ATF’s Practitioner’s Guide to Distance Learning: The Dos, Don’ts and Helpful Hints

For many of us, the thought of teaching online is quite intimidating or overwhelming and can leave educators at a loss of where to even begin.

Fear not!! Our union is working hard to research, question, and consolidate information that will help all of us thrive in these uncertain times. We are pulling from resources already available, as well as our own very knowledgeable, creative, and capable membership.

For most of us, content and curriculum will not be the challenging part. We know our subjects and craft. And through collaboration with colleagues, we will certainly come up with modified lessons and plans that are meaningful even though they will be delivered via the internet.

ATF Launches Distance Learning Resources

Your union has created a Google Doc with links to distance learning resources. Find help with technology, adapting lessons to meet special needs, nurturing students’ social-emotional learning, and much more here.


Have you thought about your environment while delivering lessons and materials online? Lighting? Camera angle? Sound? Space? What will be seen on the screen? Here are a few logistical tips:

  • Space – It is ideal to find a space that is quiet and away from distractions. Maybe setting up a table or desk in a corner of a room would work. Consider hanging something educational behind you or even something like a whiteboard that you can write on. Make your space a “mini-classroom.”
  • Sound – Most laptops have adequate sound and mics, but a cheap headset with a mic can go a long way (especially if you have trouble hearing). Either way, it is important that your space is in a quiet area so background noises are not a distraction.
  • Lighting – This is a tricky one. Ideally, you want something like a white sheet or board behind your computer facing you so that light can be reflected on to you. Try to avoid any direct lighting in the video as it can wash everything out. Reading lamps can work, especially if adjustable, and especially if you have two (one on each side of your head).
  • Camera angle – This is very important. Try to focus the camera at eye level. If the camera is below eye level, it can look like you are towering over your student (plus they’ll be able to see up your nose…oops). Books, boxes, extra packs of toilet paper that you have laying around, etc., can all be used to elevate your computer.
  • Test your setup – If possible, test out your setup with a colleague or friend. Schedule a Zoom or Facetime meeting (whatever you have access to) and see how everything works.
  • Make sure that you’re logged into an account where you have the power to mute others’ mics. Use an online platform where you can have a virtual waiting room so you can approve who has access to the meeting.
  • Don’t beat yourself up – Remember, nothing can replace proper public schooling in a brick and mortar building where students and educators have actual, in-person interactions. This is a crisis situation and we are working on stopgap solutions. Your students are most likely feeling the same stress and uncertainty you’re experiencing. They will appreciate seeing you, speaking with you, interacting, and just connecting with you. Hopefully, some of these tips will help facilitate those interactions.

Tips for your teaching and building routines:

 Note: These ideas came directly from APS educators and are suggestions, not mandates.

