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Last week, I created the following goofy video as a reminder about the differences between teaching in-person and teaching from home:



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While this video is a little goofy, it points to a reality that teaching from home is vastly different from teaching in a physical school. But on a more serious note, I know many teachers who are feeling uncertain right now. This is not how any of us expected to finish the school year.

The truth is, we are all experiencing collective grief right now. Graduations have been cancelled. Vacations with loved ones are on hold. We’re missing out on deep connections with friends. Meanwhile, others are grieving deeper losses and pain.

We are all experiencing a mix of emotions. When I talk to teacher friends, some of them describe a nagging sense that they are not doing enough. Others describe feeling like new teachers all over again. Still others are feeling like they just can’t tell what’s working and what’s not working. More than anything else, I notice that many teachers are feeling like they should have done more or something different. There are a lot of regrets.

And yet . . .

Teachers have been amazing during this time. Without any preparation, training, or additional compensation, teachers have stepped up to make distance learning a reality for students. So, today, I want to focus on what it means for us to find renewal during this time of pandemic teaching.

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Seven Teacher-Tested Ways to Find Renewal During Distance Learning

I reached out to some of my teacher friends as well as those on my Facebook group with the question, “How are you finding renewal during the challenging times of distance learning?” I’m sharing these ideas, along with a few thoughts from my own experiences.

1. Redefine success.

When we are in a physical classroom, we often get the opportunity to observe small victories. You have that moment when the whole class seems to be locked in and there’s a calm hush as every student works on crafting their Genius Hour blogs. Or you have that Socratic Seminar where students continue to surprise you with their thoughtfulness. Or there’s that maker challenge where the whole class is abuzz with a shared excitement over a design challenge. But when you’re teaching online, you don’t get to see the “aha” moments. Those moments still happen but they happen off-screen in a house rather than a classroom.

Distance learning often means we are removed from the visible evidence that what we are doing is working. It takes extra effort to “read a room” in a video conference when people have their microphones muted. Don’t get me wrong. I believe it’s possible to boost engagement in a video conference. In fact, I was recently in a class meeting with students who had read my free book Super Pizza. This teacher did a phenomenal job gathering questions, using the chat for participation, and integrating student-created Kahoot games. And yet, as engaging as this was, it still took extra effort to gauge engagement when we weren’t together in a physical space.

This is why it’s important that we redefine success from what we can see to what we can do. We can’t always see the results of our actions. It’s also important that we redefine success as actions rather than results of our actions. Right now, teaching is an experiment. None of us have any idea if it will work. After all, this isn’t distance learning. This is emergency learning and we’re all doing our best.

We need to remember that a failed experiment isn’t a failure. It’s a learning opportunity. If you tried something new with students, it may not have worked. But what did you model to your students? Courage? Creative risk-taking? A willingness to try something new? That’s powerful. So, you had a video conference where less than half of the students showed up? It’s hard. Really hard. I don’t want to minimize that. But what you modeled for students is that you are faithful. You will be a stable adult who continues to show up even when they don’t. In some cases, you might be the lone adult who is stable and there for them.

That’s a powerful message.

Right now, I see teachers doubting themselves. They’re asking, “Am I still a good teacher?” when students don’t complete assignments or when an online lesson is less engaging than they had hoped. Many teachers are feeling like they knew what success looked like in person but suddenly they feel like it’s completely new again. And yet, the answer to “Am I still a good teacher?” is a resounding, “Yes!” Did you show up? Did you take a creative risk? Did you connect with students even when they were distant? If so, you’re doing great.

You are enough.

2. Recognize that you can’t save the world.

The last point was all about redefining success. This idea builds on this by refocusing on what we can and cannot own. Teachers are selfless and want to do whatever it takes to help their students succeed. But if we’re not careful, this “whatever it takes” message can become dangerous to our own health and sustainability.

