Virtual Teaching – How To Manage the Stress & Challenges

virtual teaching

To my right is my dog laying on top of the couch resting. Dolly, my 7-year-old 14-pound pug, has her eyes closed, a handmade blanket draped over her, and is drifting to sleep.  She is enjoying having me around. Dolly gets frequent walks, lots of treats, and gets to be the center of my virtual classrooms. She is enjoying the shutdown of traditional schooling.

On the other hand, I, like many others, am adjusting to this completely new normal – this attempt to make teaching and learning meaningful, unlike in the spring shut down when we just muddled through. And what an adjustment this has been. From being at a computer all day to seeing students through a two-inch box on a 13-inch screen to learning completely new technologies to deliver meaningful instruction and learning. At times, virtual teaching is stressing me out! Now what?

I will admit, at first, I found the prospect of teaching from home quite appealing. I have no commute, am saving money on gas, eating out, and car maintenance. I am not in a position where I have to choose between work and my health. I have health insurance and the means and tools to do my job at home. I am one of the lucky ones. So, when I talk about virtual teaching stressing me out, I am in no way ungrateful that I have to teach from home. Quite the opposite: I consider myself lucky that I can stay safe from potential harm in such an uncertain time. All that said, the nature of trying to teach a movement-based curriculum online comes with a unique set of stressors. Below are just a few that come to mind. I am sure you can add to this list quite easily.

  • Students turn their cameras off
  • Students are not showing up at all
  • Evaluating movement skills is challenging at best
  • Physical education seems to be at the lower end of the priority list for many stakeholders
  • Trying to keep records and communicate is more challenging than ever

I could go on and on, but I do not want to belabor the point. At times, this new paradigm can feel like trying to get a square peg through a round hole. In many ways, it just does not seem to fit. However, being a professional who cares deeply about my students’ well-being, I have to find ways to overcome the stress and do the best possible job I can. Otherwise, what kind of example am I setting for my students?

Virtual Teaching PD Webinar

With that in mind, during the first few weeks of the fall semester, I have come across some strategies, tips, and tricks to help push through the stress to make virtual teaching more effective and enjoyable. And I wanted to share a couple of those more in-depth in this article with you. My good friend and colleague Steve Lightman and I go more in-depth on many of these ideas in our one hour webinar titled, “Virtual Teaching is Stressing Me Out! Now What?

virtual teaching PD course

Imagination/Attention Span

I am learning that certain age groups come with a predetermined set of abilities that can be strengths during online learning. And when I play to these strengths, I find teaching goes more smoothly, and I have more fun. None of this is new or magical, but I think it is worth drawing out because leaning into the student’s abilities is just good teaching. Let me give a couple of examples.

This time of year, I would typically be trying to corral groups of 3 to 7-year olds to get them to sit, listen, follow directions, and all the other start of the year pleasantries we teach. This routine is exhausting in an ordinary year. Virtually, my kindergarten and first graders are antsy. They are stuck in small spaces and itching to move by the time I see them. And in my case, I see them as if it was a regular school schedule, which means I see them either after the first two hours of online schooling or right after the massive hour and a half break the county mandates for lunch to let parents pick up free and reduced meals. So, yes, they are antsy and ready to move!

Likewise, I find that my older students in fifth and fourth grades are more subdued. They are the lot with cameras off and lacking energy when I see them first thing in the morning. They have most likely just gotten up since they, too, have no travel time to consider.

So, the big question is, what I do with the excess energy on the one hand and the lethargy on the other. Well, I lean into it. With the little students, I find myself doing scavenger hunts that turn into exercise games. For example, find something red, yellow, green, blue, red, and purple. Ok, for the red item, do this exercise 10 times. For this color of an object, do this exercise this amount of times. Allowing students to use their imagination to find these objects, share them, and then use them as a catalyst for movement engaged them and gets them excited. Plus, at the end of class, before the teacher comes on, we have a fun game of hiding out of your computer screen to make the teacher think you disappeared. They love it!

On the other hand, with the older students, I realize getting them to move or do a movement skill for extended periods in their two-inch box is not always realistic.  Instead, we push through the lesson’s academic nature, get the cognitive learning done, and take a short quiz, so they are held accountable. From there, I can engage them in longer-term projects, stories with morale, and even sneak in some creative movement by having them lead. Such projects can include teaching them at home ways to practice the skill and playing that activity with them live. I have to make it meaningful to their situation.

