5 Ways Teachers Can Rock This Distance Learning Thing

by Seth Fleischauer, Founder

A friend reached out with concern about his local school district’s plan for distance learning in the fall. Knowing of our success teaching via live video, he asked, “Honest question: how do you keep screen-based learning engaging and interesting for kids who are now doing that as their primary source of education?”

The shortest answer to his question is: our goal is for the level of engagement to be so great that the medium doesn’t matter.

We continue with that approach this fall with our K-6 online learning clubs.

Here’s how we do it:

1. Treat it like it’s live TV.

You’ve sat down to watch TV but the program just became the tiniest bit boring. In the old days we may have pushed through until it picked back up again, but now many of us look at our phone to see if there’s a small chunk of content that will get us through the lull before we can reengage.

As much as you’d like to just take what you’ve done in the classroom and move it online, learning from a screen is just different. When sharing a physical space there is at least somewhat of a social pressure to engage with the people around you; this is not so in the online world. Also, as a culture we have become accustomed to screens entertaining us. Your students are now your viewership. You are competing not just with another screen they could toggle to but whatever’s going on around them at home. You are also being held to an engagement standard established by other forms of media. You need to draw your students in with a reserve level of passion and charisma rarely seen in the classroom. Your students have to care about what you’re saying because you’re saying it in a way that anyone would care.

This comes naturally to some but for most it does not. If you fall into the latter group, to build this skill you can practice putting yourself in an uncomfortable situation that you must use creativity and humor to get out of. Toward that end, I recommend dabbling in some introductory acting, improv or even puppetry classes to improve your ability to engage your students online.

2. Keep up the pace.

In the age of Tik Tok you just don’t have that much time before your viewers start drifting off. If you have say, 7 minutes as a window of opportunity to truly engage your students in a physical classroom, cut that in half when you’re online.

You basically have three inputs: what can they see, what can they hear, and what are they doing. At least one of these inputs must change every X number of minutes (with X getting bigger the older the kids are). So if they are listening to you, you get X minutes before you switch to students talking to each other. If they are doing something passive, you have X minutes before switching to something active. If you’re sharing your screen, you have X minutes before switching back to grid view video. Just keep it moving.

3. Include informal social time.

Though the stated goal of school is typically academic, depending on the kid (and who you talk to) an even greater need met by schooling is socialization. Students no longer have before, after and even during class to just sit and talk to each other. So, build informal socialization into your lesson. Let it breathe. While that may sound counterintuitive to keeping the pace up, it actually fits within that paradigm perfectly because it represents a shift in input/output. Do this even if it’s at “the expense” of your content (to which I would argue that, if it is, you should reconsider your content).

The zones of regulation are a great framework from which to facilitate more difficult, personal conversations. Check out our social and emotional learning series for an example of how to do this.

4. Connect students to people and places they’d otherwise never see.

Speaking of content, make the fact that you’re teaching them online a feature, not a bug. Bring in special guests. Take them on a tour of your kitchen and give a world history lesson using your spice rack. Do some science in your bathroom. Have them run outside, dig up some soil, put it in a jar and return for a collaborative analysis. Have a silly virtual background competition. Know teachers who live in other countries? Organize a virtual field trip.

We are huge believers in live video as this beautiful marriage of technology and humanity. Use this time to make authentic connections you never would have thought of it wasn’t necessary for you to mother some inventions.

5. Be a great teacher.

I know, easier said than done. But the idea here is to not lose sight of everything that made you great in the classroom. While the above will help you engage your students online, it is meaningless without building a strong foundation.

Need some more help? Check out our TITAC free training series with best practices for online teaching.

Will Distance Learning Be Permanent?

The short answer to the question is yes, distance learning will be permanent. The real question is how widespread it will be.

Distance learning has been around in one way, shape or form since correspondence courses by mail sprang up in 1728. With the advent of the internet the industry saw a huge influx of asynchronous and live, synchronous learning, the kind that Banyan Global Learning specializes in. With the pandemic, of course,  the great majority of education started happening at a distance. 

Much of that learning was, frankly, not very good. Teachers were thrust into the use of tools with which they were unfamiliar to teach via a medium with which most had zero hours of experience. Because of the immediacy of the need to transition, the great majority of schools offered little training, rather depending on a workforce of teachers who suddenly lacked students to “just figure it out.” Some – especially digital natives – flourished. Most did not.

This fall will be the first real test of whether or not schools will be able to adjust to providing quality distance learning experiences. This spring offered little time to adjust. Now, schools have had since March to figure out a good plan, train teachers and adjust curriculum. Frankly, it may be unreasonable to expect such a drastic jump in quality so quickly.

