Getting Through the Next Eight Weeks:
Ten Tips for Tired Teachers

By Maya Bernstein

Many educators have made a wild, frantic leap from our familiar, in-person educational model, our norm throughout human history, to a totally new, untested, all-virtual model. We’ve “zoomed” into this because we have no choice, and the hope is that what we’re providing is at least better than nothing (though more and more parents are feeling like this – #done #getdirtyoutside #read). As we transition into week after week, perhaps month after month, of educating students at home, we must bring more mindfulness and rigor to the way in which we convert in-person learning experiences to online learning. These tips are designed for teachers, but they are relevant for anyone gathering and facilitating learning in the endless maze of virtual rooms we are all currently haunting:

  1. Acknowledge the loss. It is critical to name that we are in a frightening, upsetting, uncertain situation. That is the reason we are all gathering virtually instead of in our classrooms and school-houses. If we do not name or hold the loss, it will hold us. In moments of extreme change, we must let go of certain things that we have held dear. It will be important for your students, no matter what age, to spend time talking about what you must let go of, or at least put on hold, in order to continue on in today’s reality.
  1. Design for the Heart – We tend to focus our learning on heads and hands. Here’s what the students need to know – these skills, these concepts. Here’s what we’re going to have them do – make this, draw that, take this test. But we are all sitting in a storm. The bravest amongst us is terrified. We don’t know what tomorrow, or next week, or next month, or even next year will hold. Make time and space to name this, to talk about it, to share feelings. This isn’t “tangential” to the learning; it is at the core of it. Teachers and schools provide critical stability for children of any age. The work of holding and naming and shepherding students through this turbulent time is at least half, if not more, of the teacher’s current job.
  1. KISS – Keep it short, stupid. We all run out of steam more quickly in virtual environments, and we weren’t in such great attention-span shape before this all started. Don’t talk at students for more than 10 -15 minutes without engaging them in some way. Keep classes shorter, if you can. Less is more.
  1. Purpose – Be very, very clear on purpose. Name it. Here’s what we’re going to accomplish in the next little bit together. This is what we’re going to do in class today. Name it and keep to it.
  1. Engagement is Key – It is much harder to keep everyone engaged in a virtual environment. Duh. It’s hard enough in person. My advice, perhaps counter-intuitive, is to direct the multi-tasking, since they will be multi-tasking anyway.
    1. Doodle – require that students doodle through the meeting. Doodling has actually been found to relieve stress and increase attention. At the end of the session, ask everyone to share their doodles. You can even give doodle awards…
    2. Graphic facilitation is a unique and cultivated skill, but anyone can do it crudely. Ask students to take notes that include sketches, abstract drawings, different colors – some way of capturing the arc of the class in a visual way. Again, share out at the end.
    3. Good old fidget toys. Ask them to keep their hands occupied – play with play dough or silly putty; squeeze a stress ball; spin a fidget spinner; build with lego, etc. It’s actually quite soothing.
  1. Back to that Attention Span – icebreakers, brain teasers, and movement activities are wonderful ways of hitting “reset” and renewing energy. Some of my favorites:
  1. Crazy 8s – ask everyone to stand up and shake their right hand, left hand, right foot, and left foot, in that order, first 8 times, then 7, then 6, down to one, shouting the numbers out loud as they go.
  2. This is Not a Pen – each person holds up a pen. Take turns – you can play one or two rounds – saying: “This is not a pen, it’s a…” and imagining it to be something different – “a rocket ship for termites; my magic wand; a toothbrush…etc.” Everyone gets to participate; everyone is forced to be just a bit creative and playful. Then get back to business as usual.
  3. 30 Circles – ask participants to print this out in advance – have them turn each circle into a different object in 3 minutes. Then share!
  4. Brain Teasers – quick, how does 5 + 5 + 5 = 50? Lots more where that came from.
  5. Breathe/Meditate – You can change the energy of the space just by asking students to stand up, or close their eyes, and do a short breathing or visualization. The “reset” will be helpful for you too. This can also become part of a regular opening or closing.
  1. Ritual – in times of uncertainty, rituals, established, meaningful, predictable patterns, are even more comforting and important than they usually are. Think about ways to meaningfully and predictably begin and end each class. And then invite students to lead these rituals, once they have become established.
  1. Embrace your inner performer – If you’re a teacher, there’s a bit of a performer in you. Now’s the time to embrace it. Practice singing in the shower. Practice your most extreme facial expressions. Get silly. You’re on camera. All the time. You need to exude even more energy than you normally would. Think like an actor – think about your “set” – what is your background like, what does the space around you convey? Think about your “costume” – what are you wearing? How does it connect with what you’re teaching that day? What kind of energy does it inspire? What is your “script?” You need to be tighter and better-scripted online. And finally, don’t do it alone. Show clips. Use the world wide web wisely. Bring in “guest teachers,” celebrities, movie clips, home videos, photographs, songs, works of art, poetry; think like a curator. Think about a ratio of at least 15% of entertainment to 85% content.
  1. Project-Based Learning – Give students work to do on their own, or in pairs, with friends. This will allow them to engage with peers, to feel a sense of accomplishment, to do work away from a screen. And, ultimately, when they present their work to the class, it will allow them to play a leadership role, and to feel that they have what to teach and contribute. Everyone will appreciate hearing from someone other than you.
  1. Grandparents – This is a particularly scary time for older adults. Many of them are alone, ill, or afraid of becoming ill. Think creatively about inviting grandparents (or “adopted grandparents”) to join zoom classes, to be “guest teachers;” create a buddy system pairing up students with older adults and giving them conversation topics; have your students interview their (adopted) grandparents and create a class podcast of these interviews.

None of us is ever prepared for, or wants, involuntary, difficult change. We are in a situation we hope will soon pass, but we also know that this pandemic will have a long tail, and that we will be altered inevitably as a result. Even as we mourn what was, we have the opportunity to adapt, gain new tools and techniques to inspire and educate and inform and challenge students to grow, become better versions of themselves, and contribute in meaningful ways to the world around us. We’ve been talking a lot about grit and resilience. Here we are, living it. We must acknowledge what we have lost. And hold on tight to what we’ve kept, to what is still working. And, challenging as it may be, we must embrace what is yet to come, actively designing our version of that new reality.

Maya Bernstein co-directs the Facilitation Certificate Program at Georgetown University’s Institute for Transformational Leadership; is a co-founder of UpStart, which supports innovation in nonprofit organizations; and teaches leadership for a variety of institutions in the U.S and abroad.