Distance Learning and Adult Social-Emotional Needs

Jack Creeden

I guess we are now officially in the era of distance learning. No matter what name we use, this is a Brave New World for faculty, students and parents to navigate amidst the uncertainty and anxiety of coronavirus.

Although at first it felt like we were creating a new curriculum without much guidance, there is plenty of well-informed advice available to all of us. And we have relied with great confidence on the models borrowed from educators in Asia. Schools across China and South Korea have been doing distance learning for more than two months. The classroom products our colleagues have produced are quite good and have helped us avoid many of the mistakes they made in Week One of their distance teaching. Their lessons-learned have made our first efforts even better.

Unlike traditional classroom teaching, where we focused almost exclusively on the student, we have learned in distance learning that we have multiple audiences. Whether at the secondary or primary school level, parents are much more involved (some of my colleagues find that statement hard to believe!) than in traditional settings. We take it for granted that distance learning for a 1st or 3rd grader must involve the parents. But we have already learned that even the most high achieving high school students have found it a challenge to adjust to the different demands of distance learning.

Who would have thought that with parents working from home, there would be conflicting schedules for use of a home computer? How many instruments do you have in your home? And even if students have their own laptops or iPads, the demand on the home network can be a challenge. What happens when mom, dad, two younger siblings and an older sister returned from university need to connect at the same time? Can you imagine the speed of a home network if three or more people are trying to download a work or school video at the same time? Who anticipated that?

Creating a schedule for access to the network or to a limited number of instruments will need to be negotiated. Where is the private space that each user needs? And since both parents are self-quarantined at home, what’s the schedule of parental assistance with electronic assignments, especially for our youngest students? And who decides when there has been enough screen time for the day? Can I as a parent declare that it is time for the family to be together and suggest we all go out for a walk at noon in the bright sunshine?

... in this new era of distance learning, educational leaders and classroom teachers must consider the social-emotional needs of parents.

The social-emotional needs of students are always part of our curriculum planning. But in this new era of distance learning, educational leaders and classroom teachers must consider the social-emotional needs of parents, many of whom are spending all day every day for the next four to six weeks in their home with all of their children – talk about anxiety-producing environments!

And what about our faculty, most of whom have refined their craft and demonstrate a high degree of classroom expertise on a daily basis. The master teacher who has deep knowledge of their discipline and has successfully integrated technology into classroom work will find distance learning a whole new experience. It’s like being a first-year teacher all over again! Different apps, platforms and untested strategies to engage students, share information, prompt intellectual curiosity and promote critical analysis. Easy to say. Unbelievably challenging to pull off in the first week.

Those of us in leadership roles need to make sure we pay attention to the social emotional needs of adults in this new teaching environment. As in so many parts of life, balance is critical. We will get the best work from our faculty when we wholeheartedly support their efforts, celebrate their successes and help them move on from strategies that did not work.

Distance learning is not classroom learning.

We need to manage the expectations of our parents. Distance learning is not classroom learning. There are distinct advantages to each. So we must educate our parents about the many remarkable advantages that can accrue from distance learning. At the same time, we need to be clear that teaching strategies will be altered. The sense of a classroom community and the energy of a room of enthusiastic and engaged 2nd graders will feel different when they all appear on a Zoom gallery screen and want to simultaneously respond to a question from the teacher.

I admit to being excited. We will glean innovative and improved strategies from distance learning. Adding those new approaches to the methodologies we know work in a classroom will make our teaching and learning richer when we return to school buildings. It is a grand experiment, but it will succeed only if we pay close attention to the social emotional needs of both students and adults. To do anything less will erode the academic and social emotional growth of the students in our care.