However, marked improvement by schools this fall could help the industry’s “brand” and increase the likelihood that demand for these services sustain post-pandemic. Sadly, what is more likely is that many people will treat their bad experience with distance learning as indicative of the medium itself and write off the experience in favor of in-person learning once that becomes available again.

Regardless of that, the industry existed before all this and was increasing in prominence due to widespread use of technology, a trend that shows no sign of abating. Another trend that supported the industry pre-pandemic and will only increase post-pandemic is that of homeschooling as parents become increasingly disenchanted with a public education system that has been systematically defunded for decades. Add this to the number of people for whom distance learning really did work well during the pandemic – including but not limited to introverts, digital natives and students lucky enough to engage with seasoned distance learning professionals (excellent teachers who also have solid tech and performance skills) – and it is safe to assume that distance learning will remain an important piece of the educational landscape even after in-person learning resumes.

Shelter-in-Place Superheroes: The Complete Series

One benefit of quarantine is witnessing the amazing bouts of creativity from our communities as they figure out new ways to connect and collaborate.

It is in this light that a talented group of educators and performers got together to create a variety show to fill the void of socialization left by school closures. It’s got a social and emotional learning backbone and, frankly, it’s pretty great!

Below is the full series. We hope you enjoy!

If you like what you see, here are:


Episode 1: Knowing Your Feelings

Superheroes always do the right thing. But how do we do the right thing? Well, first we need to know how we feel. If we’re in the green zone – happy and calm – how do we get back there? Let’s talk to some other Shelter-in-Place Superheroes and have them share their superpowers for getting back to the green zone!


Episode 2: Know the Feelings of Others

After superheroes know how they themselves feel they begin to exercise the superglue of superpowers: empathy! Superheroes notice things so that they can see through the eyes of others, hear through the ears of others and feel with the heart of others.


Episode 3: Making Good Choices

Superheroes know their own feelings and can use their superpowers to return to the “green zone.” It’s from the green zone that we make the best decisions! And they are even better decisions if we include our superglue superpower of empathy. That way we can make the very best choices: those that are good for us but also good for others.


Episode 4: Optimism

Superheroes always believe good things are around the corner. They are optimists! Sometimes when we face great challenges it’s hard to be an optimist. But we can apply the TIE strategy to all our challenges:

T – temporary

I – isolated

E – effort

The challenge will not last forever, it is temporary. The challenge is not the only thing! The challenge is isolated and there are many other things to experience and be grateful for. And, with effort we can overcome any challenge. When we apply this strategy to our challenges we can stay optimistic. And, if we stay optimistic then good things WILL happen!

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Shelter-in-Place Superheroes Livestream: Episode 3 – Make the Best Choices

Thanks to everyone who participated in BGL’s Shelter-in-Place Superheroes Livestream on April 16!

Superheroes always do the right thing. But how do we do the right thing? In episode 1 we talked about how superheroes know their own emotions and how to get back to the calm and mindful “green zone,” which is the best place from which to make decisions. In episode 2 we talked about how superheroes notice other people to see through their eyes, hear with their ears and feel with their hearts. In this episode we talk about how if you can do both of these things then you can make the best choices: the ones that are not only good for you but also for others!

At the end of the livestream many families joined the video call to share their own super powers and the great choices they made this week. It was awesome! To respect their privacy we left that part out of the video, but the rest of it is here! Enjoy, superheroes!

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For Our Students: Thinking Through the Transition to Digital Learning

For teachers and school administrators, the following is a guest post from BGL’s Andrew Bixler.

If we agree that the goal of digital learning is the same as the goal of traditional classroom learning, then we must restructure the systems we use to provide a high quality education given the realities of the quarantine and school closures. 

One teacher transitioning from the classroom to the living room presents an overwhelming number of obstacles. For leaders and administrators, those obstacles multiply as they attempt to provide solutions and manage staff expectations. There is an endless list of digital resources that provide solutions that schools are facing, and as a consequence there are many choices to be made. In other words, digital solutions can unfortunately also be obstacles, and it’s surprising how easy it is to get stuck in the mire. Leader or teacher, the amount of questions that pop into your brain, onto your phone, and outloud over virtual meetings, can leave you feeling off-balanced, flustered, and frustrated. 

What should we think about since there is so much to think about? The answer to this question is unsurprising: we should think about the student. We should think about school-wide, grade-wide, and content-wide protocols with the student in mind just like we normally would. Again, the goal is the same. The medium is just different. 

Student Access

Before moving forward in any meaningful way, schools must know the answers to these questions as they will help prioritize what needs to be done first. As educators, we can set expectations for ourselves or our students only if we have data on student access. 