A little over a year ago, I created this video with my friend Trevor Muir about the dangers of the superhero metaphor in education. You can check it out below.



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While teachers are definitely heroes, we don’t have to be superheroes. We can’t save the world. This is why we need to recognize that there are factors outside of our control. Some of your students are living in chaos and uncertainty. They’re sharing devices with a family or facing wi-fi that’s spotty at best. Others are watching their siblings because their parents are “essential workers.” Still, others are facing trauma and abuse. As a teacher, you can’t own that. You can fight for justice. You can build relationships. But you also have to recognize that there are factors you can’t control. At some point, you have to be able to say, “I care deeply but I cannot own that particular situation.”

At some point, this requires us to say “no” to certain requests. I recognize that this isn’t always easy in every environment. Some teachers are working in toxic environments. However, even in a healthy culture, it can be hard to said “no.” A few years ago, I led a book discussion on Rest (a one of my favorite books I’ve read in the last few years). When I asked fellow faculty members what types of barriers get in the way of rest, they said things like, “Fear of letting people down” or “the drive to make sure things are perfect.” At some point, we have to be willing to let go of what we can own.

And yet, when we are rested, we are actually more productive. That’s a counterintuitive truth that leads to my next point . . .

3. Make rest a priority.

People say that teaching is a marathon and I think they’re right. Even when you finish a marathon and you cross the finish line and you receive that metal and you crazy proud of what you’ve accomplished, you still find yourself collapsing on the ground in exhaustion. For many teachers, this last semester has felt like an eternity. Some of their favorite parts of teaching are gone and they feel as if they are spending their entire time answering emails. In other words, it’s a grind.

Because we are in a 24/7 world with no boundary between work and home, it becomes even easier to slip into a place where you are “on call” at all times. And yet, this 24/7 approach can actually backfire. We become less productive if we work too many hours. There’s a ton of interesting research in the book Restthat suggests we are more productive and more creative when we spend time resting. It turns out that rest is vital for creative thinking and problem-solving and getting a full night’s sleep is a necessity and not a luxury.

I love this quote from an article, where author Thomas Oppong wrote:

According to research, the brain gradually stops registering a sight, sound or feeling if that stimulus remains constant over time. You lose your focus and your performance on the task declines.

When faced with a long creative problem, it is best to impose brief breaks on yourself. Brief mental breaks will actually help you stay focused on your task and improve your idea generation approach. A structured downtime can help you do your best work.

We tend to generate redundant ideas when we don’t take regular breaks. If you’re hesitant to break away because you feel that you’re on a roll, be mindful that it might be a false impression. Your brain needs downtime to remain industrious and generate better ideas.

This can be easier said than done. I recognize that many teachers have young children at home and demanding parents asking for their attention. They are trying to do their job while also managing their own children’s distance learning. There is no magical formula here.

But I also know that it is far too easy to answer “just one more email” so you don’t let anyone down. This is why I am a firm believer in setting a personal curfew for yourself when working from home. I try to stick to a “no email after 6 pm” rule along with a “take no work home over the weekend approach.”



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This idea of “recharging” will look different from person to person. I’ve been lifting weights three times a week and running five times a week. But I’ve tried meditation and mindfulness and hated it. It didn’t work for me. For others, running sounds like torture but mindfulness and yoga are perfect. The point is, you are giving so much of yourself in distance learning. When you recharge and take care of yourself, it is actually a gift to your students as well.

4. Play.

Play isn’t just a valuable thing for kids. It’s actually something that can make us more creative. Alex Soojung-Kim Pang shares four characteristics of deep play in the book Rest:

  1. Deep play is mentally absorbing.
  2. Deep play offers a new context to use some of the same skills as their work.
  3. Deep play offers clearer rewards and more user agency than traditional work.
  4. Deep play provides a connection to the player’s past.

