How to Optimize Your Home for Another Semester of Virtual Teaching

COVID-19 thrust remote learning on the world, seemingly overnight. While some teachers embraced the new normal and transitioned into dynamic video lessons, most others felt ill-prepared for the sudden change. 

With 13 states mandating full or partial closure of schools at this time, remote learning is here to stay — for the time being. And teachers aren’t the only ones struggling. Many kids have trouble staying focused and keeping up in the new distance learning setting. More than half of the teachers surveyed recognize they’ve only covered about half of the curriculum they would have this time last year, with some students falling through the cracks.

It’s more important than ever to keep students — and yourself — engaged and motivated. However, the upcoming winter semester may bring new challenges — days are shorter, the course load is accelerating, pandemic fatigue is probably making your students restless and you’ve got a curriculum to get through. 

Hang in there — even with the challenges, you can build on your experience so far. Some adaptation is called for on your teaching goals. And creating an organized, comfortable and efficient space from where you can be more productive and deliver engaging lessons could help greatly. Here are some ideas:

Separating home from classroom

Setting up a functional, distraction-free workspace for yourself sounds easier said than done, but it’s possible. Having a classroom corner you can work from every day can help you focus on the task at hand. It will also benefit your students, who are easily distracted at this time. Anything you can do to keep them on task and not entertained by what’s going on in your background can save you time. Some ways to create a space you can work from include: 

Designating a workspace

Carving out a classroom space where you can lead your lessons uninterrupted would be ideal. If you have the luxury of a home office or spare bedroom, you’re halfway there. Otherwise, you’ll need to get creative by converting a quiet corner of a room into your virtual classroom. A folding, room divider panel can divide your area from the rest of the house if a door isn’t available. 

Don’t forget to also take a look at what’s behind you as your backdrop. Avoid teaching in front of a busy, cluttered bookcase for your students to get distracted by. A plain wall or one decorated with a simple, neutral painting or chalkboard is best.

Prioritize good lighting

Lighting is often overlooked. Walk around with your webcam while watching the computer screen to find the best spot with the most flattering lighting. You should face a window instead of sitting with the window behind you. That way, your face is clearly illuminated. 

If natural light isn’t available, add a lamp or spotlight behind the webcam to light you up. It sounds like extra effort, but if your students can see you clearly and make eye contact, it could help you connect with them and hold their attention longer. 

The right classroom furnishings

Comfort and good posture are important. The right desk chair and table will ensure that your school day doesn’t leave you with an aching back. Make sure your desk is organized with everything you need in reach so you don’t have to go “off-screen” too often. When setting your laptop or webcam up for a live classroom lesson, a box or crate on your desk to sit the laptop on is ideal. It’s better to look at your students at eye level and not at a distracting angle, such as partially cropped or looking down into the webcam from above.

Good internet connection at the right price

The most important component of a successful online classroom may be the internet connection. You don’t want interruptions or buffering while you’re teaching. If your connection is slow or unreliable, speak with your internet service provider (ISP) and explain you’re a teacher. They may send out a technician to troubleshoot or optimize your service. Ask about what kinds of discounts and programs your ISP has for educators. The major internet providers have significant teacher discounts:

Your school may even be willing to pay the difference in cost to upgrade to a higher speed. 

Set boundaries with family members

You’re probably not the only one working from home. This means everyone in the house, including younger kids, need to understand that there are times in the day when you’re home but unavailable because you’re working. 

If you have a room as your workspace, simply closing the door and hanging a sign that “class is in session” may be all you need.  If not, print out a schedule of what hours you will be unavailable for everyone in the household. If you have young children, you may need to share childcare with your partner or hire someone to come over for a couple of hours per day while you work.

Staying warm and happy in winter

Winter brings new challenges because of the shorter, darker days. Not just for you as the teacher but for students as well. You may notice that your students become more fidgety in the winter since they get less outdoors time. And the colder grey days can affect your mood — and that of your online classroom. There’s not much you can do when it’s cold outside, other than find small ways to feel cozy and positive. Your attitude is contagious — if you can find the energy and motivation to radiate warmth and positivity, it can help your students, as well. 

As mentioned earlier, good lighting is essential so you don’t appear as a dark shadow on the screen. Make sure the heating in your home is just right, or invest in a small space heater. If you notice fewer students are attending live lessons or just seem down during the winter semester, schedule an occasional five-minute interruption to lead a group stretch, or to do a fun, team-building game or activity. 

In this article

    Take advantage of financial benefits for educators

    Setting up a workspace from home comes with some expense. Fortunately, some companies recognize the sacrifice educators are making and provide discounts, grants and other types of financial help. While most major internet service providers provide reduced costs for high-speed internet, there are other types of offers available:

    National Geographic Remote Learning Emergency Fund

    National Geographic is providing $1,000 to $8,000 to teachers in need of support developing a remote learning curriculum in science, geography or social studies. You’ll need to apply for funding.

