At the end of our first week of full-time virtual teaching I felt exhausted like I never have before. Sitting all day, every day had left me more tired than I ever felt teaching in person and I couldn’t quite place why. Of course, fielding the dozens of phone calls from families and navigating new learning platforms was a part of this exhaustion but it felt more specific to my daily routine and classes. I realized I wasn’t liking my job.
Don’t misunderstand me — we all have moments where our jobs are frustrating or challenging in a way that can be disheartening. But a week into virtual learning I felt no sense of joy or passion for the work. A key part of my job was different.
Like so many teachers, I thrive off of the back-and-forth with students. Whether academic or social, these interactions allow us to build meaningful learning partnerships with our students. The relationships don’t just make for more powerful learning but make the day-to-day experience more positive and enjoyable. My first week, I felt like I was giving so much of myself to the void that is my computer screen that by the end of the day there wasn’t any joy. I was carrying the entire load of learning and culture building and abandoning one of the most important parts of my in-person pedagogy: student voice.
Anyone reading this knows how important student voice is to an effective, safe classroom. The need for students to have their voices heard has only been exacerbated by the pandemic. Since March, few of our students have had a lot of control of their choices let alone had opportunities to engage in academic discourse. Yet right now, creating space for student voice in our classrooms is more difficult than ever to actualize.
In my own classroom, my first few days of the school year ended up being a lot of helping kids navigate their technology, and the activities I would normally do in person slipped to the background due to time. While I failed to facilitate the space and environment my students deserved, I bounced back during week 2! I proceeded to fail some more, and slowly but surely have found some ways to more organically incorporate student voice.
Community Agreements: An important part of my class culture is talking with students about what our classroom should look and feel like. In a virtual setting this has been evolving day-to-day! Carving out time to ask students what they want the “chat” to be used for, how do they want me to engage with them during asynchronous time, and brainstorming ways they can have choice in what we do while still learning.
Keep a List: During a more traditional school year I have a roster printed and mark important notes by students’ names during class. In this virtual world, I find it therapeutic to have a blank piece of paper and write down the student’s name as I call on them. This might be if they read something aloud, answer a question, or if they ask a question. By writing down the names, I have a visual reference during class of how I’m creating space for students to speak. If my list is short, I need to shake things up! I can also follow up with kids who I haven’t heard from during asynchronous time.
Technology: While it doesn’t beat in-person communication, there are dozens of great tech tools for collaboration. Even classic tools like Google Docs and Slides have been helpful to capture my students’ thoughts in real time, though Nearpod and Desmos are also great for this. I’ve recently been using a lot of video discussion on Schoology and Flipgrid during asynchronous time for students to have the opportunity to hear each other’s voices. Students want to hear from each other even if they’re hesitant to speak up.
Feedback: Virtual learning is still so new that there is a lot I’m learning. I’ve found asking the students for feedback during and after lessons has helped me learn not only what they like, but in giving students an opportunity to use their voice, I can better get to know them. And trust, when you ask students what they don’t like, they’ll tell you!
Creating opportunities for student voice isn’t easy in person, let alone virtually. I’m still making plenty of mistakes and learning as we go. With so much being asked of us it can be easy to deprioritize this. But if you’re a teacher who thrives off the relationships as much as I do, it’s worth it.
John Hesser is a Science Teacher teacher at Harshman Middle School and awardee of the 2019-2020 IPS Teacher of the Year.