How I reached students who disappeared during distance learning

When I started my fifth year of teaching this past fall, I never imagined I’d be teaching during a pandemic. When my school building closed, my seventh graders and I had to quickly adjust to the new challenges of distance learning. The challenge that hit me the hardest was the fact that I had students disappear. These students never logged on, communicated, or showed any signs of where they were. I had lost them.

I knew I had to take action when I started losing sleep over the students I hadn’t heard from. If this were a typical school year, I certainly wouldn’t have let this slide. Now more than ever, it seemed that connecting with students was important — even if that meant connecting virtually.

At first, I tried my usual communication methods: emails, phone calls, and notes to students and families. The success rate from these methods was next to nothing. I had to get creative with how I was going to get a response.

Sending video messages

During distance learning, I started making videos of myself teaching. Sure, I used other online instructional videos to help teach concepts. But my students told me they were thankful for the videos that I filmed. This made me realize how much they were craving a sense of normalcy. Seeing my face and hearing my voice was comforting.

What if I tried making videos to reach the students who had disappeared during distance learning? It was a simple idea that was worth a try. 

The video messages I sent my students were personalized, intentional, and heartfelt. I spoke directly to the camera, making sure to state the student’s name. My first priority was letting them know how much I had missed seeing them. I shared a memory of something that had happened between just the two of us. Then, I assured them that I was going to help make distance learning feel manageable for them. I let them know how much I cared about their social-emotional health

Some students responded immediately to the video and jumped into the classwork posted online. Others started responding through emails. Some students shared that they felt overwhelmed by the amount of work — once they started missing a few assignments, they didn’t know what to do. I also found out that a few were acting as caregivers to their siblings due to their parents being essential workers. 

After receiving these notes from students, I knew that I had to respond with empathy and that learning could not be my main focus. I needed to relieve any stress about deadlines and the amount of work that was left to do. As students started to share their specific learning challenges, I also had to give them strategies to help them move forward, such as goal-setting, chunking assignments into bite-size tasks, using time limits, and taking brain breaks

Throughout distance learning, I’d been focusing on skills and concepts over tasks and assignments. Reiterating this with these re-engaged students helped take the pressure off. I didn’t want them to look at everything through the lens of “missing.” I know that for all students — and especially for students who learn and think differently — it can be a challenge to focus on strengths. I wanted them to feel accomplished as they dove back into their learning.

Why I think video helped 

To think of a way to reach my students, I tried to put myself in their shoes. I imagined what it would feel like as a student to have this shutdown happen and then miss weeks’ worth of schoolwork.

I knew that no matter the situation, students want to be heard, seen, and valued. I realized that a personalized video message might make them feel an ounce of those three things in the midst of all of this. 

As students wrote back, they shared how they were motivated by seeing and hearing me speak to them. I had tears of joy over each of these connections. My results weren’t perfect, but I had close to an 85 percent success rate. 

For the students who didn’t respond, my colleagues and I will keep trying. We have a spreadsheet to track these students, and counselors have made home visits along with phone calls and emails. We’ll continue trying to make connections throughout the summer. We’ve shared this information with the next grade level so that those teachers will be aware of how these students finished the year.

As I look forward to the fall semester, I don’t have answers or clarity. But I know that every student deserves to be seen, heard, and valued. Whether that’s online, in person, or some of both, I’ll continue to strive for my students to feel these three things. 

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About the author

About the author

Carly Bowden is an Understood Teacher Fellow and a seventh-grade math teacher in Andover, Kansas.


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