By Charles Silberman
As this course I teach called “Teaching PE and Health Remotely” has progressed, and hundreds of PE teachers from across the world have enrolled, I have seen some common themes come up. The issues come up when discussing several aspects of teaching online. From live teaching to assessing, many of these concerns are real, the feelings associated with facing them are valid, and the answers to them are not simple ones. With that said, I wanted to address some of these common concerns in the hopes they help you navigate your online teaching experience a little smoother.
PE Takes a Back Seat
This issue is the big one. I have seen this time and time again. Almost to a tee, every teacher was frustrated that when COVID hit in the spring, PE took a back seat to everything. From not being required to not being graded to students just not showing up, PE became the low subject on the totem pole. For many, this was extremely frustrating.
Teachers did not get to see their students. Teachers felt they could not hold students accountable. Teachers felt parents were unreachable. While I experienced many of these issues, a bigger picture merged in the spring of 2020: Students, teachers, and parents were overwhelmed.
Teachers were learning to teach online in a matter of days. Parents were scrambling to find structure for their children. And children were trying to find a way to cope in the face of tremendous adversity. Some of the adversity families faced and will face until this is over, we never will know. Thus, PE became about checking in with students and supporting their social and emotional needs. It became about getting them moving as much as possible. It became about teaching some health-related subjects. Spring was of 2020 will go down as a mess.
While I do not have a crystal ball that can tell the future, I can surmise moving forward will be different. I can figure this out because many schools and districts are settling on which technologies to go with and setting up training. I can guess this because hopefully, schools and communities and all stakeholders have learned some hard lessons and will grow from them. I can guess this because we are rolling into the start of the year.
Alternatively, your school was already in session and is now closed because of an outbreak. This state of affairs means we are starting fresh. I can surmise this because some states have rejected calls to lower PE requirements. I can think this because physical activity is more important now more than ever. All of this leads me to believe we will not see a repeat of the spring when PE was benched.
I think there will be higher expectations, more involvement from parents and students, and PE will be a more significant part of the online experience. And if it is not where you are, advocate for it; advocate for your program and your students. After all, this is all still new, and the freshness of a new school year should bring a clean slate.
Keep in mind that we have never started a school year online like this. So, there will be some bumps in this road. Hang in there and remember this is temporary.
Students with Special Needs
As we know, students come to us with all sorts of abilities. However, some students have individual requirements that need to be met. For example, students with IEPs, behavior plans, who are in special ed, or have physical or mental disabilities that require specialized support are among many students with which we work. When we are in school, we have all the supports to help these students in the school environment. We can easily access their plans, speak with the specialist that support them, and make any adjustments to our teaching to meet their needs. Online, all of this becomes quite hard. So, how do we work with students with special needs in an online environment?
There is no easy answer. This process is a collaborative one that will take organization, communication, patience, and some trial and error. You will need to work closely with those specialists who support these students and their primary teachers for what will work and what will not work. You may have to take a closer look at the documents that express their learning adjustments and think creatively on how you will meet those. You will have to be persistent in trying to get support and information you need to work with these students. And you may have to try some things to see what will work with students with special needs. You are a creative and caring teacher, so I know you will support the students the best to your ability.
Assessing Hundreds of Students
As PE and health teachers, we see our entire school, some portion of our school, or students across multiple schools. This situation makes assessing students in person often a chore in efficiency. But online, how do you assess so many students without spending all your free time reviewing journal entries, video uploads, or quizzes?
I think there are a couple of simple solutions here we overlook. The first is to use technology to your advantage. For example, if you are using Google Classroom, grading is made a little bit simpler with their tools. Canvas, for instance, has speed grading where the grades sync to the grade book. Other learning management systems sync to grade books. Using technology can be your most significant aid.
If you are not working with technology that can help make grading in mass efficient, you may want to consider where you focus your grading. This focus may depend on what your school or district mandates. Also, you may not give as many grades as you usually would.
Another alternative would be to spot-check. If you choose to have students turn in a journal entry of video, tell them you are going to spot-check so many randomly. And the ones you choose may get extra points or some other reward. This method will work where you may want to see they are learning a skill or grasping a concept as they work towards mastering a grade-level outcome. In this case, you may decide not to grade every step along the way but monitor for progress until you give a final assessment that gets graded.
When it comes to assessing live sessions, the same issue comes up. How do I visually evaluate x number of students on the screen? A couple of ideas hit home when it comes to this difficulty. First, if you have a big, flat-screen TV, you can always hook your computer up to that, so you see more students on the screen at once. Another option is to record the live session and rewatch it later to assess.
Moreover, you may decide to do breakout sessions if you are using Zoom or Teams. You can pop in and out of break out rooms to assess. Think of it as virtual stations.
