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Addressing Your Online Teaching Pet Peeves

Last spring, we were all quaranteaching.  What’s quaranteaching?  It’s making the most of a pretty bad situation, pulling stuff left and right, creating on the fly.  In sum, we did what we could without much, if any, planning.

Distance learning has existed for some time.  Hey!  Fifteen years ago I completed a 36-credit TESOL certificate with UCLA, and it was entirely online.  Six years ago, I taught hybrid bilingual education courses at Hunter College in New York.  I can tell you that quaranteaching is nothing like distance learning.  Distance learning involves careful planning, and if you were like my Georgia teachers, you were thrown straight into online teaching, leaving your classroom on a Friday only to start teaching online on Monday.  Good luck being intentional when you’re given such little notice!

Because this was so last minute, we didn’t have time to anticipate issues, and most likely we developed pet peeves.  When we’re in the classroom as teachers, we like to control what happens within the confines of our four walls: how kids line up, how they ask for help, how they participate in group discussions and in pairs, how they put away their materials… Many of us have developed very tight routines because - over time, we’ve hit our personal limit and have been pushed to create solutions that address our biggest pet peeves.   

Name Pet Peeves

Being a little OCD, I have a few pet peeves of my own.  At the very top of my list is the pencil sharpener.  I like to have the best pencil sharpener.  I will even buy my partner a pencil sharpener.  I also buy high quality pencils, and plenty of them so that I’m never hearing students tell me there aren’t enough pencils in the classroom.  The reason I like to have the best pencil sharpener available is because (1) I want it to be somewhat quiet so it doesn’t interrupt independent work, (2) I want the machine to sharpen without damaging the graphite so that the sharpened pencil will last longer, and (3) I will give students very little time to sharpen each day so I need this pencil sharpener to be super fast.  

With this pet peeve comes certain coping mechanisms – rules and procedures I have elaborated to make things work for me.  To start off, students are never allowed to sharpen their pencils while I am instructing.  This is made very clear to them at the very beginning of the year, and a sign is posted next to the pencil sharpener saying “Is this a good time?” with a picture of me teaching.  Next, there’s a consequence for sharpening your pencil when you’re not supposed to: The offender will sharpen 5-20 pencils during recess to make sure they understand that I don’t like for my time to be wasted sharpening pencils. I also have a pencil hospital and a sharpened pencil bin.  When students’ pencils need sharpening, they can place them in the pencil hospital, and grab a sharpened pencil from the bin.  To avoid hearing the machine throughout the day, I have a pencil helper who is responsible for sharpening pencils when students file in first thing in the morning, and right after lunch.

When we were forced into Quaranteaching, the vast majority of us had no idea what we were up against.  We quickly found out that we had pet peeves on the screen too: children not showing up, students in PJs, people eating, rocky computers that give you motion sickness, unmuting buttons, taking control of the annotation tool, black screens… You name it! 

You made it through those excruciating three months.  Kudos to you!  Now, let’s wave goodbye to Quaranteaching, and say hello to Distance Learning.  Quality distance learning is about knowing what platforms to use, what practices to implement and what processes to teach (Fisher, Frey, et al., 2020).  Today, I want to talk about the importance of processes.  

Typically, we spend the first six weeks of school (I mean in-person schooling), teaching our students how we want them to behave in our classroom.  Guess what all of those routines and procedures are?  They’re processes.  

Online learning requires us to teach our students our class processes as well.  This may mean lots of repetition.  That’s OK!  Remember: you would have spent six weeks on this in class.  The kids can’t seem to line up properly?  How many times would I ask them to try it again?  “That was pretty good, but I think we can do better.  Let’s try this one more time, and this time, I’d like for you to please remember to push your chairs in so no one gets hurt on their way to the line.  [Big smile]  So now [HUGE smile], let’s try that again.  Can you please make your way back to your tables, sit down, and let’s see if when I call you up ALL of the students can remember to push their chairs in.  Ready?  Go!” 

Online too, we need to arm ourselves with patience to teach our students how to learn more effectively.  Where do you start?  Start with the technical essentials.  Then, focus on your pet peeves.  Finally, teach them explicitly about etiquette.  

Teach Technical Essentials

What are technical essentials?  They’re tips and tricks to experience online learning at its fullest.  For example, hHow to open up a document, how to use a particular tool, how to set up the viewing mode to see one face or all faces on the call. 

I recommend you create a small library of short videos on how to make certain tools work.  Of course, you’ll need to reteach them live, but when you’ve gone through the process of making the video you’ve actually practiced teaching it.  It’s kind of like when you used to rehearse in front of a mirror what you would say to your students on those first few days of school.  Well, the mirror ain’t going to cut it, when we’re all learning these online tools!  You’re going to have to be an expert, and I’ve found that each time I make one of these technical videos, I find out I need to perfect the steps or the words I use.  For example, the floating thing at the top of your screen when you’re in share screen mode on Zoom, it’s called a toolbar.  Of course it is, but I couldn’t figure out its name, and when I first videotaped myself describing a certain procedure, I found myself sounding totally ridiculous.  Then, I did a little 20-second search on Google, and identified it by its name!  Well, on the next recording, I sounded like I knew it all, when only seconds earlier I was totally clueless!

Once you’ve perfected your instructions, make a quick cheat sheet for yourself to remind yourself of all of the little steps.  Below are the instructions I use when I ask students to turn on the side-by-side mode on Zoom so they can see my face while I’m sharing my screen.   

Present Coping Mechanisms

Now is the time to really address your pet peeves.  I’m sure you have quite a few by now.  Last spring, we were teaching online for three months.  How long will it be this time around?  We don’t know.  Do I really want to see students lying on their beds again?  I mean, seriously???  For someone who clearly has control issues (me), this can be absolutely infuriating.  So, how do you keep it together?  You teach students exactly how you want them to avoid pushing your buttons.  

Think through your coping mechanisms.  These can be charts you create, a reminder slide that’s always at the very beginning of certain presentations, a text message that goes out to parents before math class to ask them to remind their kids to bring their dry erase boards, calendar notifications for older students to show up, jobs you give certain students… 

How would I teach students not to be on their beds?  Before we start school, I would talk to parents about places and postures that are acceptable - and not.  Once classes start, I’d compliment students that were sitting at the foot of their beds.  I would also have them take pictures of their “workspace” and send it to me so I can make a collage, and I would talk about our class community through those pictures.  I’d have a chart with good posture habits.  I’m totally fine with students sitting at the foot of their beds.  When I host, I’m always in my bedroom because that’s the quietest place at home.  I get it.  People live in small spaces, but the foot of a bed is better than lying on top of a bed. 

Teach Online Etiquette

If you want students to really get a handle on what is appropriate or not, you’ll need to teach certain routines and procedures about online etiquette.  Think of teaching them in this way: 

  • We keep our mute button on so that we can hear the teacher or specific students sharing out. 
  • We use the “raise your hand” button to show that we’re ready to share so that the teacher can see the hand signal next to my name and knows who to call on. 
  • We bring our dry erase boards to the math workshop so we are ready to practice our new math strategies, and keep the class learning quickly and efficiently.  

Notice that I’m highlighting how these rules of engagement enhance our learning.  That’s right!  I’m not focusing on the negative.  I’m helping them understand the rationale behind all of these expected behaviors.  

I hope all of these how-tos on how to address your pet peeves help you take ownership of distance learning.  

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