Best Practices for Teaching When One Has Little Time and Even Less Bandwidth

Teaching in normal times is not a profession that lends itself to balance. A study by the Gates Foundation and Scholastic found that teachers on across the country work over 53 hours a week on average, and it seems that every year the number of tasks, students, and papers grows larger and larger.

And even though right now the vast majority of us are not teaching in our schools, the size of the job remains massive for many. There are meetings to attend, classes to teach, feedback to give, and students and parents to reach out to. Further, there are new tasks: we must translate our brick-and-mortar classes into new digital spaces, learn entirely new platforms, keep up with ever-changing requirements and developments, and help 140, 150, 160, or maybe even more students navigate a moment of acute worldwide trauma.

At the same time, many significant barriers to productivity have risen around us. I, for example, am the primary caregiver for two children under four during the week, meaning my teaching has been relegated to early mornings, late evenings, and weekends. And I am one of the lucky ones who isn’t dealing with losing a job or, even worse, a loved one due to the pandemic.

For many-the current teaching situation is all but impossible to navigate perfectly. We want to be there for our students during what might be some of the hardest months of their lives, but we also need to be there for our own children and families, and we need to make sure that we are adequately taking care of ourselves as well. This is why I want to preface what I’m going to say next by stating that I don’t have answers for how to manage this time perfectly or even adequately at all times. I know that despite employing many of these strategies, I have dropped plenty of balls over the last six weeks.

But after having written a book on writing instruction practices that are both efficient and effective, there are a handful that have helped me tremendously during this time that I wanted to share:

Flash Feedback

I have written a lot about Flash Feedback, which is where a teacher gives quick, meaningful feedback by creating targeted assignments and activities and clear structures. Here, here, and here are examples and explanations, if you are looking for more information.

The only major difference with my flash feedback normally and my flash feedback right now is that I am using more of it now, and I am using it both for content and for building and maintaining connections with students, as finding ways for students to feel connected and like a teacher is still there for them and listening to them is key to keeping them engaged in a remote setting.

For example, last week I felt like my classes needed a little something positive and meaningful, and I’d just read this George Couros’ piece about “The Importance of Greetings in Digital Hallways,” and so I asked my students to all send me a short meme/TikTok/video/gif that never fails to make them happy. Then, over the next week, I sent out a daily handful of never-fail-to-make-me happy memes/TikToks/videos/gifs, each with the title “Your Morning Smile.” Collecting the memes, videos, and gifs and sending out these emails took me no more than a handful of minutes, and yet the feedback I was giving to students by sending out their videos was that I heard them, I cared for them, and I valued their viewpoints.

My favorite of the Morning Smiles so far

Flash Feedback is great tool for a lot of reasons right now: It allows me to create regular contact, which I think both teachers and students need right at this moment; it helps to build a body of call-and-response that helps students feel like they are moving forward, as many students are feeling stuck in place right now; it remain good pedagogy for the reasons I’ve discussed before; and maybe most importantly, if designed well, it can be done incredibly quickly.

Getting Students to Do Even More of the (Right) Work

A recent article written by Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle in Educational Leadership makes a compelling case against “Helicopter Teaching,” which is where, in the pursuit of trying to help students, teachers fall into the trap of over-correcting student work, over-smoothing the road ahead for students, and doing more reflection on student work than they require the students to do.

This notion that teachers need to at times let students figure out their own path and solve their own problems is one long supported by research, as when students set their own robust goals, reflect seriously on their own learning, have some choice in their educational journey, and productively struggle, good results tend to follow. In recent weeks I’ve doubled down in these areas by having students:

In many of these areas I have pushed this idea of putting more work onto the students further than I ever have before, and the results have been one of the few bright spots during this time. My students have largely created interesting and innovative paths and set really thoughtful goals for themselves.

One of my favorite examples of how choice has helped me in this time was what we did in my film elective for the Hero’s Journey (which we are doing at the students’ request). I’ve taught the Hero’s Journey before, and normally I have the students watch Star Wars and write a paper on it, as it is a textbook Hero’s Journey. With the current circumstances though, short of putting a pirated copy of Star Wars online, there was no way to ensure that every student would have access to it. Originally, I spent far too long looking for open source Hero’s Journeys of quality until it hit me that I should just have students apply the Hero’s Journey to their favorite movies/tv shows instead. So that is what I did, and the results were noticeably deeper and longer than the ones I used to get on Star Wars, despite the fact that it was done remotely.

Thoughtful Use of Wonder

In one of the first posts on this blog, I made the case that wonder, if wielded well, can be a potent educational tool:

What makes wonder so essential in both storytelling and teaching writing is that wonder is an incredibly potent motivator. Wonder regularly inspires fans to wait in lines for days to see their favorite Marvel stars for a few minutes at comic conventions or to go on the road with their favorite bands. Wonder inspires people to spend thousands of dollars to fly across the world to touch Machu Picchu or the Eiffel Tower. Wonder inspires people to read the entire Harry Potter series 18 times and name their first born after a favorite character. And wonder, properly deployed, can inspire students to throw themselves into the difficult and scary task of writing in ways that will surprise both you and them.

I still believe that now, and in a moment as dark as this one, I would argue that wonder is even more important. With that in mind I have been occasionally taking the extra time to find ways to infuse small bits of wonder. My film students are studying the sudden and pretty amazing genre of quarantine filmmaking and my composition students just read and broke down a piece about a Detroit Tigers pitcher who lives out of a van in the summer. These assignments with small infusions of wonder–while they take a little more upfront time–have actually been a wonderful timesaver on the backend because wonder is a potent motivator. If I hit the right tone, suddenly I don’t have to track down students to do the work and take the time to write those carefully crafted emails home when students don’t engage. Also, the responses they generate are a lot more fun to read in those early mornings and late nights.

There are few guidelines or best practices that are sure bets right now, as there are no peer-reviewed studies or thoughtful books that I know of for how to best conduct emergency remote learning. But these three strategies have been useful for me, and I hope they help you too. If you have practices that are working for you, I’d love to hear them as well; as I often say, we are all in this together, now more than ever.

Stay safe and healthy.

Yours in teaching,


If You Liked This…

Join my mailing list and I will send you a thoughtful post about finding balance and success as a writing teacher and a list of curated reading suggestions each week. Also, as a thank you for signing up, you will also receive a short ebook on how to cut feedback time without cutting feedback quality that is adapted from my newly released book Flash Feedback: Responding to Student Writing Better and Faster – Without Burning Out from Corwin Literacy.

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