Be realistic, however, when it comes to assessing. You are only human. Many of you have families at home with you. Prioritize what matters and is required by your school or district, and then come up with a plan ahead of time that allows you to be proactive and efficient.
Getting to Know New Students
Whether you are new to teaching, changing schools, or teach in middle or high school where you get new students at regular intervals, getting to know your students can be harder remotely. However, it is possible. Some of the tools you may use along the way in remote learning may help you. For example, in Zoom, you can see their names in the box! I hear this as a significant stress point from many. So below are some ideas on how to get to know your new and returning students online.
I think icebreakers still can work. Whether you do the whole group or use breakout rooms, students will appreciate this. Many become shy online, while others feel more comfortable and verbose. Doing ice breakers will help the students know they have a voice and will be heard. And it may even help them become more comfortable with the online tools if they are new to them.
Another option to get to know your students is using forms in Google or Microsoft Teams to collect information. Many of you do this in person when collecting contact information. You can do the same thing with a form, including contact information and other personal insights about your students.
I think perspective matters here too. Getting to know your students is hard, especially when you see them once a week for 30-45 minutes, like many of us. But online, you get a little glimpse into their lives. You see their rooms, people they live with, and other items that tell you about them as human beings. Plus, they get to see you in a more personal manner and see some of you. For example, my dog is well known because she joins every live session I have. Students will see we have families and are humans too. Seeing each other as humans sometimes makes for a more meaningful connection and breaks down barriers and fears that often come when they just see us as that PE teacher, and they feel like a student in a squad line.
Students Not Showing Up or Engaging
If you read the article I put at the start of the course, in the spring, the majority of online experiences lacked participation from students. There are many reasons for that. What I hope you have seen in this course is that getting students involved and showing up is no different than when you are in person. Set up your reward and incentive system, be consistent with it, create fun and engaging lessons, establish behavioral ground rules upfront, and communicate with parents in a multitude of ways.
In-person, we all have students who barley participate if at all. What do we do then? We find a way to engage them. Sometimes it is a reward system that works. Sometimes it is a fun and engaging lesson. Sometimes it is them knowing your rules are set, and you will enforce them fairly and consistently. Sometimes it takes involving parents. Sometimes it takes all of this and more.
Specifically, many have mentioned cameras being turned off or students lounging on furniture. To this, I say know your school or district expectations for video. Some districts do not let students turn on the video. Others do not allow the video to be on when a teacher is recording. So, know what is permitted and enforce it appropriately.
When it comes to longing on furniture, that is a personal call. Just like in person, some teachers want legs crossed and hands in lap all the time, and others are okay letting students put their legs out straight in squads. Know your threshold and enforce it. I have seen teachers have online meetings where the most active students are sitting up perfectly straight. Others let them lay on the floor or bed. Your student’s onscreen behavior is your call.
Communicating with Parents Is a Struggle
Students communicating with parents is one of the most common frustrations when it comes to teaching remotely. If you have children or have been teaching a while, the reasons make sense. Parents are getting information from multiple teachers. Parents have to balance work with raising children and life. Parents often work multiple jobs. There are parents with many children that are school age. All of these reasons and more can cause a gap in communication with parents. However, it does not have to be that way.
The best way to communicate with parents digitally is to begin the experience with mass communication. You may send a letter home at the beginning of a typical year.
Communicate with your parents about your programs. Tell them where and how they can find what their students will be doing in your class. Sometimes it is just a matter of the parents not having the information.
Once you have communicated, be sure to keep your communication space and times consistent. So, if you tell parents, you will have information for them in Google Classroom by Mondays at 9:30 am, and you will hold parent hours via Zoom on Thursday at 2 pm, stick with it. As with students, if parents know you are communicating in the same way and time every week, they are more likely to follow along.
Each school community is different. In some schools, parents are heavily involved, and this is not an issue. Yet, in other schools, it is a mixed bag of participation. And in many schools, it is hard to get to parents due to changing phone numbers and other issues such as custody. So, be realistic with your expectations for how many parents you may consistently be in touch with and pick your battles.
When it comes to those students whom parents you cannot reach, you may want to take a collaborative approach. Speak with the students’ teachers, school counselors, and possibly administration. There may be something going on due to the pandemic that you are not aware of, that others can remedy. Plus, your colleagues can help you strategize a plan. Moreover, invite your students’ classroom teachers, where applicable, to share your letter at home, in the learning environment, and with communication methods. Often, teachers will share this with their students, which helps you spread the word. Sometimes, teachers may show up during live meetings to support you.
