My Transition to Emergency Remote Teaching

Across my undergraduate and graduate courses in education, I stress the importance that all educators have a detailed understanding of the educational philosophies and theories that they claim to embrace as well as if their practices match those claims.

Teachers, however, are a practical lot, and most pre-service and in-service teachers resist my argument.

The somewhat abrupt move to remote teaching that has occurred during the Covid-19 pandemic has emphasized for me, again, that the value in educational philosophy/theory and how that matches practice cannot be overemphasized.

While my philosophy/theory and practice are well outside the norms of mainstream, traditional schooling—and that causes stress and anxiety for many of my students, at least temporarily—I was incredibly well prepared to shift my courses to remote and individualized structures within an hour of addressing my schedules (see foundations of education and scholarly reading and writing).

The entire transition is now being handled by email, smart phones (text, Facetime, phone calls), and the blogs linked above. I prepared no Zoom meetings and no video lectures.

In fact, the scholarly reading and writing course is not much different than it would have been without the shift except that we no longer sit together in the same room every Monday evening.

Here are the ways in which my educational philosophy/theory and practice have provided the foundation for moving quite easily to remote asynchronous learning:

  • While I am just noticing the online terminology (asynchronous v. synchronous), I have practiced individualized instruction (asynchronous) for the vast majority of my 36 years of teaching. Throughout my 18 years teaching high school English, I experimented with and refined workshop methods with both writing and literature instruction; therefore, my courses are often designed around students working on holistic and authentic products of learning that are developed over drafts.
  • Individualized instruction that focuses on authentic artifacts of learning is nested inside my larger commitment to student-centered teaching. I start with each student and genuinely place content and so-called skills secondary. I try to begin with student reactions (reflections on readings, drafts of assignments) and then drive instruction with what students know, what students do not yet know, and student misconceptions.
  • As a writing/composition instructor, I tend to function as a teacher by responding to student work as submitted; being “on” for students throughout the day and responding to student work as it is submitted may be stressful for some teachers, but I already function that way, which lends itself well to the necessary asynchronous nature of remote teaching.
  • My courses are supported by checklists, models, and support material that I always prompt students to use before they rely on my help; I see my overarching goal as a teacher as making myself unneeded, fostering intellectual autonomy in my students. “Take your time. You can do this on your own” is essentially the soft message I am whisper behind all that I do.
  • All of my courses are managed by a low-technology commitment; I am neither a no-tech Luddite, nor a technology evangelist. My courses are all on WordPress platforms, easily and freely accessible to anyone, not just students. My students and I already interact by email and through a fairly sophisticated use of Word (comments, track changes, etc.). This low-technology approach allowed me to shift remotely in minutes, sacrificing only a few elements of my teaching (which I discuss below).
  • I teach by inviting students to have shared experiences, but I do not suffer the illusion that those experiences can or will guarantee the same outcomes. I feel far more concerned about fostering ways of learning than covering and asking students to perform to a set of disciplinary knowledge. Thus, I have no standard lectures to video for students to view, although I often ask students to read shared texts that give us some foundation for thinking deeply or at least harder about topics.
  • Throughout my career I have been anti-grades/tests, but in the reality of traditional schooling, my approach is best described as delaying grades—although I do not give any sorts of tests. While many teachers are struggling with assessment (implementing tests, assigning grades on assignments) when moving to remote teaching, my portfolio approach (course grade assigned based on a final portfolio submitted of all work) hasn’t needed to be adjusted for my shift to remote teaching.

Yes, I have made the transition to remote teaching fairly easily; however, I am not suggesting that there haven’t been costs, things lost in the shift. Those losses and concerns include the following:

  • A key aspect of my educational philosophy/theory is that I am solidly anti-online courses; I remain a strong advocate for the traditional classroom structures in which teachers and students interact face-to-face. I am not convinced that the amount of face-to-face class time traditionally practiced is necessary, and I certainly practice a great deal of one-on-one conferencing. However, remote instruction can never match the power of in-person classroom dynamics.
  • Class sessions for me include two major structures: workshop or discussion. Workshop has transitioned remotely quite well, but I have abandoned the discussion element, recognizing that is a major sacrifice. Here, I must distinguish between remote teaching in a crisis and creating a course online (in which synchronous sessions over some App would allow discussion). In the Covid-19 crisis, I have elected not to add the stress of designated days/times to meet as a class. However, I genuinely cannot imagine that online discussions can meet the level of in-person class dynamics create, when we all can make eye contact and be “in the moment” together of discussions.

In one way, the sudden shift to remote teaching also fit well into my educational philosophy/theory that requires me to be vigilant about critical reflection on my role as a teacher, and a human being. I never see any of my practices as “fixed,” always in reflective flux.

The Covid-19 pandemic forced me to reconsider a course mid-stream, but I am prone to doing that most of the time any way.

My teacher personae is a contradictory mix of external self-assurance tempered by a pervasive fear that I am failing my students. As I worked diligently to transform my classes, I monitored my own practices against my educational philosophy/theory (checking what I had planned as well as what I revised and expected of students).

I remain, then, resolute in this belief: Our day-to-day teaching in so-called normal times always benefits from recognizing what our educational philosophy/theory is and how well our practices remain grounded in those commitments.