In-Depth: How remote learning has affected teacher-student communication

Darina Lubenov, Staff Reporter

Every day, world language teacher Diana Cappelen sets her class agenda. She greets students when they log into her Zoom classes. She asks how they are doing that day, and she asks them a curated question to start the day.

“And I feel like that [question of the day] has built community, almost like it built a level of comfort for my students,” Cappelen said in a Zoom call. “I also feel like it has helped them get to know me, I have gotten to know them, I feel good about it. It is my number one goal to know my students and to know that they feel welcome here.”

Despite this, those small, routine interactions between students and teachers have forced teachers to get creative since remote learning began as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. In Township High School District 214, schools closed March 13 before starting remote learning on March 30. It gave teachers two weeks to figure out a new virtual approach to learning, and this was difficult for teachers who had gotten the hang of in-person teaching resources.

Beyond the classroom, communication between teachers and students about personal and mental health hasn’t been amplified for everybody. It has created some barriers for students and teachers when it comes to conveying emotions and social-emotional aspects of learning in the classroom. 

“In March when this all happened, I very much said to myself and my students I would say this out loud nearly every day: ‘We are all learning together, we all need to be patient and flexible,’” Cappelen said. “I was honest and willing to try some new things and I just feel like if it doesn’t work we’ll do something else. I really tried to get feedback for my students, like, ‘Hey, what did you think about that?’ Even now, I still ask questions.” 

Elk Grove teachers like Cappelen have made student connection a priority for the 2020-21 school year among their classes. Some students, however, don’t always feel that the communication is always followed through. Even with applications like Schoology, Remind and Zoom, some students believe that there still are communication challenges between students and teachers.

“I feel like some of my teachers genuinely care about their students and how we’re doing mentally as some push back due dates for certain assignments students are having trouble with,” junior Karina Lara said in an email. “However, others follow up that ‘check-in’ form with a ton of homework, which is the main cause of all stress throughout students, so the ‘check-in’ seems pointless after that.”

What resources have teachers been using?

EGHS teachers like Cappelen have had to adapt to an entirely new format of teaching during both remote and hybrid learning. She said she has learned new ways to use online resources when it comes to staying in touch with students this fall and winter. She said she uses features on the Zoom application for teleconferencing, such as breakout rooms, chat boxes and simple reaction functions to get informal feedback from her students that she and other teachers might not have been able to grasp in March 2020.

“I feel more confident,” Cappelen said. “I’m better at troubleshooting and teaching over Zoom.”

Along with a better understanding of the new technology in place, Cappelen has made it imperative to check in with her students more outside of the given question of the day and a simple hello.

“I think Google Forms is a good way to check in with all students,” Cappelen said. “I’ve done that once or twice now to check-in.” She said she will ask kids questions like, “How are you doing mentally, do you need me to check in with you? Do you need me to email you? Do you need a conversation? Do you need me to connect with a counselor?”

Along with making sure students are safe and secure in their home life, Cappelen said she also has  implemented virtual student to teacher interaction.

“I also had some of my students share their screens and co-host in a Zoom call,” she said. “I’m able to build more and more.”

English teacher Natasha Bulava has felt the same way. She said she has found time to create human connections with others in her classroom.

“I make sure to share personal anecdotes with my students daily,” Bulava said in an email. “I’ve found that when I share about my wins and losses my students seem more comfortable having candid conversations about class topics as well as sharing their own remote learning experiences.”

What have students felt about remote communication?

With the remote environment, many educators have resorted to resources like PearDeck and Google Forms to get feedback from their students more thoroughly. EG junior Grace Schiller said she has had teachers use Google Forms for check-ins, but she said she hasn’t received follow-ups. 

“I know it’s hard for teachers to decipher whether not to reach out to a kid because you don’t whether they want to try in school or just don’t care, Schiller said in an email. “It’s hard to tell especially online when you can not see the student in person. My main concern is for the students that are having a hard time online and are struggling in school because of this.”

Regarding responses from forms, check-ins or her question of the day answers, Cappelen said that she does her very best to get one-on-one time with students who are struggling.

If I see a student does not seem themselves, or in a question of the day they respond with, “Oh I’m sad,” or “I am overwhelmed, a lot of times I try and end class a few minutes late from zoom so I can ask students to stay after.”

Janet Perez, a junior at EGHS, said that she also feels that there has been more limited interaction in the remote and hybrid learning environment.

“My [English] teacher, Mrs. Bulava, does overall check-ins for the class and just in general how we are all doing,” Perez said. 

Perez said she feels more comfortable knowing that teachers like Bulava are interacting with students and taking the time to get a feel for the kids in the room. 

“What I like about it is that I feel a lot more comfortable in her class knowing she is interested in knowing how we feel,” Perez said. “She opens up to us as well or her life and how’s she’s in a similar spot and I think we just all connect a lot better.”

Bulava said her frequent check-ins with kids have given her life.

“In breakout rooms I’ve had students share their pets, show their younger siblings, tell me about their struggles and even ask me how I’m doing,” she said.

Cappelen said she is able to keep tabs on students, even though she compares educators to an iceberg. There is always more that is not visible to the eye.

“Teachers are working tirelessly all of the time, our job never ends,” she said. “You are never finished for the day.”

In addition, some students have additionally expressed the workload in certain classes has gotten more difficult with a block schedule and a remote climate. Schiller, who takes three Advanced Placement classes, said that she will often start homework around 5 p.m. and finish around 11 p.m.

“I know that because of the new schedule that it is taking away less of our learning time and the teachers are just trying to put in as more work as they can to make sure we are learning, but I am getting a lot of work to do at the end of the day which leaves no free time for myself,” Schiller said. 

Lara echoed Schiller’s sentiment about homework. 

“I get that it’s our junior year and it’s supposed to be hard, especially since a lot of students have AP classes, but it feels like they’re giving out so much homework for no reason,” Lara said. “Also, doing classes online makes it even harder.”

And Perez echoed it as well. 

“I absolutely understand that teachers want us to stay on track but I find myself feeling more mentally drained doing hours of homework than any previous years,” Perez said. “I think everyone’s going through different unique experiences. An example, some students are taking care of siblings or working night jobs to support their families.”

Handling remote learning with grace

Regarding students’ concerns of unresponsive teachers during virtual learning, Cappelen said she wants students to be patient and kind during these times. 

“I understand why students may be frustrated, but they must be patient,” she said. “There are so many layers and channels of communication right now. It’s a prioritization of time, effort, and resources. No teacher would ever purposely not respond to a student.”

Teachers all over the United States have expressed struggles with remote and hybrid learning during the pandemic on social media. However, through it all, educators are able to find a silver lining.

Cappelen said that students and teachers need kindness and unconditional love. They also need the routines and structures that teachers like her have tried to establish through learning new apps and tools.

“It’s just really hard,” she said. “They [students] need to know that we care. All teachers feel the way I do. It’s really hard. But every teacher cares a lot about their students and they want to be well.”