This is why I write novels, sketch pictures, and play Minecraft with my kids. It’s also why I try and play catch each day in our batting cage in the back yard. True, these are also activities I can do with my kids. But they are low-pressure and high reward spaces where I can play around with creative ideas or do something that requires physical movement. And I’d argue that they have surprising benefits. Writing a novel has helped me think of the relationship between lesson-planning and storycraft. Playing on Minecraft has helped me see iterative thinking in action. Playing chess has made me a better systems thinker. And it turns out that the mediocre doodling I do has become a surprising skill for making videos and presentations. But it all started with play.

5. Find a creative outlet.

I created the following warm-up for my cohort amid the quarantine. You can find it, and similar posts like this, on my Instagram.

It was so cool to see what people shared. A few of them grabbed their Kitchen-Aid mixers and shared how they were baking and experimenting with new recipes. Others grabbed guitars or gardening equipment or painting. One student was sewing new clothes as part of her passion for fashion design. While the interests were diverse, there was a common theme that creative work had been a lifeline for students.

The same thing is true for teachers. Creative hobbies can feel frivolous when we have the “real work” of teaching. But these creative endeavors — no matter how new we are to the craft — can help us recharge our batteries. They can inspire new ideas. They can help us build empathy with students in their creative work.

6. Connect with a community of other educators.

Social isolation can feel . . .  well . . . isolating. Even when you are with loved ones, you might miss your colleagues. For all the talk about the staff lounge being toxic, some of my best friends were those I first met in the staff lounge. Later, we met over pints and planned out ideas for projects. Others have been friends I’ve known from Twitter and from blogging. I’ve enjoyed opportunities to video conference or have Voxer conversations with my long distance friends. They get it. They know what it’s like to be a teacher and a maker. While I love the time I’m spending with my family, there is something restorative about talking shop with a fellow educator.

7. Celebrate the small victories.

There’s a time and a place to grieve and to recognize that things aren’t working out the way we hoped. And there’s a danger in pushing positivity without recognizing the role of pain or the existence of injustice. But there’s also value in celebrating the things that are working working well in distance learning. There’s value in saying, “Hey, we did a parade through our neighborhood and it was powerful.” There’s a fellow teacher blogger, Matt, who I’ve followed for years at Look at My Happy Rainbow. I appreciate how honest he was about the missing the physicality of his classroom space. But I also love posts like this, where he talks about the joy in doing scavenger hunts via video conference. Amazing things are happening despite the huge challenges of distance learning. It’s not “toxic positivity” to embrace the positive and celebrate small victories.

Distance Learning Toolkit

If you want to learn more about distance learning, please check out the toolkit and eBook below.

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John Spencer

John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me

5 Comments

  • Karen Stanerson says:

    This was just what I needed to hear today. I have been feeling depressed not being able to be in my real classroom, and even with some of my most difficult kids. I’m realizing that the school year is coming to end and things are so different than what I expected. I’ve been worrying that I’m not reaching my kids in a way that is really maximizing their learning and their success because of the “distance learning.” But, you pointed out some great ways to look at things on the bright side, and to try to focus on the positives and the celebrations. For example, when I create my Google meet each week to do an art lesson, sometimes I only have four or five, maybe six students show up… but they show up so excited, full of questions, and they linger long after the artwork is completed. In reflection the time I have provided them is what I should focus on, not the numbers. I need to keep focusing on the positive while allowing myself to grieve. And most importantly, know that it’s important to recharge, and really a must in these strange times. Thank you!

  • Keri Snowden says:

    Sharing this with my teachers for their Friday PD. Thanks, John!

  • I share your blogs and resources with the teachers I mentor, colleagues, administrators, and just about anyone who will listen. Thank you for your transparency and for all that you do to support teaching and learning

  • […] Seven Teacher-Tested Ways to Find Renewal During Distance Learning – John Spencer […]

  • Jimmy says:

    This has been so helpful for all our teachers at our school. Thank you kindly for all the work you do in supporting the work of our teachers.

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