Practical ways teachers can change remote learning to improve wellbeing and engagement

Practical ways teachers can change remote learning to improve wellbeing and engagement

Monash Alumna

With the extension of lockdown, teachers have quickly adapted their learning materials to cater for full online, remote digital learning. But what else needs to change to promote wellbeing and mental health for students?

The rapid shift to online learning, in and out of lockdowns, has highlighted just how adaptable teachers are. However, there is a pressure for them to remain positive and happy for students 24/7 which may not model the best approach during challenging times.

Students need leaders who model prioritising wellbeing, empathy and support. There is so much power in saying “Hey, I’m having a really tough day today but it’s going to be OK because I have my blanket and my cat and a hot chocolate and I’m looking after myself”.

Tiffani sits at her computer desk with her cat, blanket and hot chocolate
"I have my blanket and my cat and a hot chocolate and I’m looking after myself"

We need to be realistic, and promote wellbeing, self-care and mental health above all else. Here are some ideas to do that in practical and simple ways:

Reinvent how you mark the roll

When you’re not face-to-face it can be easy to focus on content, rather than connecting on a personal level. We miss out on hallway chats, the after-class and yard duty chats.

Working online opens a whole new avenue and way to connect with our students, and a question of the day can be a great way to do that. It’s fun, you get insights into how your students are and how they think. It’s an opportunity to connect outside of teaching core content. Try using different resources with your check in questions, like padlet, Canvas, Google Glassroom, Google form with GIFS or direct email. Students ideally need the option to comment publicly or privately ‒ these tools support both.

Tiffani’s favourite check in questions

Some of my favourite check in questions so far have been:

  • If all the teachers at our school were on their own season of Survivor, who would win and why?
  • What is a piece of advice someone told you that you live by?
  • What is one self-care activity you have done today to look after yourself?
  • What has been the best moment of your day so far?
  • What kitchen utensil do you think represents you the best and why?
  • When watching a movie, is your preferred snack – sweet or savoury and why?
  • Is there anything you want me to know about how you are doing today?
girl wearing saucepan on her head
One of Tiffani’s favourite check in questions is "What kitchen utensil do you think represents you the best and why?"

Modify your content and delivery to be more student-focused

Students are also going through rapid changes too. Online learning can be difficult, and now more than ever, we need to be meeting students where they are at.

Teachers do this all the time – using a range of teaching approaches that address the needs of students with a variety of backgrounds, learning modalities, and abilities. But now, they also need to assess for different stages of burnout and learners fatigue. These strategies contribute to a supportive environment where students can feel equally valued.

One strategy can be to adopt flipped learning approaches – which are already based online. Allowing students to work at their own pace and current mental and emotional capacity can really help manage stress levels and create student agency.

Just be sure not to create extra work. Flipped learning approaches should take the place of classes, not be an additional load for students outside class.

Tiffani’s choose your own adventure class

We use Google Classroom and once a week I give my classes a ‘choose your own adventure’ lesson. I upload a handful of activities and create a learning menu for students.

These activities cover a range of different things and students are encouraged to choose one or two things to focus on.

A sample learning menu might look something like:

  • A content-based video lecture from me. Often this is content that we have already talked about in class and is something for students to watch if they are still feeling unsure about it.
  • A series of worksheets that cover the content they need to know for their assessments.
  • A worksheet that involves problem-solving and application questions.
  • Application questions that often come with both written solutions, and also a video of me modelling my thought process when facing a difficult application question.
  • A graphic organiser for students to fill out, or some other form of visual summary of the content.
  • A video or series of videos that often have a comprehension worksheet attached. As a biology teacher the Amoeba Sisters is one of my favourite companies for this.

Generally these classes would be run this asynchronously, so students can decide not just what activities will be the most effective for them right now, but also the time of day when they can work the most effectively. The expectation is that they are productive for the equivalent of our lesson time (usually 45 minutes), but if our usual timetabled class is not a time when they are in the right headspace to learn then they can complete this later in the day. Creating learning menus can at times feel overwhelming, but there are so many incredible resources that have already been made that we can use online. The benefit to teachers – not every resource here has to be gold, but rather about creating variety for students.

Use your activities to promote wellbeing

Just like we can modify our content to cater for students, we can also use our teaching to create opportunities for students to engage in wellbeing. Right now we have the opportunity to not just accept the space that students are in, but actively engage them in our classes. Your students suddenly have access to their kitchens and their immediate environments, all of which offer incredible resources in learning.

Consider how you can use the environment around them to your advantage:

  • Can you have students take inspiration from nature for art pieces? Or writing pieces?
  • Can you get students to practice collecting data on the environment while out on a walk?
  • Can you modify a science prac to require only items they would find in their kitchen?
  • Can you ask students to model a certain concept using household items? This is a great one for science (e.g. modelling atoms)

Tiffani’s revision scavenger hunts

A favourite activity has been a revision to scavenger hunts. They’re a great way to check students’ knowledge and understanding of concepts and key terms. This has potential to be extended to a full class and take the form of a list of items in the scavenger hunt with students checking in and posting images of their finds on Padlet or any other digital tool.

This could also be as simple as bringing show-and-tell back to high school. Asking students to select household items that represent certain concepts is a powerful tool. In justifying their choice and explaining their analogy, they often will demonstrate a deep understanding.