  1. As educators, we should take into consideration that parents may not have the technological knowledge that we do, so we should create detailed instructions that are easy to follow. We should make sure that parents can access online educational materials with as little difficulty as possible.
  2. Try not to teach too many new concepts at one time. Many of us are worried that we did not get to cover all the Common Core State Standards and content that we planned. We can use this opportunity to go back and fill in any gaps to solidify student learning.
  • Projects Based Learning is a great strategy to use. We can assign students a project that they can complete with minimal adult assistance and with daily work embedded. Students can turn in a final project online or by drop-off that demonstrates their mastery of standards.
  • Focus on students collaborating and thinking rather than just “doing.” Message boards and Google assignments in groups foster that type of environment.  Having discussions on reading material allows for participation at students’ comfort level while still engaging in the material.
  1. Focus on the quality of the work rather than the quantity. Although students can benefit from drill exercises, try not to over assign “busy work.” To expect all students to work at the same pace is unreasonable. All student efforts need to be appreciated. Many of our students are dealing with challenging home life situations. Many parents and families (including our own families) are being challenged with managing multiple children who are being “homeschooled”. We must not add stress to the lives of our students. Many of them are busy babysitting siblings, etc.  Some students and/or their family members may become sick during this timeframe.
  • Tip: Construct lessons and activities that hit 2-3 learning objectives and/or standards at a time. In this way, we can reduce the number of assignments and offer quality over quantity.
  1. Building relationships & fostering social emotional well-being are extremely important. The overwhelming amount of information everyone is exposed to places stress, fear and anxiety on us all. Our greatest fear is of the unknown. That is why having a safe place for students to voice their concerns, share this tough moment, and build hope is essential. The following site is a resource that provides recommendations for educators from experts in the National Child Traumatic Stress Network
  2. Meet online in small groups or offer pre-recorded lessons. Trying to talk to 20-30 kids in an online learning platform could be difficult.
  3. If others in your house will be using online learning, that will definitely affect the quality of your internet feed. Try to build a schedule at your house that doesn’t conflict with others and help the families you serve do the same.
  4. Give students/parents plenty of time to respond. None of this has to be done on the fly. Take extra time to explain instructions. Make sure you explain exactly what is expected of your students. Plan to field lots of student questions for clarification.
  5. This is a major historic event! Encourage students to journal and create projects that portray their daily lives in the time of Covid-19.
  6. Parents are working and may not have time to assist their children, so make assignments easy and short in duration. Do not assign a great deal of work and give students plenty of time to complete work in ways that fit their home situation.
  7. If you are using Google Hangouts to connect with students make sure that everyone has left the meeting before leaving yourself. In this way, we can help monitor students’ online behavior and avoid problems.
  8. Teachers need to be aware that parents and other non-student viewers may be watching/listening. Be extremely careful what you say and how you interact with your students. Interactions that may have been “appropriate banter in class” could be misinterpreted by someone when heard out of context.
  9. All of your teaching does not have to occur in an online meeting format. We can record video podcasts using our desktops as recording devices. Use lots of graphics and high-quality videos. Provide links to Khan Academy, PBS, or Discovery Education videos. Use AFT’s Create assignments that nurture student creativity such as recording their own short videos or audio products using cellphones or whatever devices they have on hand. Live online classes can then be used for explanation and addressing individual issues in small groups. Don’t be afraid to merely facilitate meetings and allow them to be student-led.
  10. Pick 1 key standard or “Big Idea” each week. These standards should be the most important ones to finish out the year.
  11. Let students share what they are learning on their own while at home. They may be focused on something that has nothing to do with school but is important to them and their family. Offer lots of student choice when designing an assignment. Ex:  Student reads a novel of their choice and presents a summary in a way that works for their home situation.  Some students may use technology where others may create a picture on a piece of paper or cardboard.
  12. One teacher suggested that students have a short reading lesson and math lesson each day. Writing could be done a couple of times a week and integrated into other topics. Another suggestion: social studies could be incorporated into the reading lesson and science could be incorporated into the math lesson.
  13. Find ways to engage students that are fun and enjoyable! These activities often require the least amount of materials.
  • Example: Teach families basic games to practice math fluency and general comprehension questions they can ask about any story they read.
  1. Try to incorporate activities the students can discuss with parents or siblings at home. A time capsule or a daily journal is something students can create with siblings or parents. They could also create this with friends over the Internet.
  2. Parent involvement is crucial for building structure. Encourage families to schedule learning times similar to normal class routine times.
  • Example: Meet with each class in small groups during the normal time you would meet in the classroom. This doesn’t have to be an everyday occurrence: 2-3 times per week should suffice. Use the time for discussion and introducing any new concepts or activities.
  1. Think about what is available in students’ households. Use common items that most people have in their homes.
  • Baking could cover chemistry concepts, ratios and proportional relationships, as well as fractions. Analyzing charts and models can incorporate social studies and math.

These are but a few of the many wonderful ideas members have sent to us. Have a great idea you want to share? Email your lesson or idea to 

We will all learn from this experience. Take care of yourself and your family. Be well.