Four Tips for Engaging Students Remotely

As we get into a new year of remote learning with all its challenges, I wanted to see if I can offer some insights from my twenty years working with schools engaging students who had previously been chronically, and unfairly, disengaged. Today, four great things that helped my son not feel like a failure.

In one of the schools I supported in Brooklyn, I was once talking to a Black 15-year-old boy who recounted how he had been a good student “up until seventh grade,” and, then, “something happened.” What he described, without using the exact words, was a mix of overwhelm and depression that overtook him but whose source was unclear. The result, however, was crystal clear to him: from that moment on, he was a failure.

In remote learning this year, I have seen my son struggle in sixth grade with the same thing, something that is likely happening to millions of students across the country. Here’s what it looked like for us. Maybe you’ve seen the same thing:

Kid opens email.

Out pop thirty-five messages from his seven teachers: an announcement, an attendance record, a new assignment, an old assignment, a private comment, a graded assignment, a reminder about a private comment on a graded old assignment.

Parent, scrolling through, feels the cacophony of 35 voices of equal volume for matters large and small, urgent and inconsequential, with no clear way to navigate.

Both parent and son get that twitch of overwhelm and depression.

Parent tries to help, but to no avail. Kid slams computer shut.

Parent walks away, certain that: I am a failure.

Thirty minutes after I had walked away, and 28 minutes into my son’s class, I hear this:

Teacher’s disembodied Zoom voice: “I saw that you said you’re frustrated. What happened?”

My son: “Well, I tried submitting my work but it said I couldn’t and I had to reload, and then I reloaded and I had to resubmit but it wouldn’t let me, so I had to unsubmit, and then when I reloaded it was all blank, and then I had to do Humanities class.”

“Oh, that does sound so frustrating. Thank you so much for telling me. That sounds so like it can be frustrating, but I appreciate your honesty.”

“Okay.”

“So go back into it and stretch out and relax and go on with the presentation. I know these things will happen, but I’m here for you.”

“Okay. Thanks.”

Brief though it was, this encounter was an example of great teaching in action. Four things I heard this teacher (let’s call her JB) doing, I wish every teacher would do.

1. Cultivating sense of belonging. Most of the students I meet in transfer schools were sent the message that they do not belong in school. Research has made it pretty clear that if adolescents don’t believe the adults in school respect and care about them, then they too will feel they don’t belong. On the heels of this feeling, failure lurks not far behind.

With just a few choice phrases, JB dispelled that feeling. That does sound so frustrating (affirmation!); I appreciate your honesty, (respect!); stretch out and relax, (empathy!). This may sound easy, but from the other six disembodied Zoom voices teaching my son, I heard only a few express the same kind of affirmation, and not one came close to JB’s trifecta of affirmation, respect, and empathy.

2. Giving a measured response. Feeling you belong helps, but isn’t enough. Students need to believe learning has purpose, success is possible, effort is worthwhile, strategies are available to tackle new challenges. Some teachers might have nobly attempted to get at all of these many beliefs for my son. I appreciated that JB actually did not. She was measured in her response. She said a little and then stopped. She was building a relationship, brick by brick. A pile of bricks would have overwhelmed.

In an online world, measuring response can be hard. I hear my son’s other teachers asking for more and more. I imagine they feel they must fill the time and there is so much to learn. Worse, they are in an environment where there are no feedback cues to tell them, slow down. JB excelled by realizing less was more.

3. Drawing in student voice. Being in sixth grade nowadays isn’t easy. Pre-adolescents are discovering their identity and voice in a world where a mishmash of identities and a thousand voices spew from every outlet.

In the world of remote learning, many of my son’s teachers seem to assume their students will raise their voices when they need help, an assumption that immediately biases in favor of a certain subset of unusual, and likely privileged, middle-schoolers. I’ve already heard teachers say to my son too many times: Complete this lesson and tell me if you need help, or, Say if you won’t be able to turn in the assignment, or perhaps the best one: Just tell me if you don’t understand. (To which the response is, of course, And how will I know?)

But JB gave my son voice to self-advocate: She proactively jumped on the fact that he had shown frustration, and then reminded him, I’m here to help.

4. Personalizing. For the last decade, “personalization” has become the paradoxical codeword for using technology in class. JB was personalizing not so much by using technology as by overcoming it to be a real person for my son. I‘ve seen other teachers do things like pause in the tortured Brady-Bunch-grid of a 23-person video call to unsuccessfully troubleshoot with a single student, or admonishing students in the emotionless and forgettable text of an email or Class DoJo or Google Classroom.

Not JB. She spoke with my son one on one, person to person.

Teachers might demur they could never find time to do that. But this exchange took literally 90 seconds. Afterwards, my son told me how this class was, hands down, the best. It had become personalized. Those were 90 seconds well spent because on their heels, learning will follow.

This school year won’t be easy. But hopefully it can be a learning experience for all of us, young and old. I’ll keep listening in and being reminded why I will never have what it takes to be a teacher, but will always respect and seek to learn from those who do.

Founder of Eskolta School Research & Design. Education reformer, husband & father living in New York City.