The loneliness and resilience of the long distance teacher

Dr Jennifer Chang Wathall has devised a 4 stage model for eLearning which I’ve found particularly helpful on reflecting on my journey with online learning so far.

Dr Jennifer Chang Wathall (@JenniferWathall), from the University of Hong Kong, is an expert in methodology and frameworks for online learning.

She has devised a 4 stage model for eLearning which I’ve found particularly helpful on reflecting on my journey with online learning so far. After seven weeks of virtual teaching and learning, I think it is a brilliant model to share with teachers and helps articulate the emotional, practical, and pedagogical impact of online learning.

  1. Survive 
  2. Strive
  3. Thrive 
  4. Arrive
Stages of eLearning


Week 1. The school has shut. This is happening. Crap! ACTION STATIONS. You, your colleagues and the school are frantically collaborating to set up systems (online and offline), share logins, create parental and student expectations, refresh online safeguarding protocols, responding to a multitude of parental emails and support or be supported with the digital tech. There are a lot of ducks to be lined up. Some ducks keep falling over. Others ducks have gone missing. And new species of ducks will be discovered in the weeks to come. 

The will is strong, but the hours are long. You’ve never really done this before, but you don’t admit this to yourself or anyone else. You are a teacher after all and, like a rampaging rhino crashing through the school canteen, nothing stops a teacher on a mission! With hindsight, you realise your efforts were well-intentioned but (dis)organised chaos. You wish you had paused, taken a deep breath and taken stock of everything first before charging in headfirst. But faults, imperfections and regrets are natural; at every stage of this journey. You will realise that quickly. Don’t dwell on them: learn from them and move on. As you keep telling the kids, it’s ok to make mistakes.


Week two, roughly speaking. You’ve learnt a hell of a lot in just one week. Your resilience and determination have kicked in. More digital and analogue ducks are in a row now. You have established collaborative norms with your team and are driven by newfound creativity and innovation towards the goal of how best to support students, parents and each other. You are experimenting with new digital tools and realising the benefits of asynchronous learning. Students have choice with their learning, which encourages families to develop flexible timetables for the week and limits the number of digital tools you set. You plan for the bare minimum – access to a mobile phone and 3G – and practical, hands-on activities that are device-free. You are beginning to recognise your limitations and strengths, and where digital tools are concerned – less is more.


Week three or four. You have found meaning and purpose in the systems you have set up. You are collaborating and planning effectively with colleagues. There is a semblance of routine and structure. You are confident with your method for tracking and giving personalised feedback to students. You are now fully aware that face-to-face is the most significant loss for kids. They miss friends and the social dynamic of school, which is impossible to virtually replicate when isolated at home or on a video conference. Your students send you positive videos of their creativity and achievements but also more melancholy evidence of how much they are missing school, by posing dressed in their school uniform and school bag raring to go. Except they can’t leave their house. 

You’ve been sending daily video messages from the beginning. You now build on the success of that. You are suddenly aware that your primary focus from the beginning was always about relationships: how to engage and support virtual connections with your students and school community. It’s been weeks since anyone saw each other. Staff meetings on Zoom and lip-synch challenges on Flipgrid give everyone cheer and laughter. Laughter truly is the best medicine. You experiment with live synchronous video conferencing with your students, which are all aimed firmly at fun and engagement. Simultaneously, your team ensures that quality content and activities are being provided for asynchronous / anytime learning. You try not to add pressure to fellow staff, students, parents or yourself. You nudge gently and reflect admirably on your achievements so far. Well done! Good job!


Now. You wonder if we ever really arrive as teachers? We are the perhaps the world’s worst profession for reinventing the wheel. Many other countries schools have now shut, and social media has gone ballistic with myriad options of new ideas to try and digital tools to use. In turn, this occasionally sends you reeling back to the strive part of the process as you experiment and play with a beguiling shiny new digital tool or PDF on the list of ‘100 best tools to use when schools shut’. You love the ‘sharing is caring’ vibe, the selflessness and the breaking down of barriers. You feel duty-bound to share and help out as much as you can. What you have learnt. What you think you know. But the harsh truth is you are exhausted and tired. You don’t want this to be the new norm. You didn’t sign up to be a virtual teacher of a virtual classroom. You are a 3D teacher trapped in a 2D world. There are many things you love about it; your improved online skills fast approaching ninja level, the free sharing and camaraderie of fellow teachers from around the world, and a collective sense of humour to cope with it all. Yes, you have been unbelievably positive for all your students and parents. But in quieter moments of reflection, you feel the intensity of the feeling of isolation and powerlessness, and you know how much black humour and lots of swearing has kept you going in private chat groups!


The virtual learning process is seemingly endless. You know it requires an extra step if you are going to be able to maintain your enthusiasm and your commitment to the process. You know you are making an essential difference to your students and their families. But you also need to take a breath. A long one. You have been swamped with the combined pressures of work, single-parenting and home educating your own children. That was hard. At first, you enthused to friends how much you were looking forward to the home educating part. You are a teacher! You have skills in this area! And these are your kids. It will be like the best continuous snow day possible! Erm.

You have felt permanently attached to your laptop screen. You juggled work and home teaching in the mornings. Break-time was a snack and a podcast. You hoarded boxes and spent the afternoons together on junk modelling tasks. You’ve drunk a lot of beer and eaten a lot of biscuits and crisps. Self-health is a HUGE challenge.

You know that virtual learning isn’t the picture-perfect utopia of home learning painted by home learning bloggers. School certainly isn’t like that either. It’s ok to have bad days, to feel guilty, to realise you have neglected your kids for 3 hours. You also know it’s not ok if you keep doing it every day. But you must stop beating yourself up and expect the home learning experience and virtual learning to be perfect.

You read and watch Netflix in the evenings. But even then your phone is stuck like glue to your hand. You can’t find the strength to put it down.

Now it is a global pandemic; you find it more impossible to escape the fear and anxiety. These intense emotions add to the extreme isolation that comes from spending long hours working on screens and being contained inside the home. You are not alone with these feelings. You phone your brother. You phone your elderly mum. You make the effort to go to bed before midnight. You check on your kids in the bedroom. Tomorrow is a new day. You are a teacher, a parent, a husband and a son. This is what you’ve got to do just now. You still feel like you are missing some important ducks, but that is not important anymore. You’ve got this. We’ve all got this. And we really are all in it together. Quack.

Virtual learning is not the same as online learning. Online learning is about the digital systems we use to learn online. Virtual learning may incorporate this but it’s fundamentally about how we maintain our values, relationships and trust as a class and as a school community. It is sobering reading on Twitter and Facebook about the further challenges schools are facing safeguarding vulnerable children and feeding disadvantaged children, let alone accessing and teaching disadvantaged children online. Everyone’s experience as a teacher and a teacher is so unique. I hope we can all be aware of that and reach out where we can. Because right now just about every teacher on the planet is set to become a virtual teacher.

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