8 Ways to Overcome the Challenges of Distance Learning

8 Ways to Overcome the Challenges of Distance Learning

In March when schools across the United States shut down their buildings and moved to an at-home learning model basically overnight, what you all did as teachers was truly incredible. You didn’t complain or run away; you did what teachers do.


You rolled up your sleeves, met the challenge head on, and MADE THINGS HAPPEN.

No matter how many years you have been teaching, no one in education has ever faced this kind of a challenge. Yet you got to the other side of the 2019–2020 distance learning school year each in your own way, with the same flare, style, and creativity that you always show in the four walls of your actual classroom.


During our Teacher Appreciation Week in May, so many of you shared the incredible ways that you are overcoming the challenges of distance learning. And as we look to the coming school year where there are still so many questions about what the learning model could look like, we wanted to share the top eight big ideas from your experiences.


Because we all know that we are better together, and hopefully these ideas will spark something new for you as you prepare for what lies ahead in the coming school year.


1. Apply for Independent Grants

Regardless of our students’ home circumstances, we as teachers work very hard to ensure that our classrooms are the place for equitable access to instructional materials. We make sure that everyone has the supplies that they need to learn, whether that’s pencils, crayons, manipulatives, or books. When remote learning began, many of you instantly realized that that equity would disappear when your students had to learn at home.

So, you applied for independent grants from organizations such as DonorsChoose.org or local community organizations to get the supplies and materials that your students would need to be successful.

And once funded, you drove to all of your students’ houses to lovingly gift them their materials. This brought smiles and relief to so many families in need.


2. Meet All Needs

One of the biggest challenges of distance learning was trying to meet the needs of all of your students. In any given classroom there is such a wide range of readiness levels, language levels, and backgrounds. And in many cases, this pandemic has exacerbated those inequities. Yet, you didn’t let that stop you from doing all you could to meet your students’ needs.

You put together packets of work and supplies on a regular basis and mailed or drove them to your students’ houses so that they didn’t have to print things or gather materials on their own.

You made tutorial videos for parents to help them navigate and trouble-shoot the new digital platforms and expectations for their role as “parent-teacher” from home.

You creatively had students use common household items as manipulatives or for projects/activities to eliminate the need for fancy materials.

Small group Zoom calls became your new guided reading platform.

And you even made differentiated BINGO choice boards to allow students to work on projects and assignments that they were most interested in and could complete at their level.


3. Schedule Guest Appearances

Even with the most engaging lessons, students thrive when special visitors come to the classroom or when they are able to go on field trips to learn from local experts and have hands-on learning opportunities.

To recreate these experiences in a virtual learning environment, you found local and famous authors to do live or recorded read alouds that you could share with your students.

Some of you even had local community members make guest “appearances” in your live Zoom classroom or Google Meets instructional time.

One teacher in Missouri even had the local news meteorologist teach a lesson one day. The students got to ask him questions at the end and loved the opportunity to talk with someone who they see on TV.


4. Celebrate Success

One of the joys of teaching is the opportunity to celebrate. As teachers, we delight in both the little and the large successes, the special occasions, and the just because. And you knew that even though we were away from our students it didn’t mean that those celebrations weren’t important anymore—in fact, they may have been even more important.

So, you sang as a class on your Zoom calls for birthdays, mailed awards or certificates for achievement when certain academic milestones were met, drove by students’ houses with signs, and wrote letters or postcards for congratulations. Those special deliveries and celebrations made your students’ day.


5. Stay Connected

One of the most important things we do as teachers is connect with our students and teach them how to connect with others. These connections help motivate our students, inspire them to work hard, build their confidence, and often realize things about themselves that they didn’t know before. This social and emotional learning is an invaluable component of school and one you knew could not be lost during distance learning.

So, you made regular phone calls or sent texts to all of your students and even their parents to check in and see how they were doing.

Many of you drove by your students’ homes to say hello and delivered food items to make sure that they had what they needed to feel safe and secure.

Often you let your students share their work and have free “chit chat” time at the end of your live calls so that they could see their classmates and continue those relationships they had built earlier in the school year.

Some of you had weekly virtual lunch dates with your students in small groups or one on one.

One teacher in Michigan even called her students on Tuesday nights to read them bedtime stories before they went to sleep.


6. Find the Fun

This was a scary and uncertain time for many families across the United States, and helping to bring a little fun to your students’ day was important.

Through your digital platforms, you found ways to play games like Kahoot, Pictionary, and Would You Rather.

You completed virtual art lessons, sang songs, and had dance parties.

Many of you created a personal bitmoji that you put on correspondence so that students could see your cartoon face throughout the week.

And you even did your own spinoff of Flat Stanley and created a flat version of yourself that your students got to spend time with and take pictures of their “adventures” with you.

These silly ways you brought the fun created lots of happy memories for your students.


7. Capitalize on Digital Tools

With an Internet full of digital tools, it’s hard to sift through and find the best/easiest/highest yield/most engaging ones out there. For some of you, using digital tools felt comfortable and nearly effortless. For others, it was like being instantly dropped into a foreign country where you didn’t speak the language and being expected to run a small business with no one’s help. Regardless of where you fell on that spectrum, you all incorporated digital tools in some capacity to help support your students.

Many of you did live teaching on a regular basis using Zoom or Google Meets.

Editable Google slides and documents for student work were often used so that they didn’t have to print pages. Students even got creative with how they submitted work and created videos or used other digital media to demonstrate their learning.

Some of you set up private social media pages for class communication and camaraderie.

You showed videos of science and social studies content and even took virtual field trips.

While there were often many hurdles to jump through, you capitalized on the best of technology to continue your students’ learning.


8. Collaborate

Collaboration took on a new meaning during this time of distance learning. You could no longer walk into your neighbor’s classroom and ask her a question on the spot or sit together with your grade level team for planning during lunch. It had to be more intentional; but that didn’t stop you from working together.

So many of you video conferenced with your grade level teams or called and messaged teacher friends around the country for advice, support, and ideas.

You shared resources and divided the workload when you could.

You “tutored” each other on how to use new digital tools or when you found a new trick (like how to mute everyone at entry) to make live teaching more manageable.

You did whatever it took to make things easier and help each other through.

These past few months have likely been some of the hardest of your entire teaching career. For some, maybe even harder than your first year in the classroom. But, you did it! And now, it’s summer where you can have time to relax, refresh, and reflect. You have experienced success and failure and can learn from that and from the experiences of your peers to start the new school year renewed and ready for whatever it has in store.




Engage in your professional growth and check out TCM’s Professional Learning web site for FREE professional development to learn best practices and new strategies that can be used for virtual and/or in-person instruction. TCM offers free live webinars covering the latest education trends with our experts and distinguished authors and access to our free on-demand webinars to watch at your own pace.


Author bio

Sara Johnson

Sara Johnson, Educational Consultant

Sara Johnson, M.S.Ed., is a former elementary school teacher. She joined Teacher Created Materials to help create professional resources and curriculum for students worldwide. After overseeing the Shell Education imprint of TCM for nearly 6 years, she joined the Marketing team where she supported the department as the voice of the educator and led their philanthropic outreach efforts. She is now an educational consultant, supporting teachers through professional development and coaching.