Teaching, Learning, and Working From Home: brainstorming ideas for success

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

I follow a teaching blog written by Dave Stuart, Jr. I stole this assignment from him and set out to write an example essay to model for my students how to complete this assignment. However, as I started writing, it struck me how much everybody — teachers, students, parents, workers — could use this information for working-from-home success.

In my school district, we have two phases of remote learning. Phase 1, the first two weeks, has been review and catch-up activities on what we taught since January. We will begin Phase 2 next week, which will be Enrichment activities to teach new materials and concepts. However, the kicker for Phase 2 is it’s ungraded work, since anything done can’t negatively affect the grade. This means that assignments must have some type of relevance for students because the extrinsic motivation of the grade isn’t there.

This relevance is why Dave Stuart’s assignment appealed to me so much. After reading and thinking about it, I realized that as a teacher and writer I had automatically done a lot of this as I adapted to working from home full time. However, a lot of students may not have been able to adapt as fast or as intrinsically. Also, I felt this information could help anyone who was faced with working, teaching, or learning from home for the first time.

Shaping Your Physical Environment

When I started working from home, I set up shop on the breakfast bar counter in the kitchen. Have you ever noticed that when you go to somebody’s house socially, everybody ends up in the kitchen? The kitchen is a terrible place for a workspace because it is the hub of the house. After the last time of the blender and the garbage disposal interrupting my focus, I moved to the office.

I know, why didn’t I just start in the office? It is the logical place. I had a cheap, flimsy computer desk with no drawers and no space in the office. I hated it. Luckily, I saw on Facebook that a former coworker was giving away a nice, solid, real wood desk with drawers, space, and writing freedom. A pickup trip later and my physical environment was much better.

All I do in the office is writing and teaching. People need a place to work and students need a place to study. Laying down in bed or reclined on the couch are not ideal working environments. My wife has taken over the kitchen table. It works for her, especially once I got out of the way. People need a place that says, “I’m working.” If she’s in there on her computer, I instinctively know to leave her alone. If I’m in the office, she knows to leave me alone.

One aspect of this assignment I want my students to see is that at-home learning and working are not perfect. To illustrate this fact, I don’t have a door on the office. I wish I did because TV, phone calls, and online meetings bleed into there from other rooms. I have found a workaround, though. I put in wireless headphones, turn the volume on softly, and it’s enough to keep me focused while the rest of the house is happening. Working from home isn’t perfect, but we can all find tips and tricks to make it work for us.

Shaping Your Schedule

Everybody’s remote working and learning schedule is different. Depending on if there are little kids at home, big kids at home, spouses at home, dogs at home, and any other number of variables, the time that can be spent working or learning may be different for everybody. People need to first look at their schedule and figure out what parts of the schedule can and cannot have some flexibility.

I am lucky. I have been able to teach, for the most part, on the same schedule I did before: roughly 8:00 AM to 3:00 PM Monday-Friday. I think of myself, at those times, of being “at school.”

Some of my schedule is dictated by others. For example, I have a video conference meeting every day at 10:00 AM. I also have office hours from 1:00–3:00 PM. I plan the rest of my day around these obligations: I have two hours before the video meeting to work, an hour after the meeting to work, then a lunch time before a couple of hours of emails and meeting with students.

Planning my day this way makes sense in my brain that is conditioned to move to the next phase when the bell rings. It is the football coach in me: First I do this, then I do this, and after that I do this. This helps me to be efficient and focused on the task I need to be and not overwhelmed by tasks that can be focused on later. It also helps me break my day into different periods and then I can focus on different tasks during each different period. There is a time for meetings, a time for eating, and a time for emails. Much like a football practice, I work on different skills at different times so I can fully focus on that skill during that period.

I also build some breaks into this schedule, again like a coach giving water breaks during practice. My breaks at home include walking outside in the sunshine with my dog for five minutes or hitting the kitchen for a snack. I try to limit my breaks to five to ten minutes before I get back to work. I have been able to stick to short breaks but for people who keep extending the break, I suggest setting a timer. Once that whistle blows, it’s time to go back to work.

Shaping Your Start and Stop Rituals

After the first two weeks of Corona Break, I realized that I was missing my Number 1 ritual to start the day: working out. I always work out first thing before school, but with my gym closed, I had not been starting my day correctly. Luckily, I have a friend who owns a gym and is posting at-home workouts while his gym is closed.

Every day I work from home, Monday through Friday, I get up and work out. That is the signal to me that my day is beginning. My workout is different now, and my 20 minutes of cardio involves walking the dog every morning instead of an elliptical machine, but it is a start ritual to me that it is time to go and the day is underway.

I then take a shower and get dressed. I have seen this advice all over social media for working from home — people should be showering and getting dressed. If you stay in your jammies all day, it is tough to get into a work mindset. Granted, I don’t dress the same way I did. Every Tuesday for me at school was Tie Tuesday; other days I wore slacks and a polo shirt. Now, Guns N Roses t-shirts and Nike sweats have replaced dress shirts and dress slacks. However, in my brain, I’m still Getting up, Dressing up, and Showing up. My rituals signal to me it’s time to go to work.

These rituals are important. When I physically taught at school, I would log in to my computer as soon as I walked into my classroom. When I left for the day, I logged out of my computer. I now do the same when I walk into my office and log in to my laptop. When I’m done at 3:00 PM, I log out of my laptop and walk out of my office.

Another stop ritual I have adopted is that when I finish at 3:00, I physically go do something completely different than work. I go in the garage and tinker on a Jeep. I go out and replace sprinklers in the yard with new ones. I go to the store and do the grocery shopping. I go for a drive and run errands. I go mow the grass. By doing something completely different, I can “leave school at the stoplight.”

In the classroom, I use physical transitions that signal learning activity transitions, such as making students move desks from one configuration to another or picking up a handout off a shelf. The same works for me when transitioning from at-home work to at-home down time: I go do a different activity, which helps me mentally leave school/work in its proper place.

Conclusion

For 20 years of work, I have gone to school. The more I can make my school day at home more like going to school, I am more efficient and more successful teaching. The point of writing this example essay was to model for my students how they could think about their own learning environment, schedule, and rituals. However, I now believe that these aspects of working from home can benefit all of us as we look at how to be efficient and focused — whether we are teaching, learning, or working from home.

Written by: NathanWhite