Do students have a wifi-enabled device and experience with educational applications? 

Schools might have extra computers in the building they can lend. Spectrum is offering free-wifi

Students’ access and digital literacy will be the starting point for schools. For example, if students do not have access or have little to no experience navigating educational resources, then leaders and teachers will have to rely heavily on calling families directly until they have consistent access to the digital resources you will be using.

Do leaders have school-wide data on student access?  

Identify the key information leadership needs in order to connect students to their teachers, Then create and end a Google Forms survey, get feedback, and identify (hopefully) a short-list of families that need additional support. Delegate specific people for outreach, so that families who still do not have access or need support get it. 

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Spreadsheet populated by Google Form to use for assessing student access

Communication protocols for all stakeholders

When communication is too frequent or confusing, it causes frustration, and eventually, apathy among staff. Clear and consistent communication is essential for students and families. The goal is to establish points of contact  in the school, so families are informed but not overwhelmed or confused. With most information now being communicated digitally, it’s essential that communication is strategic and hierarchical. Spend more time thinking through and planning communication to reduce opportunities for confusion. In these ways, all stakeholders know what information to expect, when, and how often.

It’s important to have a deep understanding of where students are academically and socio-emotionally during this time too. However, it’s not feasible for any stakeholder – student, parent, teacher, or leader – to be in close contact with everyone. Imagine a parent of four having to manage communication between multiple teachers multiplied by four!  Leaders should identify groups of students that each teacher will be responsible for communicating with on a consistent basis. It’s easier for teachers to communicate any information on a particular student. Using a CRM tracking system or simply a Google Sheet (above), teachers who are not that student’s advisor can write notes for each student. When that student’s  advisor checks in, they can communicate information from all of their teachers in one communication.

 “…leaders will do well to collaborate with each other and grade team leaders before pushing out information to all staff.”

How are leaders communicating information to staff?

Ideally, leaders provide consistent and predictable communication (weekly same day/time), one medium (email with attached one-pager of the week ahead). Anything sent to all staff must be clear and purposeful, so leaders will do well to collaborate with each other and grade team leaders before pushing out information to all staff. The less time it takes for teachers to interpret information, the more time and energy they will have to provide quality instruction to their students. 

How are staff communicating to each other?

What warrants a video call vs. phone call vs. email vs. group message vs. Calendar Invite vs. DM vs. text? It seems silly, but having general protocols for the media you use will assuage some of the anxiety that stems from checking multiple platforms and, in the long run, will save hours of work time. Tone, time, and relevance are just three essential variables to consider when making protocols for communication. If communication about a topic requires conversation and discourse, a video call is probably necessary. If simple information needs to be pushed out, a concise email will suffice. Calendar invites that include pre-work, agendas, and links to any materials set expectations for meetings and enable attendees to feel the purpose of the meeting. If there’s a light question that a staff member has, they might want to reach out to a colleague over a DM or text before reaching out to the group. Thinking through scenarios that are common in the digital workplace and establishing norms for communication in those scenarios can relieve tension by eliminating confusion. 

How are teachers interacting with students?

If not as a whole-school, as a grade-team identify the one medium (like Google Classroom) that makes sense to communicate assignments and other information to students. Identify the medium for video conferencing (like Zoom) you wish to use for continual outreach to parents and students. Set a day and time each week that students can expect to receive an update on the week ahead.

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This “Week at a Glance” enables students to see their assignments and plan their time accordingly. 

“Plant the student in the forefront of your mind as you think through these questions.”

Leader and Teacher Roles and Responsibilities

Save time and empower each other by defining the roles and responsibilities for leaders, teachers, and staff. When everyone knows what’s expected of them, knows who to manage up to given any circumstance, staff will feel confident and focused in performing their duties. 

What are leaders’ non-negotiables, deliverables, and expectations? 

Push out consistent and predictable communication while leveraging self-starters and tech-literate staff. Maintain a pulse on each grade-level and maintain a positive culture of feedback, e.g. anonymous, daily feedback survey. Help guide teachers in making thoughtful choices around digital solutions.  Manage and support outlier families and students that need resources or that benefit from additional reminders to meet expectations. Delegate tasks in a way that makes sense. 

“Push out consistent and predictable communication while leveraging self-starters and tech-literate staff.”

What are teachers’ non-negotiables, deliverables, and expectations?

Use one medium for instruction, designate a minimum number of lessons, assignments, and grades per week for the grade-team or content-team. Set a number of office hours to be held by teachers over video conference, phone or other tech. Identify and reach out to students who are approaching standards and will benefit from small group video conferences. Hold teachers accountable for student outreach by logging communications in a CRM or other tracking system for accountability. 

