Keeping the lines of communication open is vital when students are distance learning – and these pointers will help you
Across the world schools are shut, but everyone expects students to continue their studies via remote teaching and distance learning. To achieve that, teachers, students and parents all need to stay in touch. But how do you do that effectively when there’s no classroom conversation and staffroom natter? Here are a few ideas to help you maintain good communications.
Schools need to be clear about where parents and students should go for information. Allowing different members of staff free choice over whether to use text messages, email, Instagram, Facebook or Twitter will mean important stuff can be missed. Hopefully your school will have issued guidance about what methods to use. It’s important that messages from school come through one medium so parents know where they should look to monitor students’ work, and students don’t miss important assignments.
We all get emails from companies that think an email a day means they’ll get more business – we just delete them. Sending emails too often, particularly if their content is unimportant, is counterproductive. Plan a schedule for contacting your students and stick to it unless there is something truly urgent – and in this case mark the message as such.
For whole-school communications, weekly messages are likely to be sufficient. Work with your school’s leadership team to develop policies that make it clear what the expectations are. For example, there could be an expectation that teachers send work to students every Monday, or at the beginning of each day they would be teaching a class. Ideally, all these messages should be in a central location for parents and SLT to access.
Virtual learning environments and apps give you the ability to teach as if you were in the classroom, including sharing slides and videos, setting group work and whiteboarding. They also let you talk to students. Don’t be tempted to livestream from your home or video call students though. And bear in mind that these technologies may not be suitable for all students.
More readily accessible alternatives include setting work via email and MOOC. In these environments, you can set, collect and mark assignments. You can also respond to questions from students and help out.
Although it seems that everyone has a smart phone and laptop, it’s not always the case. Some students won’t have a computer or a good internet connection. With libraries and schools closed, think about where they can work. Those students on limited data plans may not be able to view video or participate in video lessons. Hopefully by now you’ve checked that students are able to access the required tools.
Students need to know they’re being supported, and never more so than through this period of uncertainty. This isn’t the same as the odd snow day when everyone pretends there’s work happening but actually goes out tobogganing. You need to find ways to check in with students that don’t mean you’re on hand to answer queries 24/7. Tools such as Google Docs mean you can comment on written work in real time. Schools may use message boards or VLEs to allow students to seek advice and teachers to give feedback.
Text messages and phone calls have their place for students who cannot access the internet. To avoid students having your personal number for ever, set it to show up as ‘private’ or consider getting a pay-as-you-go SIM card – and remember to use your school email address, not your personal one.
Safety and well-being
Any method of communication between adults and children should be able to be monitored, preferably in real time. This is to protect both sides from abuse and claims of abuse. Don’t use personal accounts for any method of communication.
Think also about your work-life balance. If there’s an expectation that parents or students can ask questions and expect responses at any point in the day while you’re teaching remotely, you’re going to end up overstretched. Worse, only certain students will get attention if they or their parents are pushy; others will get missed.
The key is to manage expectations. For example, ‘I will respond to messages from students between 8:30am and 4:30pm each day. All messages from parents should go through the school office.’ Alternatively, to try and spread your workload you could say, ‘I will prioritise answering questions from students during their normal chemistry class time each week. For 12D this is Monday 12:30–1:30 … etc.’ Again, coordinate with other members of your school, or at least your department. If the physics team has vastly different working practices from the chemistry and biology teams, students and parents will be concerned.
Staying on message
For whole-school communications, although it’s tempting to keep repeating governmental messages, there are already too many messages about self isolating and handwashing. Don’t add to that. Make your content unique, interesting and relevant. Before sending a message ask yourself: ‘If I was a parent/student, what would I want to know this week from school?’
Schools were closed with very little warning, and there’s little doubt most will initially have only set some interim work covering a couple of weeks. As the dust settles, it’s important you plan a coherent strategy for communications for the duration, not just with students but with colleagues too. Zoom is free for schools at the moment and is a great way of having a team meeting while maintaining social distancing. Taking time to plan now will help you avoid a number of potential pitfalls and make everyone feel more confident that students can still learn through this difficult time.