In both cases, I am meeting the students where they are and learning what makes them unique in their age group. With the young ones, imagination is the driver of engagement and with the older ones, their ability to have a longer attention span on tasks, think, and reason more deeply is the driver.

Technology is Really King

I know. We teach movement, and tech is great to assist in monitoring vitals, capturing visual data, and overall teaching. But as physical educators, we do not drown ourselves in it for many reasons. However, I have realized that technology is the king in this virtual teaching world as obvious as it sounds. Plus, I recognize the many struggles to wrap our minds around with some of this new-fangled technology thrust upon us. However, my argument is that learning technology makes online instruction in many ways easier than in person. Crazy, right. Maybe that is because I come from a place where I have an LCD projector on a cart hooked up to a laptop as my main tech hub. And it took me three years to get that!

So, the fact that I can have multiple browsers tabs open to grab real-time data is fabulous. For example, before each class, I make sure to have that class’s electronic grade book up and their electronic lesson open in the learning management system we use. As soon as I enter the Zoom meeting, which I am doing via the classroom teachers link because I am going to their class virtually, I do a few things right away.

  • I capture attendance in the grade book.
  • I make sure all students are on the PE home page in the learning management system
  • I have what grade collection looks like for their class open in the learning management system.

These steps let me take what I call later tasks and get them into my county’s systems right away. I cannot do this in school. I would have to take attendance, capture grades on a data collection sheet printed, and transfer it all to the grade book at some point later. With virtual teaching, I am capturing all my data in real-time. For example, as students take their quizzes in the learning management system, I can see their scores populate right away. I can then take the grades and enter them in the grade book on the spot – no more waiting.

The other thing I like about being able to have this data readably accessible is that it sends a message of accountability to students. They know there will be a quiz each week. They know I can see their scores in real-time. They know I am marking attendance and checking it against homeroom teacher attendance first thing. So, I know who may have been with their teacher but left when I arrived. Having all of this information lets me mark trends of who is absent once, who is chronically missing, and who is taking the wrong quiz or needs technical help. Over the course of several weeks, this allows me to develop a structure for the students and myself, routines, and give accurate grades that in no way are subjective when subjectivity is a hard thing to go by.

Something else I like about tech is that I can be well prepared for each week to come.  For example, I can make sure the learning management system is updated, so my PE home page has the proper links to next week’s lessons. I can set quiz due dates and attempt amounts ahead of time. I can take any issues that may have caused trouble during the week with the tech and fix them for next week. These issues may be as simple as changing a picture to reflect better what it is supposed to represent or rearranging the lesson’s flow and how I will teach it. But, by the time I close my laptop at the end of the day Friday, I am ready to go for next week. No stacks of papers, nothing to print out and put in a notebook, and no confusion or room for error.  It is all right at my fingertips. And I love that!

Lastly, the ability to communicate so precisely with my county’s learning management system, I can send messages to parents and students who did not complete a particular assignment. I can also send messages and log them in a communication log easily through our grade book system. This system is excellent for communicating about showing up, class times, and the consequences of chronic absences. Plus, on live sessions, parents are in the room! They can see what we do and, in some cases, help their children or participate. We always complain about how we wish more parents are involved. Well, now some are!

I am still learning all I can do with the tech we have been tasked to use. And the more I know, the more excited I get about what I can virtually do that I cannot do in person.  And the more I realize that, the more I imagine how I can continue to use this technology when things do return to normal and how much simpler that will make an already tough job.

In Conclusion

Yes, teaching virtually is challenging and can be stressful for many good reasons.  There is no argument there from me. And while we are in a fortunate position to be able to work safely from home, it does hamper the kind of experience we are used to providing our students. And in no uncertain terms, this stinks. However, if we set this aside for a short while and look at solutions and see the glass as half full, I think we will be amazed at how we can use specific strategies, tips, and tricks to make online learning and teaching quite useful and meaningful. While I have outlined in-depth two of them here that have helped me turn the tide and push pass the stress, there are many more I am sure I will discover as this situation persists.

Before I go and put my wireless earbuds away to charge, turn off the great music I am listening to while I write this, and join my dog on the couch for some downtime, I want to leave you with one last mighty thought. Imagine what it will be like when we do return to normal. Those things we may have complained about or stressed about may still exist.  But they may not sting as much because being away from the gymnasium shines a new perspective on the sweet, special, and precious experience of teaching IRL (In Real Life).

About the Author:

literacy in physical education

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.

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