Screen capture of social media posts
A sample of student work ‒ a mix of wellbeing and content related responses

Inject fun into your classes

Something as simple as putting a filter when students arrive to your classes can make a world of difference to encourage students to also turn their cameras on too. Humour has been shown to have a positive impact on wellbeing - and it brings a deeper level of connection with students.

  • SnapCamera is a great way to add extra filters to a Google Meet.
  • Kumospace creates an alternative platform where you can create a virtual space. This virtual space can look like whatever you want. Create a replica of your actual classroom, and you can mimic yourself walking around to chat to students – just in video form.

Be available to chat and open to check in conversations

Sometimes a personal conversation is more valuable than the specific content you need to get through that day, and it’s OK to sacrifice teaching time to connect with your students. Students are seeking human connection in a safe and comfortable environment.

Create a space for students to have conversations that won’t be about curriculum content, study, attendance, or anything with consequences. Just be available and willing to talk with your students about anything.

You will be surprised how many students will linger in a Google Meet after the class just chat to someone who isn’t their parents. Of course within reason – you need to allow time for yourself to unwind and relax during the day.

It’s also not up to you to solve all their challenges, if there are students who are really struggling, refer them to the wellbeing leader or team who can offer more personalised, ongoing support.

students in a zoom virtual class
You will be surprised how many students will linger after the class just chat to someone who isn’t their parents

Be prepared to get personal

In teaching we are often cautious of sharing our personal lives with students. But when you can connect with students on a more personal level they absolutely love it.

This isn’t about disclosing private information, it’s more about sharing little things they can hold onto, and showing your human side. Like your favourite animal or food, or introducing them to your pets.

Tiffani’s ideal Macca’s order

For example, one of my Year 11 classes spent 10 minutes discussing their ideal orders at Maccas. By the end of the day? Students had emailed me to let me know that they had ordered my typical Maccas order (nuggets with Big Mac sauce) or that they were getting food later.

Tiffani’s house tour

Students have often asked me to show them my house or my many plants. Even if it doesn’t seem interesting, they get a kick out of it.

I’ve never seen a class of students more engaged than my Year 9s when I showed them what was in my pantry. Students have elected to stay while I “vlog” the experience of going downstairs to collect a package in the middle of class when a delivery comes at an inconvenient time. It’s a nice break for my students in the middle of a class, and it allows them to see a different side of me – a more human side.

Tiffani’s house cat and laptop
Vlogging your house can be a great way to give students a break and see a different side of you

Tiffani’s house party

Play music when they come into your virtual classroom. It’s easy, effective, and a great starting point for conversation. Share the tunes you love, and then ask for recommendations. Students love to select the morning tunes and create a new class playlist reflective of this time.

Put self care firmly on the classroom agenda

The strain of sitting on laptops and computers all day is undeniable. But being online means we have the flexibility to shorten our classes and have a set time in a class with a focus on wellbeing.

We should be using the time to keep our students accountable for their own wellbeing in the same way we would assessment tasks and classwork.

Tiffani’s wellbeing activities

  • If you have a longer class, take a 10 minute break in the middle and give students a wellbeing task. Have your students report back what this activity was.
  • Find an item to bring back to class for a quick round of show and tell
  • Remind students that phone time does not count as a break.
  • Students are used to getting up and physically moving around to get from one class to the next. Online learning has taken this away. Shorten a class by 10 minutes to allow students time to walk around before their next class – if possible have your school implement “moving time” between classes.

Tap into whole school wellbeing focused days

The signs are clear that students are showing the effects of chronic burnout. They are also starting to advocate for mental health days.

From leadership down the students, the messaging should be consistent: the day is for students and staff to prioritise selfcare.

Here’s an example from Mac.Robertson Girls' High School

We encourage our community to use protective mental health strategies to improve their wellbeing including maintaining exercise within the health guidelines, staying connected to friends and family, eating nutritious food and turning off social media and news if you find it distressing.–  Messaging released to the school community to promote Wellbeing Wednesday

Classes do not run and everyone is encouraged to have a screen-free day. Resources with suggestions for the day are distributed to the whole school community from our Wellbeing Team. Parents are informed and provided with suggestions around strategies for engaging their young person in conversation and activities focussed around connection and wellbeing. There are activities and challenges for students and staff to take photos of their self-care activities and share them with the school community through online platforms such as Padlet.

Tiffani’s additional wellbeing and reconnecting activities

Here are a few additional wellbeing and reconnecting activities that you can try with your students, they can also be used as mini brain breaks during online class

​​References

Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., & Lovett, M.C. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.

Grove, C., & Laletas, S. (2020). Promoting student wellbeing and mental health through social and emotional learning. In L. J. Graham (Ed.), Inclusive Education for the 21st Century: Theory, Policy and Practice (1st ed., pp. 317-335). Allen & Unwin.

Finkelstein, S., Sharma, U., & Furlonger, B. (2021). The inclusive practices of classroom teachers: a scoping review and thematic analysis. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 25(6), 735-762.

Longmuir, F. (Accepted/In press). Leading in lockdown: community, communication and compassion in response to the COVID-19 crisis. Educational Management Administration and Leadership.

Longmuir, F., & Heffernan, A. (2021). How to find your focus: deciding what matters for your school community. In J. S. Brooks, & A. Heffernan (Eds.), The School Leadership Survival Guide: What to Do When Things Go Wrong, How To Learn from Mistakes, and Why You Should Prepare for The Worst (1st ed., pp. 375-391).