In the time of COVID-19, educational organizations have, once again, proven to be irreplaceable institutions of public good and service. School leaders from the elementary to university level led the way in making difficult decisions to care for their students, staff, and community while state and federal leaders at times hesitated. All 50 states experienced school closures, impacting more than 55 million students nationwide (Education Week, 2020). Though schools are the most important communal setting for children aged five to 17, closing the school doors has been a meaningful mitigation strategy to address widespread transmission of illnesses since the flu pandemic of 1918 (Carlo & Chung, 2009). Social distancing, rather than shared experiences and celebrations, marked the conclusion of the 2019–2020 academic year. The loss of both instructional and social opportunities for students and teachers was prevalent and palpable.
As a new teacher, reference to the importance of rigor, relevance, and relationships was frequently interjected into professional development and faculty training. The associated framework was viewed as crucial to student engagement and achievement (McNulty & Quaglia, 2007). Though the catchphrase has perhaps gone out of style, these concepts remain vital to effective teaching. But as district leaders, school administrators, and classroom teachers prepare for the possibility of the continued vacancy of schools due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a reframing of rigor and relationships is especially needed. Both require a different approach in the virtual classrooms that many of our students logged into when the 2020–2021 academic year began.
Academic rigor in the classroom is intended to provide students with the opportunity to engage in work that requires not only awareness and comprehension but also application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. Unfortunately, rigor is often confused for workload, and students are inundated with simply more assignments rather than rigorous assignments that inspire intellectual growth or build 21st-century skills.
This misconception of rigor poses more potential pitfalls for teachers and students in the virtual classroom. Some helpful tips from digital learning experts include:
- Avoid panic-gogy. Focus on practicality rather than attempting to fully convert an on-ground course to an online format (Kamentz, 2020).
- Emphasize the quality of class objectives and assignments over the quantity of completed work (Davidson, 2020).
- Engage students through assignments and assessments that promote 21st-century skills, such as problem-solving, collaboration, adaptability, analysis, curiosity, imagination, and creativity.
- Utilize backward design. Clearly define what learning objectives and skills students must master, and scaffold assignments and assessments to support them (Dimeo, 2017).
All teachers should understand that relationships are critical to supporting student success and establishing effective classrooms. Positive relationships and interactions between teachers and students can impact student engagement, achievement, and overall educational experience; however, establishing strong teacher–student relationships can be more challenging in virtual classrooms. Darby (2019) offers the following advice:
- Utilize technology to infuse the class with opportunities for collaboration and feedback to prevent feelings of isolation and disconnection.
- Offer both synchronous and asynchronous options for class meetings.
- Offer virtual office hours to increase your accessibility for students and parents/guardians.
- Allow students to see your face and hear your voice on the screen to create a warmer and more welcoming online environment.
View the virtual classroom as an opportunity rather than an obstacle to positive classroom relationships. As Darby (2019) stated, “When you teach in person, you do a lot of things to help students feel welcome and comfortable in the classroom. You greet students. Smile. Make eye contact. Apply that same principle to your online classes” (para. 54).
Summer break was different last year. The time that school leaders and teachers typically take to rechargewas instead needed to revise traditional back-to-school plans. Though any presumption of what is to come would be projection at best, the coming spring and summer will certainly still present challenges for schools and students. We must prepare to continue engaging students in virtual classrooms. Online learning doesn’t have to be dumbed-down and distant. Reframing rigor and reinforcing relationships will engage students, energize teachers, and produce success.
By Joshua C. Tipton
Dr. Tipton is an Assistant Professor of Education at Lincoln Memorial University. He teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in instructional leadership, classroom management, and social studies education and has served as a middle and high school teacher, administrator, and district supervisor.
Carlo, J., & Chung, W. (2009). Review of school closure as a pandemic mitigation strategy. Texas Medicine, 105(7), 21–26.
Education Week. (2020, September 16). Map: Coronavirus and school closures in 2019–20. https://www.edweek.org/ew/section/multimedia/map-coronavirus-and-school-closures.html
Darby, F. (2019, April 17). How to be a better online teacher. The Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/interactives/advice-online-teaching
Davidson, C. (2020, May 13). Quantity is not rigor. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2020/05/13/academics-should-rethink-way-they-assign-homework-opinion
Dimeo, J. (2017, November 15). Peer advice for instructors teaching online for the first time. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/article/2017/11/15/peer-advice-instructors-teaching-online-first-time