How Teachers Around the World Transitioned to Distance Learning

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We are not alone. As schools in the U.S rushed to shut down in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, schools all around the world, including those in Europe and Asia, have closed their doors as well. With an earlier outbreak, schools in Asia have transitioned to a distance learning model as early as January, 2020. 

In this Part I of a 2-part interview series on what distance learning and online classes have signified for teachers from around the world, a Hong Kong Academy teacher, Carly Buntin (now already in her 4th month of distance learning) shares her early lessons, challenges, and helpful practices for coping with the sudden school closures and the inevitable transition to distance learning. 


What may school administrators do to help support teachers?

Draw on what you know works.

Oftentimes during transition, it is easy to lose sight of the basics and make changes to overcompensate. Rather than allowing panic to take over, stay rooted in what works. If you have a common agenda for meetings, use it online as well. If you have school norms, make sure you continue to follow them. Hong Kong Academy uses the 7 Norms of Collaborative Work to guide how we work and interact with one another. The 7 Norms of Collaborative Work is something we’ve taken from Adaptive Schools training through the Thinking Collaborative network.

We have a great image developed by Hong Kong Academy, which we have postered in pretty much every room at school. It’s helped us to make cultural shifts at the school where these really form the forefront of how we communicate and interact with colleagues, and how we work with the children too. In Grade 5, we actually teach these concepts to the children as well. These norms have helped to create a culture of trust where mutual respect, open communication and positive interactions support our collaboration with colleagues and students.

Make time to learn new tools.

You and your teachers are likely using much more technology than you ever thought you would. Be patient and support each other while learning new tools. Stay open to trying new things knowing that they might not work the first time around. Just keep getting back on that horse!

Acknowledge that this is hard.

In times of frustration or challenge as a leader, do what my principal refers to as, “get curious, not furious”. Find out the “why”. Leaders must consider their faculty (and their own) wellbeing now more than ever. There will be times when you and your staff feel rundown or lackluster. That’s okay; it is hard, and everyone has their own reality that they’re managing at the moment. This is the time to come together as a community and make time to commit to everyone’s wellbeing. At HKA, we hold bi-weekly virtual wellbeing meetings for teachers and staff to come together and play games, share recipes, do yoga, and more. 


What are some tips for first-time distance learning teachers ?

Again, draw on what you know works.

In the classroom, we had clear agendas, role switching and responsibilities that helped us work seamlessly as a team, but the first week we went online, it was as though we forgot to utilize these. Go back to what you know. If you have a common agenda for meetings, use it online as well and rely on this to guide your online planning meetings. If you have school norms or essential agreements, make sure you’re still following them when working online. Familiarity is reassuring, it provides comfort; as does routine.

Keep an open mind and be empathetic.

It is a challenging transition for everyone to move to virtual learning. Misunderstandings or lack of perspective about how other parties feel is common when people feel stressed. Be empathetic to parents who are navigating assisting their children for the first time and students who are isolated from their peers.

Keep it simple.

Keep your lesson plans simple as you first navigate the ins and outs of distance learning. Remember that the students are trying to grasp new skills and circumstances on top of the online curriculum. Sometimes, less is more, so focus your efforts on making the lesson clear, concise, and easy to follow. Consider how long each task might take. 

Commit to strong communication.

You are now partners with your students’ families more than ever. Check in on families as often as possible and ask for feedback from them consistently. When you receive constructive criticism, keep an open mind and be empathetic. Take what you need and be mindful that others will share things sometimes in the heat of the moment. Taking time to make sure they feel heard and valued will help to ensure that everyone feels supported and is working towards a common goal, with the student’s best interest at heart. 

Take care of yourself.

It’s hard teaching online and not getting inspiration from live interactions from kids every day. There will be challenging times where teachers and school leaders take dips and feel really down. Try to continue to make connections with your school community which can help you see beyond the work.

Make time for the kids to check in with each other socially too.

Think about the opportunities that you are setting up for them to socialize online while they are social distancing. Would a virtual snack time work? Math game time? During these sessions, pay attention to how they engage and if you have any concerns, make sure to follow up as needed and according to any school guidelines.  


Do you have other questions you would love to ask Carly? Let us know in the comments below! For more distance learning and COVD-19 coverage, visit our thought leadership page at the Swing Symposium.


Carly is a 5th grade teacher and the Upper Primary Coordinator at HKA. She is a committed educator who prides herself in establishing a strong rapport with students and colleagues. Carly draws on 15 years of experience as an inclusive international educator in primary classrooms to construct positive, caring and engaging classroom cultures anchored by mutual respect. A mother of two and a lifelong learner, she continues to explore new avenues for growth as a female leader and educator. 


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