Frustration in teaching virtually

As an online tutor, I’d like to share my experience learning Zoom and Osmo, using manipulatives online, keeping students’ attention, and teaching reading and writing to students ten miles or three time zones away.

In four words:  I have been overwhelmed.

Before the pandemic, I used GoToMeeting with one student whose father set everything up for us.  That worked, in part because the father hovered nearby and anticipated his daughter’s and my needs.

But after a pandemic break from tutoring so I could babysit and teach grandchildren, I struggled to learn Zoom.  For my first classes, my husband (my IT person) sat at my side off camera and slipped his hands on the keyboard from time to time to rescue me.  I couldn’t have done it without him.

For me, learning to teach via Zoom has been like trying to teach English in Vulcan aboard the Starship Enterprise with Mr. Spock at my side.  I know the content, but grapple with how to use the technology.  For example,

  • If my student writes her homework in a workbook, how can I see her answers via Zoom? She can hold the workbook in front of the camera, but she might hold it too close or too far away or she might jiggle it.  With time, I learned how to solve this problem.  Her parents can scan her work before our lesson and send it to me as an email attachment which I can then open and share on Zoom.  It took me weeks to learn that.  But not all parents have scanners.


  • And what if I want to scan information to send to my student as an email attachment? Before, I would make a photocopy and bring it with me to a lesson.  I have learned to scan and input, but I don’t do it often enough for the process to stick  I keep a little notebook next to my computer with “how to” directions in it.


  • If I want to see what changes my student is making in her hand-written document, how can I? Her writing surface–a desk or table–is out of camera range.  I learned that if she rereads the corrected writing, I know if she has changed it.


  • I can see only the tops of some students’ heads. Asking a student to sit up works until the student slumps a minute later.  I have asked parents to adjust the camera angle, and that helps, but some children deliberately hide.  I have learned to accept this if the student remains engaged.  If not, I ask the student to sit up.  Again.  And again.


  • For some students, especially pre-K, K and first grade students, I need to use manipulatives like letter tiles or easy-to-read books.  I have found using Osmo allows the students to see letters as they appear rather than flipped.  My husband set up the Osmo, and I use a two-dozen step process to make it work.  But it does work, and Osmo has allowed me to teach a group of young students I might not otherwise teach.


  • One of my students is hyperactive, sliding in his chair, contorting his body, standing, stretching, walking around and darting off camera. He even falls asleep.  When I teach in person, I use eye contact or a tap on the desk to engage him.  But via Zoom, if he is not looking at the camera, I have only my voice.  I am still working on this problem.  Maybe a whistle?


  • Many of my students are either immigrants or the children of immigrants. Sometimes I ask my students to bring their parents to the camera at the end of our classes. When I try to explain homework expectations or student behavior to the parents, they nod, smile, and say nothing.  I know I have not made my message clear.  I have learned to recap a lesson in writing immediately after the lesson concludes.  I include the homework assignment and any other work a student might need—like a prewriting organizer the student worked on.  I send everything as an email to both the  parent’s and student’s email.

These are small problems.  Bigger ones are caused by my lifetime of relying on my husband to handle online technology.  On Monday, for example, I kept losing Google Docs I had downloaded and opened, ready to revise with a student.  My husband pointed out something basic that I was unaware of:  At the top of my screen are tabs for documents I unload from the internet.  At the bottom of my screen are browser and application icons.  Duh.  (The placement might be different on your screen.)

Many of your children’s teachers are going through the same frustration with virtual technology.  They were trained in math or reading, not in how to teach remotely.  They were trained to walk the classroom to engage students, but they were not trained to monitor two dozen children on a computer monitor, peering at faces the size of postage stamps.  Older teachers like me, who are experts in their subjects, are wrestling with a technology learning curve.  What might seem so basic to a thirty-year-old who was born with a smart phone on her hip seems odd and even frightful to a veteran teacher.

Fifteen months teaching in this online mode has not been enough for me to master it. As Mr. Spock said, “Computers make excellent and efficient servants, but I have no wish to serve under them.”  I have no wish either, but we all must to get through this pandemic and beyond.

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