When people find out that I’m a preschool teacher, the first thing they usually say is, “You must be really patient.” I’ve never believed myself to be more patient than any other person, but in the past eight months, as our preschool swiftly transitioned from in-person to complete virtual learning, I’ve found a patience that I didn’t know I had.
I’ve come to accept that not every lesson is going to register, and not every activity is going to be a winner. Even eight months in, virtual learning can be unpredictable. If you’re teaching 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds, you have to embrace that.
5 Things to Keep in Mind About Online Preschool
1. Kids have the same needs when learning over the computer as they do in class: If you were teaching preschoolers in the classroom, you wouldn’t have them sit and listen to you talk all day. You’d have nap time, outdoor play, and classroom free play. You’d have activities where the kids were up and moving, sensory bins to explore, a writing center to inspire creativity, and lessons where kids were manipulating objects.
The reason so many of those things are mainstays in the world of early childhood education is that they’re developmentally appropriate. Your students’ needs and cognitive development haven’t changed just because they’re speaking to you through a screen.
You wouldn’t dream of teaching a preschool classroom where your students were expected to be in one spot for six hours with only 30 minutes for lunch. Be understanding of this and plan your day accordingly. Sometimes less is more when it comes to virtual lessons.
2. Your curriculum was not made to be taught virtually: No matter how much you love your chosen curriculum (assuming you have one), understand that it was meant to be delivered in person and not through a Wi-Fi connection. Sometimes you can modify activities using a few Google slides and that screen share button, but sometimes you’ll have to completely rethink a lesson provided by your curriculum.
Here are the questions I keep in mind: What is the objective of the content? Am I teaching rhyming, counting with one-to-one correlation, community helpers, the food groups? Is there a way I can make this objective work differently now that I’m not in a classroom?
3. Embrace age-appropriate distractions: Preschoolers are naturally curious and easily distracted. They’re invested in superheroes, the fact that the garbage truck just pulled up to their house, why their stepsister is walking into the family room, and what their cat is eating.
When these things happen, they’ll most likely want to tell you about it. Accept that this is age-appropriate behavior and that sometimes you just have to roll with the punches. You obviously want to foster a sense of wonder in your preschool children, so sometimes you just have to accept that encouraging them to ask questions is more important than clicking that next slide.
While talking about community helpers today, for instance, a student of mine randomly took herself off of mute to ask why there were so many pumpkins outside at night. We talked about how it was recently Halloween and how people put candles inside pumpkins, which might make it seem like pumpkins only came out at night. Though apropos of nothing, this was still a worthwhile conversation that flexed some critical thinking skills.
Allow your students time to indulge in their interests—even in the middle of a lesson—to reinforce that you’re listening to them and responding to the things they think are important.
4. Be understanding: If I had a dollar for every time I told one of my students to take themselves off of mute (and in some cases ask an adult for help), I’d be able to retire early. However, the same is true for the number of times that I’ve started teaching when I was on mute. Technology has naturally increased my wait time after asking a question.
Be understanding about the things you can’t control—everyone’s internet connection is different, preschoolers often hit buttons that cause consequences they don’t know how to fix, and you might have to call a lesson early because you’ve run into a problem you just can’t solve. Technology is a wonderful tool, but it also creates a brand new set of wild cards. You are now both a teacher and an IT technician, and you’ll have to fill both roles with respect and patience.
Keep in mind that everyone’s home situation is different. Don’t take things personally if a child seems distracted, misses a day, or works from a room with a lot of background noise. Everyone is doing their best right now. Show empathy and care even when things are frustrating.
5. Take time for yourself: It can be easy to beat yourself up after a lesson goes poorly or to throw yourself into your work for hours after logging off for the day. With many teachers working from home, the line between home and school is pretty much gone.
Your students appreciate all your hard work, but they’ll appreciate it even more if you’re fresh and ready to go every day. Don’t forget to take care of yourself. Read a favorite book, go for a run, sit on the couch and watch TV, take up a new hobby, enjoy that cup of coffee without a side of lesson planning for once. You’ve made it this far, but the pandemic is unfortunately not over. So if you’re working through Zoom, make sure you’re finding a way to mentally separate your work from your personal life.
From one preschool teacher to another, I encourage you to remember why you got into this job to begin with: to give high-quality education to preschoolers. Things may look different now, but you can still be an effective, caring, and kind teacher even through a computer screen.