    Home Insurance

    Having home insurance right now is essential to keep your home’s contents safe. Most policies cover a maximum of $2,500 in business equipment. Consult with your insurance company about their policy on remote work and whether teaching from home is covered. If your insurer does not make allowances for your temporary virtual teaching, there are carriers willing to work with teachers who also provide discounts on home, renters and auto insurance: 

    Tax Benefits

    As an educator, you can take advantage of certain tax deductions when working from home — if you can designate a certain area of your household as a home office. According to TurboTax, you may be able to deduct:

    • Property taxes
    • Your homeowners insurance cost
    • A portion of your utilities such as phone, internet and electric
    • A percentage of your mortgage interest based on the size of the home used as a home office

    Free apps

    Some app developers are giving teachers free access for classroom purposes. They include:

    • Headspace: The meditation app is providing free access for teachers in grades K-12.
    • Listenwise: The app provides podcast lessons and quizzes to help your students improve listening comprehension. The premium plan is free for teachers for 30 days.
    • Krisp: Removes background noise from calls. Get 120 free minutes per week as an educator.

    Meal delivery

    If you’re too busy to cook, Home Chef is offering teachers 50% off the first purchase of the meal delivery service and 10% off all future purchases.

    Discounts for home office supplies

    NEA members qualify for the Office Depot/OfficeMax discount program to get up to 75% off on home office furniture, printing and supplies. Free next-day delivery is also available. 

    Tips from educators

    One of the best ways to get through this challenging time is to reach out for support from your peers. Talk to other educators about how they’re coping and what they’ve done to make distance learning work. Here’s what a couple of fellow educators have to say:

    Jenny Fry, a 2nd-grade teacher at Hickman Mills C-1 School District in Kansas City, MO.

    • Workspace: “I bought a standing desk and use a corner of the office to teach and keep my supplies. My Zoom backdrop is decorated and I have a whiteboard next to the backdrop to write on for the students to follow along.”
    • Plans for next semester: “I plan on improving my time management with lessons. Our curriculum was written for being in the physical classroom, it is mostly up to teachers to figure out how to adapt it for the limited schedule. I need to be able to assign asynchronous work as a way for students to not only supplement the live zoom lessons but also to add  new learnings that we could not get through as a class. I also hope to get better at working in smaller groups with students and set aside time for differentiated instruction.”
    • Recommended tech or gadgets: “Nearpod has been a game-changer for my students and for me to be able to fit everything into our packed schedule. I also have used Flipgrid to get more student voices into my lessons. I use Google slides to organize our day and make sure we cover everything, and Quizz to conduct a quick formative assessment to see what students have learned. As brain breaks, my students have enjoyed Breathing videos on youtube and GoNoodle to take a break in between lessons. Classtag has made all of the difference when communicating effectively with parents. I have been able to connect with 100% of my students’ families through Classtag.”

    Jessica Robinson, “The Speaking Polymath

    • Workspace: “I have designated a specific place for teaching and it is my own study room, where I used to spend my time reading in the evening. I made three simple additions to the study room: a small whiteboard, a marker and a whiteboard eraser. I do use my laptop for teaching but as it does not always remain in the study room, I don’t count it as an addition to it.”
    • Plans for next semester: “To work on absolutely engaging my students before commencing with the teaching process. I aspire to ignite in my students a love for learning so much so that they don’t ever need an external push to learn.”
    • Recommended tech or gadgets: “YouTube videos can be great resources to utilize while teaching some subjects like science.”

    Thinking ahead 

    The year 2020 will forever be remembered as the largest remote-work experiment due to the pandemic. It’s been a challenge, but remember that both you and your students are resilient. The hard work and encouragement you put forth every day to make sure your students don’t feel they’ve been left behind doesn’t go unnoticed. 

    Continue building on your experience and adjusting your lesson plan and home workspace as you go. Don’t forget to schedule some time for self-care and remind yourself that this, too, shall pass. The good news is, you’ll have some new skills and experiences to work with in the future.

    We welcome your feedback on this article. Contact us at inquiries@thesimpledollar.com with comments or questions.

    Cynthia Paez Bowman

    Contributing Writer

    Cynthia Paez Bowman is a finance, real estate and international business journalist. Her work has been featured in Business Jet Traveler, MSN, CheatSheet.com, Bankrate.com and Freshome.com.

    She owns and operates a small digital marketing and public relations firm that works with select startups and women-owned businesses to provide growth and visibility. Cynthia splits her time between Los Angeles, California, and San Sebastian, Spain. She travels to Africa and the Middle East regularly to consult with women’s NGOs about small business development