note that teaching LCTCA online isn’t entirely new. Before the pandemic school year, United States K-12 cyber schools existed but only served a small population of students whose families formally chose that option. Within these existing cyber schools, there was a general understanding about how these content areas were taught, with families often taking some of the responsibility for things like logging asynchronous learning activities in Music or Physical Education classes (Smathers, 2021). The 2020/2021 school year entailed an entirely new form of virtual schooling, in which established teachers of LCTCA at traditional brick-and-mortar K-12 schools needed to deliver content and engage their students, who had been accustomed to on-ground teaching and learning. Teachers learned to be even more creative and think outside the box, while juggling online, hybrid, remote, and/or in person instruction, along with their diverse demands and logistics. As a silver lining, this rapid shift has given us an opportunity to think about LCTCAs in a fresh and new way.
What is it like for teachers of LCTCA to teach online, especially during the pandemic?
Here are some brief examples to reflect on:
- Physical Education teachers broadcasting exercise routines via Zoom ask everyone to participate with their cameras on. Some of the kids have to find big enough and quiet enough spaces, including creative solutions such as exercising in a large closet with a hand-held tablet computer.
- Music teachers who direct orchestra and band find ways to give small group instrumental lessons and present online recitals for families via Zoom.
- Foreign Language and English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers who would usually rely a lot on facial expressions and modeling pronunciation with their mouths visible and in close proximity to students need to adjust to wearing a mask while teaching online students and in-person students in their classrooms simultaneously.
- Visual Art Teachers who typically utilize shared paints, papers, and other media need to get the materials to their online students for use at home, and must demonstrate techniques over a screen, which is far less tangible and concrete for the students.
- Like all teachers, teachers of LCTCA have tried out new apps and other technologies, only to find that only a select few are truly useful for their unique teaching context and needs.
- Teachers of LCTCA have perhaps found themselves pushed aside even more than usual, given the emergency shift and need to allocated resources. Some teachers of LCTCA may have met with their students far less often than usual, especially given the lack of in-person opportunities such as concerts, art shows, sporting events, etc.
- Scheduling demands and constraints uprooted norms and comfortable routines for all teachers, but especially teachers of LCTCA, who already often teach “on a cart” or in shared classrooms.
- Flexibility and creativity were absolutely necessary, especially with ever-changing protocols. For example, some Instrumental Music teachers had their students perform socially distanced in-person while wearing specially designed masks that could work with wind instruments!
So, with the title of this blog post in mind, how do you teach THAT online?!
Here are some strategies and tips that I heard about and experienced this year as both a parent and a Teacher Educator. These general tips are also good practice in any teaching and learning context:
- Think outside the box and allow yourself to consider creative and unique solutions.
- It’s not all digital! Consider ways to connect with your students that are not within an app, recorded video, or over a Zoom or Teams meeting.
- While today’s online learning technologies are amazing, learning apps can only do so much.
- Using synchronous tools wisely, with the core idea of true engagement in mind.
- Consider a combination of hands-on, synchronous, and asynchronous engagement. For example, Visual Art teachers could do a live demo of a technique along with the online students via Zoom. Once the student work is complete, students can upload a picture of their work to an online classroom photo gallery for an online art show to be viewed by family and friends.
- Truly embody and model your passion for your content area. This genuine positive energy can come across the screen just like it does in person for your students.
- Seek support and collaboration, wherever you may find it. For teachers of LCTCA, this practice may involve looking far beyond your school or school district.
Looking toward the future and a post-pandemic world, it’s important to consider what has changed, what will continue to change, and what will remain the same:
- What have been the most important observations, lessons, and reflections for teachers of LCTCA during this unique year and experience?
- How can we overcome the remaining hurdles, both for online teaching and learning of LCTCAs and in general for teachers in this group?
- What innovations and fresh ideas may enhance teaching and learning of LCTCAs in various contexts?
- Most importantly, how can stakeholders, policy makers, and communities support, understand, and affirm teachers of LCTCA in all teaching and learning contexts?
Let’s continue the conversation together!
Maggie Broderick, PhD
NCU School of Education
Acheson, K., Taylor, J., & Luna, K. (2016). The burnout spiral: The emotion labor of five rural US foreign language teachers. Modern Language Journal, 100(2), 522–537.
Broderick, M. (2021). Navigating the school as a smaller fish: Research-based guidance for teachers of less commonly taught content areas. In K. Pierce-Friedman & L. Wellner (Eds.), Supporting Early Career Teachers with Research-Based Practices. Hershey, PA: IGI Global.
Kelly, R. (2020, April 16). 4,000 plus U.S. higher ed institutions impacted by COVID-19; more than 25 million students affected. Campus Technology. https://campustechnology.com/articles/2020/04/16/4000-plus-us-higher-ed-...
Nolte-Yupari, S. T. (2019). Facing the Elephant: Let’s Talk About Art-on-a-Cart. Art Education, 72(6), 14–19.
Smathers, J. (2021, April 1). What does physical education look like at a cyber school? WCCS Radio. https://www.wccsradio.com/2021/04/01/what-does-physical-education-look-l...
Supiano, B. (2020, April 07). 'On a Desert Island with Your Students': Professors Compare Notes on Teaching Remotely in a Pandemic. Retrieved June 25, 2020, from https://www.chronicle.com/article/On-a-Desert-Island-With/248452?fbclid=...
Will, M. (2018, October 23). 5 Things to Know About Today's Teaching Force. Retrieved from https://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/teacherbeat/2018/10/today_teaching_force...