When Teaching Takes a Turn: The Challenges of Online Learning

July 28, 2020 Updated: August 5, 2020

When the pandemic lockdown began back in March, educators were left scrambling to adapt to teaching online and had to quickly figure out how to create as efficient and engaging a learning environment as possible.

Kevin White, who teaches Grade 8 at Morning Star Middle School in Mississauga, Ont., says it felt like his class had been “ripped apart” because the change was so sudden and dramatic.

“I’m with my homeroom of 25 kids one day, and then I don’t see them again for the rest of the year. That was tough for them and for me,” White said in an interview.

Students too, had to get used to the idea of online learning. White says many of his students were resistant at first.

“They were like, whoa this is crazy. Some didn’t trust it, some didn’t take to it, and some didn’t think it was real. They thought this is not school.”

Gail Jones, who works in the Intensive Support Program of a Toronto District School Board secondary school teaching special needs students, experienced this as well but on a more acute level.

“I work with students that are highly autistic and some are non-verbal or selective verbal. They’re used to that structure and once that structure is broken and they are in their home, the association with me and school is removed.”

With the traditional learning environment no longer in place, everyone involved had to cope with the new reality.

“To be honest, parents, teachers, and students were just all in survival mode,” says Jones.

Patrice White, Kevin White’s sister, agrees. She teaches Grade 7 at Herbert H. Carnegie Public School in Maple, Ont. “We were counselling parents, we were reassuring students, and honestly, if we got to the teaching part that was a bonus.”

There also had to be co-operation from the parents, which sometimes proved to be a challenge in itself—particularly in her brother’s case. He says many of his students live with extended family and are often looked after in the daytime by their grandparents, most of whom don’t speak English well.

“It was hard communicating with any kind of adult for 85 percent of my class,” he says, adding that some of the parents do shift work, which proved to be another barrier.

“If the parents aren’t there because they’re working two or three jobs and they’re shift jobs, it was really hard to get some of these kids to buy in.”

To bridge the gap, White made daily calls to parents, even waiting until one parent finished their 12-hour shift at work to connect. Other teachers were assigned to make house calls when parents couldn’t be reached by phone or when families “were having a hard time coping with the rigours of the pandemic and the advent of distance learning.”

Over the weeks, what helped his students immensely with their learning were the videos he produced, he says. While a 10-minute video might have to be edited multiple times just to get it right, it was worth it.

“Video instruction was incredibly important. You had some teachers who just scanned the page and sent it as a PDF to the kids, and that just didn’t work,” he says.

To supplement the change for her students and their parents, Jones says it was important to provide a variety of lesson choices to ease the stress of an already difficult situation.

“Working with my students is extremely hands on. You’re more working on life skills. So the remote learning platform is not as equitable as it might be with another student who is in a mainstream setting.”

Epoch Times Photo
Patrice White holds up a sign during a school-wide video initiative. (Courtesy of Patrice White)

Patrice White says that once her students had transitioned to online learning, she used video messages to help orient them. But to keep them engaged, she threw in trivia or “make a meme” activities as an incentive for extra marks.

It worked. “They were on and they were listening and then they were competing to be the first one to reply so they could get their bonus mark,” she says. “All of a sudden, like they were the keyboard warriors. … I saw a lot of those kids shining.”

Her brother said he would use Google Meet twice a week where the whole class could simply chat together, and it had a very positive effect.

“The kids had missed that interaction, so that was huge. They looked forward to their Google Meet twice a week, and it helped their mental health too because they just wanted to be a part, they just wanted to connect.”

At one stage, teachers at White’s school organized a “drive-by visit” which involved the teachers driving to the neighbourhoods of all their students over a four-hour period.

“We honked our horns. We waved. We said hi,” he says. “They came out and ran to meet us, but we still social-distanced. They were incredibly happy to see us and it was amazing to see them. That was pretty memorable.”

Schools will be reopening across the country come September, albeit with various new health measures and precautions in place depending on the province.