I am Bad with Technology
I used to be tech-savvy. I kept up with the latest developments in the tech world. I ogled over the newest iPhone, apps, and tech to stay on the cutting edge. Heck, I was even a corporate trainer on technology for a while and had my own business teaching tech one on one for a short time our of college. That was then, and this is now. I can no longer
keep up with the dizzying speed of change. I am not on social media for privacy reasons, and I find myself having to learn how to learn new online software as to where I teach changes from one to the other.
I remember when Promethean boards started coming in schools. I remember when I started using online grade books, apps, and using other software and LCD projectors connected to laptops. And in my many years of teaching, I have had to learn so many new technologies, curriculums, teaching methods, and ways of dealing with changing student needs. And so, have you!
So, yes, you may be bad with or new to many of the technologies I introduce in this course. But you are not new to change. You are not new to having to adapt, learn, and grow with that new initiative or program that is introduced only to be phased out in a few years.
After all, major required yearly state tests have gone from paper and pencil to scantrons to online. Everything evolves, and if you have been teaching more than 3-5 years, you have experienced some new change to which you had to adapt. Being bad with technology does not doom you to fail. Just like you learned to grow through the changing face of education, you too can learn the tech you need for remote learning.
Keep in mind the old acronym; keep it simple silly. Start small with one platform or technology that works well for you and your students if your school or district requires nothing specific. As you become comfortable with the main aspects of that tech, slowly learn another element or two. If you want to try something out that looks flashy or cool like Bitmoji classrooms or Flipgrid, try it with one class first. See how it works, learn from it, tweak it, and move forward as you see fit.
If there is anything that has stood out from all those who finished this course, it is that they felt a sense of pride, confidence, and accomplishment for persisting through learning the technology needed during this time to complete the assignments and especially final project in the course.
You get into this what you put in. And while there will be teachers who put together the most awe-inspiring and coolest online classrooms, you do not have to be that person. Just be you. Do what you do best in person but online.
Wrapping It Up
There are a lot of questions and uncertainties we naturally have when teaching online. Where schools were built to run on efficiency and deal with students in large groups, online education was created as a more supplemental piece of a broader teaching strategy. So, to flip things on their head and try to make online teaching work as efficiently with large groups as a school building is a tall ask. Plus, for many of us, we are being asked to learn new technologies in short times and use them for short closure periods of three weeks to six months. So, of course, there will be questions and anxiety that come with this territory.
While I hope this course and these final thoughts have helped sour any seeds of doubt that lay in you had entering this course, understand you may not figure it all out at once or get all the answers you need on time. This time in history is unique. So, as you work through this unprecedented experience and frustrations or obstacles come up, keep a couple of things in mind.
First, how lucky are we to have the technology to allow us to keep our school years going and, in many cases, stay as safe as possible! I know this is not the case for everyone. However, imagine trying to do something like this pre-internet. We would probably be talking about tons of handouts, packets, and other old school methodologies that would be even more damming for our students’ learning and well-being. This remote teaching is far from an ideal solution. But it allows our students and us to connect and experience education in a way that more meaningful than the pre-internet days may have been.
Second, be understanding. Through this course, many of you have expressed your unique hardships from having young children of your own, to having your own learning disabilities, to having to share space to teach with family. Each student’s circumstances are unique. In a time, such as this, you do not know what is going in any given home. And if you are aware of hardships, students are experiencing, even better. Regardless, keep in mind that you do not know the full picture; everyone handles anxiety and other emotional troubles that come with this differently.
In some cases, your online classrooms are the only thing they look forward to and where they feel safe. So, be understanding. Consider some of your hardships small or large and then try to see things through your students’ eyes.
Now may not be the time to play drill sergeant. There may be times a session becomes about social and emotional needs. There may be times things do not go according to your plans. In these times, understand there is more than meets the eye that may be occurring in any given interaction, and you may need to adjust how you handle the situation accordingly. Overall, showing love, caring, and empathy can go a long way in making this remote teaching thing work for you and your students. After all, it is a basic human need to feel accepted, loved, and wanted. That is something we are good at providing online or offline.
If I missed something of concern to you or you need continued support, reach out to me any time.
With Love and Gratitude, Charles Silberman
About the Author:
Charles Silberman is a physical education and health teacher with 18 years of teaching experience. He has become a leader and advocate for incoming physical educators by running workshops on teaching in limited space at staff in-services and conferences, assisting with new teacher orientations, and other initiatives. He has experience writing curriculum from scratch and writing published information specific to physical education in state and nationally recognized publications and websites. Charles has also created a niche as a physical education specialist who fuses technology and primary instructional subjects into physical education lessons.
View all of his Professional Development courses at the S&S Worldwide online school.