How teachers are adapting to working remotely

April 13, 2020, 8:45 PM UTC

English teacher Leigh Perkins isn’t afraid to admit how everyone is feeling: “No one—kids or teachers—is functioning at 100 percent right now, and it’s hard to remember that at times.”

An independent boarding school teacher in Massachusetts, Perkins is one of a countless number of teachers who have had no choice but to adapt to working remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic, often in a matter of days. But the expectation of a smooth transition is mostly overblown. “This isn’t true distance learning, as no one thrown into this situation is trained in that specific type of pedagogy. It can’t be ‘business as usual,’” she says.

So teachers have been managing to work under some kind of normalcy. The key? Being realistic. “Cut your expectations of what you’re going to cover in half and then cut it again. The sooner you accept that, the sooner your head won’t explode,” recalls Doug Gilbert, a middle school history teacher in upstate New York, who was advised by a teacher in Wuhan, China.

“Teachers are recognizing they can’t get to the ‘finish line’ they had in mind for their classes,” adds Perkins. “They are learning to forgive themselves and adjust.” Mostly, they’re doing so in three ways:

They’re listening to student’s needs

For instructors, remote teaching has meant taking cues from students on what they need right now—and as if being separated from their peers and dealing with distractions at home were difficult enough, the number one barrier teachers are facing is the lack of connectivity students have at home. 

“In rural Tennessee, we have many households that do not have internet access,” says Alex Beene, a teacher of Adult Education and ACT Prep classes in the Southern state. “Whereas I can use something like Zoom or Google Hangouts for those that do have wireless connectivity, these plans fall flat with people who don’t have those services.” 

3.1 million households with school-aged children have no wired broadband connection, according to nationwide 2017 data from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). Broadband adoption rates in minority households are particularly lagged, so they rely on connecting on their mobile devices.

“This reality poses issues of inequity and moral dilemmas for educators,” says Kristin Cichowski, a theatre specialist for elementary aged students at a school in Pennsylvania. “My heart is heavy when I think about those students who have little o no means of accessing the material—in addition to perhaps even more important concerns like ‘are my students safe? Are they able to stay healthy? Have they received a meal today?’”

The connectivity disparity is present for students of all ages. Dr. Lydia Owens, who teaches an introductory sociology class at Penn State, surveyed her class on what students have access to and what she can do to make things easier. Some of them were on spring break when the campus was shut down, leaving their textbooks or notes behind as the dorms remain closed. While most students brought their laptops home, some have spotty internet, and many have been working from their phones.

“The best practices for teaching are being revealed in the online discussions they’ve been having,” says Dr. Owens. “I’ve been adapting my course through that feedback, even though it’s not directly to me. It helps me be more empathetic to them, like one that mentioned that having to join four Zoom clases at the same time will not work.”

They’ve become creative with their solutions

Teachers are working with what they have. Some have been encouraging students to complete school work on their phones. “I’ve been able to teach media skills by turning to accessible and easy-to-use apps, like a free online design tool called Canva to complete a marketing project,” says George Lee, Director and Media Arts teacher at CAST Academy, Balboa High School.

Meanwhile, Beene is also working to ensure less advantaged students with poor internet connections don’t get left behind. “I’ve been shipping books and packets to those that don’t have wireless access and giving them calls during the week so we can go over questions and concerns,” he says.

Other educators, like Dr. Owens, are recording lectures that students can watch on their own time, and she makes herself available on Zoom during class hours for anyone who has questions.  

While Jennifer Lee Magas, MA, JD., a clinical associate professor of public relations at Pace University admits that their transition has been easier thanks to tools like Blackboard and Google Docs already being used in class, it’s still far from ideal. Therefore, she is allowing her students to hand in assignments whenever they can. Pace University, like many colleges across the country, is also allowing students to request being graded pass or fail for the course.

They’re aiming to create a safe space online

“A lot of kids have anxiety,” says Gilbert. One thing he has cut is tests and quizzes. After a student cheated on the first one, he decided it was impossible to monitor without a timer—something he has no plans to use in hopes of mitigating any additional stress. “The moment they see that timer start, some of them are going to get flooded with panic and become more worked up than under normal conditions.”

Perkins seconds this: “The most important thing right now is the students’ mental health and safety. Every week it seems like the ‘checking in’ parts of my classes are by far the most valuable, and I’ll keep it up for as long as they need it. They can learn about comma splices next year.”

Sara Edler, a first grade teacher in Illinois, used to spend her days answering six-year-old’s questions and walking them to and from classes. “No longer are we getting face-to-face time with our students. We aren’t able to hug them when they seek you out or to be their safe place anymore. It really is heartbreaking,” she explains. Online classrooms, new learning games, digital class meetings and answers to every text, email or message is hopefully a way for students to know that teachers like Edler are there for them.

In an interesting twist matching the strangeness of the times, some teachers have realized graduate students require the same care as first graders and middle schoolers. “Students may be isolated from peers or in different time zones, so making sure they are doing OK mentally, physically and intellectually is extremely vital,” says Anne Robinson, professor and Head of Chemical Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University’s College of Engineering.

“The regular social interaction of a residential education is critical for graduate and postdoctoral students,” she says. Robinson has found that breaking students into small team meetings has allowed for increased engagement as well. Plus, graduate students are better equipped to support each other than younger students. At Carnegie Mellon, the graduate student organization has planned virtual happy hours, team gaming and virtual Netflix movie sessions as an effort to bridge the physical isolation. 

More must-read careers coverage from Fortune:

—How Fortune 500 companies are stepping up during the pandemic
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—Listen to Leadership Next, a Fortune podcast examining the evolving role of CEO
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