How are leaders and teachers holding each other accountable? 

Assume the best all the time. During these new and difficult circumstances, assuming the best creates an inviting atmosphere that bolsters collaboration. Setting deliverables as a team will encourage buy-in and thereby empower all to hold one another accountable. Using shared documents, establishing clear communication of deliverables, agreeing to non-negotiables, and adhering to a system for accountability are just a few systems that take unnecessary, logistical pressure off of the team. With less pressure, schools can focus more on those we actually are here to serve: the students.

Mindset Moving Forward

Plant the student in the forefront of your mind as you think through these questions. In delivering what students need academically and socio-emotionally, leaders and teachers need to prioritize and streamline their approach. Everyone will have to make adjustments throughout this process, especially in the beginning as there is likely to be a sharp learning curve for all stakeholders. So, with each step, plan backwards. Define what the ideal end product looks and sounds like, and then with that goal in mind, develop systems and protocols that are simple and purposeful. In this way, we can make fewer adjustments as we move forward and continue to set up our students for success. 

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Shelter-in-Place Superheroes Livestream: Episode 2 – Empathy is for Winners!

Thanks to everyone who participated in BGL’s Shelter-in-Place Superheroes Livestream on April 9! At the end of the livestream many families joined the video call to share their own super powers and their “superglue superpower” – empathy. It was awesome! To respect their privacy we left that part out of the video, but the rest of it is here! Enjoy, superheroes!

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Shelter-in-Place Superheroes Livestream: Episode 1 – Feeling Fun!

Thanks to everyone who made it to BGL’s first Shelter-in-Place Superheroes Livestream! At the end of the livestream many families joined the video call to share their own super powers. It was awesome! To respect their privacy we left that part out of the video, but the rest of it is here! Enjoy, superheroes!

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Wiggle Wiggle: A Much-Needed 2-Minute Brain Break

This is just really cute, y’all! Thanks to all the kiddos for their awesome wiggling.

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Shelter-in-Place Superheroes: BGL’s New FREE INTERACTIVE LIVESTREAM Weekly Event!

superheroes flier.png

 Shelter-in-Place Superheroes

Thursdays in April at 1pm Eastern / 10am Pacific! 

Shelter-in-Place Superheroes: it’s a short variety show that YOU can be a part of (if you choose)!

Right now, we’re all superheroes! We’re protecting the community by staying at home and keeping the coronavirus from spreading around! Thank you, superhero!

Would you like to meet some other superheroes who are doing the same thing? Then join us for Shelter-in-Place Superheroes where we’ll meet some new friends and talk about how we’re all Feeling Fun!

Vida tells jokes!
Jackie dances!
Lucas plays music!
Courtney trains her dog!
Jimmy and Bella do flips!
Travis, Teddy and Ava do science, and notice things!
Lance and Kris play puppets!
Arielle gardens!
Tutu is mindful!

At the end, you can choose to share your quarantine superpower – art, singing, dancing, and more – with Teacher Seth and other Shelter-in-Place Superheroes!

Then, we’ll see you there on Thursdays in April at 10am Pacific!

*Recommended age groups: 3 to 10 years old. Requires Zoom (free download) and parent supervision.

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Also check out CILC’s Community of Learning – live virtual field trips throughout the learning day via sign ups.

Video Conference Storytime: Another Way to Connect

“There’s always room for a story that can transport people to another place.” – J.K. Rowling

What was your favorite book as a child?

Mine was Are You My Mother?. Not only did I love it as a child, I read it over and over again to my toddler brothers when I was a teenager. Now, I love reading this story to my students as Teacher Jackie. Here I share Are You My Mother? with students at Xing Kong, a progressive kindergarten in Kunshan, China:


I marvel at how something so simple – a story – can engage students so thoroughly across the world and through a computer screen. The sense of excitement, the cadence of the voice, the movement, the suspense – when I read to children, especially online, I share that same wonder and passion for storytelling that I admired as a child. Even across the language barrier, the students hang on my words – for the love of story. 

Stories are incredibly powerful. Stories connect us. Stories comfort us. Stories transport us. Stories are the legacy we leave of our time. Whether you weave your own tale or read a classic, sharing stories with children is a net positive for our collective whole.

Do you have a story you want to share? Write it in the comments? Or share a link to your own YouTube video. 

For more stories and read alouds, check out our YouTube Playlist: Storytime: Read with a Teacher.

And, for a little more support reading aloud over video conferencing check out the Caribu app which does much of the work for you. Especially good for young learners!

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