AKA How to Prep Your Staff for the Realities of Working Online

When Hello began providing speech & OT services online a decade ago, I couldn’t have imagined in a thousand years I’d be living through a time in which entire school districts would shut down and find themselves moving educational opportunities into the virtual realm. Alas, the world has turned upside down these last weeks and our best solution is now to meet each other in the virtual world.

In the realm of special education where I hang out, online services are effective, engaging, and provide a consistent path to appropriately differentiated instruction in a manner never before possible for specialists in our brick and mortar school buildings. I find that, regretfully, not enough folks right now are even thinking about how to teach their staff about these considerations, let alone talking about how to address them. 

The last decade has taught our staff a great deal about the realities of working online with kids and families. And so, from our deep and collective wisdom, here is a listing of 6 things no one else will tell you about teaching online. Ideally, administrators will be providing some guidance with each.

The Most Important Starting Point is Build a Relationship (With Parents)

Many educators and special education staff go online, expecting to focus immediately on the student. In reality, educators must first become coaches for parents. Educators need parents to buy into the plan if parents are expected to play any supporting role, and that can require some relationship building. “Good parents” come in all sizes and shapes with varying priorities and goals for their kids, and good educators get that understanding those priorities and goals is essential. 

How to build that relationship? Take time to ask questions. Survey parents regarding their priorities for the “class.” Ask directly if a parent is able or wants to support their child’s effort online. Be compassionate with a parent’s situation. Respectfully, lower your standards. Don’t let perfection be the enemy of the good. 

Attendance Looks Differently Online

In the virtual world, educators are on a family’s schedule and families may weigh priorities differently. The mindset going into this virtual work may be that educators should make plans and expect participation and attendance. Well, what if the family has multiple children? Other commitments? Parents working from home? Siblings requiring care? An educator’s dreams of consistent attendance can dissolve pretty quickly.

How to capture good attendance? Talk directly to parents when setting up services to ask what kind of time commitment they can make. Do parents need to be nearby? Sitting with their student? Describe expectations. Ask about potential challenges to meeting online. Why would your student possibly need to miss a day? Be flexible! Never make your schedule and then contact parents to inform them of such. That’s a recipe for disaster and limited learning for kids.

Professional Boundaries are Needed

Set limits and set them early. The virtual world is a window into someone’s home life. Every time you log on, you see what’s happening in the background. You see how families interact. You see distractions, limitations, inequities between family members. Simultaneously, you are rather anonymous in comparison to someone sitting at the kitchen table or a conference room at school. It’s not unheard of for students and some strained parents to disclose personal information. You can find yourself unexpectedly pulled into the emotional story of a family. 

How to establish professional limits? This can be as simple as outlining in advance what your role will be. As conversations with parents evolve, avoid personal reflections that invite more personal commentary. At the same time, our position as mandatory reporters stand, and anything that is observed that raises a red flag should be reported. 

Some Parents Simply Can’t or Don’t Want to Be Tutors

An educator’s content lessons may rely heavily on additional parental or sibling follow-up. Be prepared when parents don’t want to do the homework, either. 

How to make parents be partners? You can’t. Period. Educators are better off identifying upfront with families what kind of role parents may want to/can play. It could result in some students receiving longer time online with a teacher to ensure an objective is clarified. Different amounts of time with different students does not create an inequitable learning experience. In fact, it’s called differentiation. Much like we wouldn’t penalize a student for having learning challenges, we shouldn’t punish a student for having caregivers who simply can not assist you with instruction. 

Be Prepared to Articulate What You’re Teaching and Why You’re Teaching It

Periodically, with the entire family immeshed in the “school experience” online, parents will seek more information and ask smart questions. How does this assignment further develop his writing? Why do you want my student to have a group discussion with us about the Oregon Trail? It’s rare in the day-to-day classroom for educators to be quizzed on their practices. However, some parents want to understand the scaffolding of instruction for different content areas.

How to articulate what you’re doing? Dust off Bloom’s Taxonomy thinking to justify in layman’s terms what you want from Junior and why. Don’t interpret these questions as distrusting. Instead, view them as curious points of interest. Many times, parents are simply interested in knowing how long before their student can do X. 

Working Online is More Than The Time You Spend on Screen

Many district administrators believe working online equates to a) plan content b) hold lessons online. Every teacher, specialist, and administrator we have worked with underestimates the time email, phone calls, and texting require to provide consistent instruction. Preparing lessons, following up with parents, and differentiating instruction are still required when working online.

How to build in the time you need?  The key to success for educators is lots of communication and having a firm grasp of students’ skill sets. All of which require time. Expect it. Plan for it. And when you still underestimate the time something took, be kind to yourself. Tomorrow is another day. 

Working online presents an entirely new set of challenges for administrators and educators alike. The good news, though, is that it also offers unprecedented opportunities to differentiate instruction and meet students where they are. Tackle the challenges, embrace the opportunities, and do what you can to make the most of every day, just like in the brick-and-mortar classroom.