<span class='p-name'>Teaching When Things Go Sideways</span>

Teaching When Things Go Sideways

Much too frequently things don’t go the way we planned it in our classrooms. I feel like I’ve given this talk much too often to students in my classes over the last couple of years. This has been due to an incoming hurricane, blizzard, tornado, or some other natural disaster.

This past week I gave a version of the same talk to students as we prepared to leave because of the coronavirus (COVID-19).

I’ve decided to type this up to share with students that might have missed it in one of our last face-to-face classes. I’m also sharing with publicly online in case it might assist you and your students.

Keep in mind that my remarks are for a class of pre-service teachers, but I believe it may benefit all. The first point below is for educators in general. The remainder of the points are more student-directed.

When things go sideways

Sometimes things go sideways in our classrooms. We have our days and weeks planned. Everything is organized down to the minute the bell rings, and up until the bell rings at the end of the day. We know when we like to refill our coffee. We know when our students usually have an energy dip (or spike) in the day. There is solace in having a schedule and routine.

But, sometimes things do go sideways. This may be due to an unexpected assembly, or fire drill. This could be due to a lock-down or bomb threat. This could be due to an incoming natural disaster, for example a hurricane, snow storm, or fire. In my first year teaching, we had several events, including 9/11, which took the attention away from what we thought was originally normal.

In these instances, we need to understand that things are not going wrong, they are different than we planned. Wrong carries with it fear, disappointment, anxiety, and perhaps failure. Instead of wrong, we have the opportunity to view this as a situation going sideways.

Sideways indicates that the situation is different than planned. It describes a tense situation in which a breakdown occurs, and there is the potential for chaos. There is the need to restore some sense of order, or normalcy.

As an educator, you’re the master of creating order and normalcy. You create the culture at the beginning of the year. You set the expectations and vibe of your classroom at the start of each day, and redirect when things don’t go as planned.

As an educator, you also always have a back-up plan. Sometimes the computer will not work. Sometimes the students won’t have read the assignment. Sometimes your coffee machine crapped out that morning. You adapt. You are flexible.

In all of these instances, it is important to recognize the fact that as things go sideways, your students are feeding off your energy, and they are creating their own anxious buzz. They may be feeding off a message of wrong from the media, home, or some of your colleagues. It is your duty to put on a brave face, and create that veneer of order, structure, and normal.

Keep in mind that you might be burning inside. You also are feeling the anxiety, the fear, worry, despair, and sense of dread. In front of your class, be adaptable, honest, resilient, and resolute. You’ll need to identify times for self-care after the fact. But try to create that brave facade in front of your class.

Health & safety comes first

Reminder…from this point on…this information is student directed.

As things go sideways, it is important for you to focus on your physical and mental health of you, your family, and friends. Your primary concern is to make sure that you are safe, and those that you care about are also safe and secure.

In the midst of an emergency, your primary thought should not be “How do I make sure I get online to post a response to the discussion thread?!?!”

Get yourself to safety. Make sure the people around you are safe and secure. Take time to connect with friends & family to make sure they are safe. Take time for self-care.

After you have focused on health & safety, move on to the remaining points.

Focus on what is important

As we adapt to these possible changes in our schedule, we have to acknowledge the need for flexibility in our plans. As such, we have an opportunity to review the goals and objectives of the class, and identify a path to make sure these goals still become a reality.

As a class we take time to look at the class syllabus, and the work already completed. I make it clear that students have agency in the process as we discuss what we’ve already completed, and what the students would like to complete over the coming week(s).

We identify what is important. What are achievable goals and benchmarks given changes to the schedule and learning environment (moving from face-to-face to online, new building/classroom)?

These revisions to the remaining assignments and evaluation criteria are agreed upon and an annotated syllabus is shared with the class documenting the changes made.

Maintain clear communication

As things go sideways, I (the instructor) will make sure that communication is regular, meaningful, and clear. I will communicate class-wide messages through our online class (e.g., Google Classroom). Please make sure that you monitor that space daily to make sure you do not miss anything.

I also use Google Hangouts/Chat to provide just-in-time office hours for students as they need it. Students can send me a text message, or dip in to a quick video chat if they’re confused, disconnected, or need reassurance.

Lastly, we will schedule a weekly open office hour using video conferencing tools. This will be open to all members of the class. In this video session I will identify and unpack the learning objectives and essential questions of the upcoming week. I will also respond to general queries I get from email, Hangouts/Chat, etc. The video will be recorded and shared for the group to review.

Stay flexible, positive, & connected

As we proceed, we need to maintain flexibility as new events warrant. We may be waiting for guidance for state and local officials before moving back to our previously scheduled plans.

As such, we need to be flexible as faculty, staff, & students may be dealing with situations outside of the normal as well. This includes dealing with health or other concerns. Individuals may have left the local area to attend to family, friends, or other responsibilities. This may also include activities undertaken to clean-up and ensure the safety of our learning environments.

All members of our class will remain flexible, positive, and connected. This includes the instructor and learners. We’re all in this together.

When we get back to normal, we’ll revisit our goals, objectives, and assessments. We’ll spend time reconnecting and checking back in with each other. We’ll also perform an after-action report and see what we’ve learned about the process and ourselves. I’ll use this to improve my practices for the next time things go sideways.


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  • 💬 Considering the Post-COVID Classroom | Dr. Ian O'Byrne

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