Eric Stinton: Getting The Hang Of Distance Learning - Honolulu Civil Beat


About the Author

Eric Stinton

Eric is a writer and teacher from Kailua, where he lives with his wife and dogs. You can reach him on Twitter at @TombstoneStint and find his work at ericstinton.com.


As I was leaving school last Friday – the final day of work before distance learning began – I asked the teacher in the classroom next to mine how she felt about classes starting on Monday.

“It’ll be a disaster!” she said through her mask, an audible smile in her voice.

I was heartened by her response. I felt the same kind of conflicted: somewhere between acceptance and resignation, excited to meet my students but still not quite sure if I was adequately prepared to teach in a purely digital setting.

I was relieved that kids wouldn’t be sharing the same physical space with me, but also nervous about how distance learning would work. Although students would not be coming to campus, nearly every teacher would be – only a handful of teachers who may have potentially come into contact with a COVID-positive person would be working from home. This raised concern about the school’s internet handling dozens of streaming video chat classes happening simultaneously throughout the day.

Kapolei Middle School, cafeteria, DOE

Most students are staying home but teachers will be in their classrooms during the first few weeks of school, which began this past week.

Suevon Lee/Civil Beat

I also had the garden variety anxieties about whether or not I’d be an effective digital teacher. I’m good at holding the attention of middle schoolers and building connections with them when they’re sitting right in front of me, but I wasn’t sure how my style would translate through the computer screen. With Google Classrooms, students have the option of turning their cameras off, so I have no way of knowing if they’re present at any given time.

When I got to school on Monday, I heard another teacher say, “Just gotta make it out of today alive.” I’m pretty sure she said it to someone else, but it would have been equally valid if she said it aloud to herself. We were all giving ourselves similar pep talks in our heads.

Nevertheless, Monday started out a little shaky. Our team had emailed parents over the weekend with the web links to our Google Classrooms — each class has its own unique link, so students leave one digital class and click on the link for the next one throughout the day – but we still expected to have confused students struggling to navigate this new setup.

I knew technological difficulties would occur, that this was the week to encounter them and, hopefully, iron them out. Still, I was struggling to maintain my zen when only three of the 12 seventh graders on my roster showed up to our first online class, a 30-minute advisory period.

I would discover later that only one student didn’t show up. The rest of them had signed up for 100% distance learning through the Acellus program and would not actually be in any of my classes; a handful of other teachers are managing all of the Acellus-enrolled students who opted for 100% distance learning.

Then I had my first period of co-teaching. My co-teacher and I share the same outlook that the first few weeks should focus mostly on community building. Distance learning requires more focused effort to provide opportunities for kids to socialize with each other, and the upfront effort of getting to know each other, facilitating friendships and earning trust leads to smooth sailing throughout the year, while diving straight into content can result in slow, zig-zagging progress down the road.

In the opening minutes of class, windows with student names written across them slowly popped up on my computer screen. We took attendance, reminding students to unmute the microphones on their computers when saying “here.”

We led the students in a number of icebreaker activities, and I was pleasantly surprised to see how eagerly the students participated. I made my dumb jokes, they rolled their eyes on camera and teased me in the classroom chat, and a lot of students exchanged info on their own. It was exactly what I wanted to see, and even when one of our activities didn’t work out quite how we had planned – we wanted to break students into smaller discussion groups in separate Google Classrooms, but couldn’t – my co-teacher and I were able to troubleshoot it quickly and keep the lesson rolling along.

The next co-teaching period went more smoothly than the first since we avoided the small group pothole from before, and after that the day was essentially done. We teach for half-days this week and spend our afternoons working with students having tech issues, calling parents and otherwise preparing for future classes.

Monday was, thankfully, less disastrous than I had anticipated.

Mother and children working at home

Tuesday was a slightly busier day, but I had my legs underneath me. My student who was absent on Monday was late this time, but that was still progress. For many students, this was the first time in months they had to wake up before 10, so they needed some time to adjust.

We taught the same lessons from Monday to a new group of students, so we had the pacing down, which allowed me to focus more intently on memorizing student names – a conscious effort in a digital classroom – and connecting faces to personalities. We were able to interact with the kids more freely than on Monday. Apparently they were still buzzing about our math class when they got to their other classes, an unthinkable proposition for a former math-hater such as myself.

Happy as I was to hear that students had enjoyed our first classes together, I know not to get ahead of myself. It’s only the first week, with half-days of teaching and a holiday on Friday, and we haven’t done any real math yet. We started leaning in the general direction of our content by imagining what the world would look like without math and identifying where math exists in our daily lives, but we haven’t gotten down to the tough stuff yet. Once we start explaining negative numbers and proportions – tough concepts for seventh graders already, and only more so when they’re taught online – that’s when the real challenges will arise.

Still, the first week went surprisingly well. Not every teacher had the same experience as me. Group chats and team emails were going off with all sorts of problems teachers were having, from students not being able to log in to their DOE-assigned email accounts to software programs abruptly ceasing to work the way they were supposed to.

I’m lucky to have been spared from most of those issues, and luckier still to be part of a team that works together and communicates with each other. Whatever success I may have this year will stem directly from them, and I’m grateful to have that peace of mind.

If we end up pivoting to full distance learning for a prolonged period of time, I feel a lot more confident that things will go well. There will be moments of stress and frustration, especially when it comes time to administer assessments and prepare Individualized Educational Plan materials – especially for my Acellus students, whom I will rarely interact with but will still be responsible for in some capacities.

These are real challenges, and I don’t want to diminish them. But if the first week is any indication of how things can be moving forward, I think we – students and teachers – will be all right. I think we can adapt and make distance learning work. I think we can do this.


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About the Author

Eric Stinton

Eric is a writer and teacher from Kailua, where he lives with his wife and dogs. You can reach him on Twitter at @TombstoneStint and find his work at ericstinton.com.


Latest Comments (0)

I understand that online schooling can be more stressful for others because people who are better learning hands on will now fear of having to keep or get good grades. 

alohaadre · 1 month ago

I can understand how the teacher might feel due to the transition to online learning, especially to those who aren't used to it. Even though we are in the age where technology is everything, some people aren't used to that, and/or have trouble trying to work the classroom to still give lessons to the students.

Sierra.Smith · 1 month ago

I can see the problems and fears of distance learning. Especially after going through it first hand during my last semester as a Highschooler. Everything flowed pretty easily, since my classes didn't require a zoom meeting, or any other type of virtual meeting. However, they did provide a schedule of when the teacher would be available to meet on Zoom or Google Meets. I was very fortunate that my school had most of our assignments on Google Classroom, so the shift over from in person learning, to social distance learning, didn't affect as much. The only difference that greatly affected me was my sleep schedule. My school was ~35 miles away, and I would wake up at 3am just to get to school early to rest, or to finish any incomplete work. So sleeping in, really through off my schedule. I am glad to hear that there are a lot of struggles that have been getting fixed within the different takes to distance learning programs with each school, and I hope that it helps keep our families, communities, teachers, staff, and faculty safe.

Jordan_Cabansag · 1 month ago

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