Distance Learning, the New Normal

Author and speaker Patsy Clairmont has a book titled, “Normal is Just a Setting on Your Dryer.” Her goal was to free her readers from the pursuit of the unattainable.

Distance learning is a term most of us had never heard of or thought about pre-Covid-19 2020. Now in the arena of education it is almost all people are talking about. So I have to ask, if distance learning is the new normal, is the desired outcome attainable? As I scroll through Facebook posts of educator friends, most posts are focused on the difficulty of being a teacher now struggling to implement distance learning. The challenges are real not only for teachers, but also for students and parents.

In September, a survey was sent out to 60,000 Education Minnesota members. Nearly 10,000 teachers and principals responded to the survey.

In a report published by Kate Raddatz of WCCO-TV, the survey found that “nearly 30% of educators are thinking about quitting or retiring due to the stress, workloads and health risks stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.”

According to Denise Specht, the president of Education Minnesota, “There’s already a teacher shortage in Minnesota. Our public schools won’t function if thousands of educators burn out and leave.” Specht is asking districts to remove all unnecessary tasks from teachers.

I recently spoke with a teacher friend that told me, “teachers wish the district would take things off our plate like monthly staff meetings, observations, and professional learning team meetings.” She went on to say that “technology problems are constant. The fast pace of new learning is exhausting. Everything takes twice as long, doing and redoing, cleaning, space issues, and wasted time when students don’t show up for online lessons.” She went on to tell me about a 4th grade teacher that is teaching students all day in person and then goes home and has to check online for attendance and effort for distance learning students. She is working until 9 or 10 o’clock every night and is on the verge of burn out and it is only October. When I asked her what is going well, all she said is “hmmm! I’ll let you know if I think of anything!”

So the question becomes, how do we support teachers now? What steps can and should be taken to help teachers find balance in their career and home life? If we don’t tackle this now, the effects will be disastrous for everyone involved.

I saw this post by Dr. Brad Johnson. I think he has the right idea. We have to prioritize and remove the things that are not going to give an effective return on investment. We have to think about supporting teachers so they can make it to the finish line this year.

Last spring while I was working as a literacy lead for an elementary school, I got to experience first hand the difficulty of distance learning. The school that I worked at had the unusual problem of being very heavy in human capital. Another way of saying this is the school had a lot of adults supporting students in the learning. A good problem to have until Covid-19 hit when everyone was suddenly thrust into distance learning. Now we were all home vying for the time and attention of students online. In some instances, there were 12 adults that were trying to work with the same students. Yes, you read that right, 12 adults trying to meet their necessary work requirements at the expense of overloading students and parents. It was a very frustrating situation for everyone involved.

In my situation, I was trying to provide reading interventions for students as well as working with a few pre-schoolers that were already reading and the classroom teacher wanted to utilize my expertise to help these blossoming readers. Here are a few of the challenges that I faced:

I recently noticed another problem, several people posted that their child’s grades were suffering because of distance learning. Is distance learning a viable solution? This got me thinking and asking, what impact is distance learning having on students?

A friend that is an elementary teacher has two children, one is a 9th grader and the other is a 7th grader. The district that they attend and she teaches in is doing a combination of in person and hybrid/distance learning. All elementary students are in school full time. All middle school and high school students are in school two days a week and home for three days a week. Students are divided up my the alphabet. For my friend, what this means for them as a family is she is teaching at school full time every day and her children are home alone three days a week. Fortunately, for them, they have grandparents that live close and are available to help out each week. When I heard about this plan many questions came to mind:

My children are adults and I do not have to deal with this issue on a personal or even professional level right now since I am not working for a school district anymore. With that said, it has not stopped me from thinking hard about this issue and wondering what the solution is. One thing I am sure of, if we do not get students back in school full time and fast, we are going to see a devastating impact on student achievement. We do not want this to be our new normal in education for years to come.

When I was working with elementary schools all over the country I would share with people things I observed. I would always tell teachers and administrators, the good news is, I see the same thing all over the country! The bad news is, I see the same thing all over the country! I shared this to help teacher recognize that their situation wasn’t that unique or different than any other teacher around the United States. The unfortunate side to that statement is, students are struggling all over the United States and it is not getting any better. We do not have time to waste.

I wish I had a magic wand that I could wave and fix this problem. I have dedicated my whole career to the field of education, specifically, literacy and struggling readers. These two areas have been my passion for twenty years. If you read my first blog post, you know my secret. If you didn’t, I’ll share it with you now. I was a struggling reader when I was a child. I hated to read. I do not want any child to experience what I did as a child. Being a struggling reader had a devastating effect on me for years. Thankfully I overcame it.

“Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.”

Frederick Douglass

Mary

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