For many of us, we are moving into our third and fourth week of “Shelter-in-Place”. This has been an unprecedented experience as the world attempts to avoid complete mayhem from the effects of the Corona Virus and the Covid19 illness. As the shock wears off, life is attempting to get back to some sense of progress. For millions, this means getting back to school in order to complete the last half of the second semester. Thinking about this the other day, I realized that quite a few are likely to struggle because of the open-ended nature of what school will be like. Students are mostly used to having a consistent routine, with pre-planned lessons and instruction, and scripted outcomes for work they are assigned. Really, today’s students and athletes have very little autonomy. And for this reason, I think completing school online might present a significant struggle for many.
The key reason for the struggle students are going to face is the loss of structure. Certainly most students were excited about classes shutting down, and took quick advantage by staying up late, sleeping in, and letting books collect dust. Soon the focus students had at the mid-point of the semester came unhinged. Let’s be honest, without due dates, how many of us would actually pick up a book to learn something we didn’t have a strong interest in? And because assignments and grades were on hold, motivation began to plummet. This spiraling effect doesn’t need a detailed alliteration of theory. But you probably have seen or experienced exactly what I’m talking about. High school and college students “drifting” from the routines that were structured for success.
And it is the structure we have created these last few decades that is going to hurt them now. Our culture in schools has been designed to ensure that nearly everyone finish on time, and with as much “success” as possible. For the most part this has been developed by eliminating student and athlete autonomy, as well as the freedom to manage their own schedules. Thus, the first hurdle is going to be maintaining a pace of completing their studies in an a-synchronous format. Students have become so used to having teachers set the pace, nearly in a day to day manner, that working independently will be difficult. Having discipline in time management is going to be essential moving forward.
Another struggle many will face as we begin distance learning is the lack of familiar social settings. One of the bright spots of school is the peer interaction. Whether in classes, or between them, students meet a strong psychological need for affiliation by being able to connect with one another in the same physical space. I realize that many feel social media has killed this type of activity, but I can vouch for the fact that they still love the face-to-face time. And although digital platforms are booming with the social distancing protocols, it isn’t the same. Similarly, when they do connect online for classes, the need to socialize is going to override the purpose. There are a few schools around the country who have already ventured down this path and have run smack into students being off-task and having fun, while a teacher attempts to run a class. Without having a teacher who can monitor and “control” behavior, student discipline is going to be rough.
So this is where students, student-athletes, etc. are going to need to learn to do it differently. And I would argue, the teachers and parents are going to need to be flexible and appreciate the transition students are going to need to make. The first thing students need to do is establish personal goals for what they want to accomplish in their classes over the next few months. I realize this is a mantra I have written about extensively, but I feel it deserves reiterating here. Once teachers give clear expectations and outlines of how student learning will be evaluated, it is up to the student to decide how successful they want to be. Allowing them to define this for themselves elevates motivation and determination. Add in a personal knowledge of what skills one possesses for learning (how well you read, create notes, etc.), and you have a student ready to venture into learning independently to meet teacher expectations.
A second critical skill for being more independent as a student is to calendar their time. I believe this is one of the greatest assets of smart phones. Being able to calendar online class meetings and assignments should happen as soon as they are posted. And because free time will still be fairly large, I recommend students calendar “study time”. Doing this gives a great visual of how their time is balanced. There is a commitment/contract with self about what needs to get done and when in order to meet their goals, as well as a sense of relief and anticipation that they will have large segments of time to engage in what they enjoy. Balance wont’ always be complete, but having personal time is important for well-being.
Another essential skill as students engage in distance learning will be to communicate with clarity. This will be especially necessary when they need help or greater understanding. Too often they feel that asking questions is a sign of weakness. However, being able to articulate why they are confused empowers a student. Two means of helping themselves provide clarity of need to a teacher include maintaining a running list of questions/needs as they study, and writing clear and concise emails. In the former, students should use post-its or note paper to keep track of ideas that need clarifying, or questions they may have for later. Often times a student may find that articulating a question for themselves actually leads to logical thinking and the ability to find the answer on their own. And thus, the questions they have for a teacher now become more on-point. Again, this is empowering as a student gains an understanding in what they do know and what they need to know.
The art of writing clear and concise emails requires they be both self-aware AND contemplative of the reader (i.e. the teacher). There is no need to share your emotional state (“Dear Mrs. G, I am hating this book right now!”). Doing so is a distraction to the teacher, and can run the risk of making them defensive. Instead, be clear about your thinking, or struggles with thinking (“Dear Mrs. G, I am really confused by….”). This gives clarity as to why you are writing and asking for help. The rest of the email should phrase a specific question that requires an open-ended response (“…When FDR met with Stalin, how did the anti-communists in the USA feel?”). This allows the teacher to target her response, and keep it concise as well. And don’t forget, be patient with the teacher’s timing of response. They aren’t expected to sit at the table with their email open during this shelter in place time either.
The radical spread of the Corona Virus has forced us to hit the pause button. I truly believe that many of our institutional practices are going to be permanently changed. Life is going to look different in 2021 than it did at the end of 2019. And although change can be difficult, it can also be good. In the meantime, stick to what you can control. As as student, this means learning how to operate more independently, while also increasing your ability to be more self-disciplined. And even though most of my clients are athletes who want to focus on being better in their sport, I also love helping students get better at learning. Should you find yourself needing more help in this area, why wait? Make the call, bring in an expert.