This is why we teach — even when it’s hard

3 min readMar 24, 2021


Trynia Kaufman

By Trynia Kaufman

His file told me that he had a language disorder, ADHD, and autism. And while I knew the virtual environment might make communication more challenging, I pride myself on my ability to build rapport with students. But the first day of online tutoring with Carlos* was even harder than I’d expected.

He wasn’t responding to me. At all. I knew that many kids need extra time to process, especially when learning remotely. But what if he didn’t hear me, or didn’t understand? The noises of family life came through in the background of the call. When Carlos finally did talk, I wasn’t even sure he was talking to me.

We floundered our way through the session, and I left the video call feeling completely defeated.

And this was just one student — just a snapshot of the immense challenges teachers face each day with distance learning.

Since the start of the pandemic, teachers are more stressed and working more hours than ever. A recent survey found that 27 percent of teachers are considering leaving the profession or taking a leave of absence from teaching due to COVID-19.

Students are struggling, too. Especially students with disabilities, English language learners, students of color, and students in low-income communities.

But distance learning might be here to stay. In fall 2020, a RAND Corporation survey of school district leaders found that roughly 20 percent were making or considering plans to keep distance learning around after the pandemic.

And regardless of whether distance learning is with us for the long term, we have an urgent need to improve it now. A recent report from McKinsey & Company estimates that students could be nine months behind by the end of this school year. Students of color, who are more likely to be remote but less likely to have reliable access to Wi-Fi or live instruction, could be nearly a full year behind.

The good news is that experts have identified lots of opportunities to improve distance learning outcomes. For example, schools can increase learning time through extended school days or school years, summer programs, or high-intensity tutoring.

Teachers can also continuously improve their teaching practices by:

  1. Identifying the specific challenges students are having, whether it’s a noisy environment, learning gaps, or staying engaged
  2. Finding evidence-based resources and strategies that can help address those challenges
  3. Using data to reflect on what’s working and what’s not working
  4. Reminding themselves that distance learning is a learning process during a challenging year

Guidance pulled from special education practices and disability research can help. These specialties focus on meeting the needs of students with learning challenges, gaps, and different rates of progression — some of the same scenarios introduced by distance learning.

As part of my work at Understood, we took that research and looked at how teachers could implement these evidence-based practices during the pandemic and beyond. We partnered with the National Center for Learning Disabilities and consulted with top researchers and educators in the field to create a Distance Learning Toolkit. The toolkit is designed to empower teachers to quickly identify specific challenges and find practices and tips that can help right away. These strategies, some of which are reflected in the list above, can help teachers to reach all students, and especially students with learning differences.

These same approaches helped me address the problems I faced when tutoring Carlos.

I connected with Carlos’ parents and they immediately offered to make sure he was in a less distracting environment. I created a visual schedule. I broke ideas down into smaller chunks. With practice, I figured out how much wait time to give him through the video screen.

Just before the winter holiday break, as we said goodbye, Carlos said “I’ll miss you!” And my heart melted. This is why we teach, even when it’s hard.

Trynia Kaufman, MS, is Understood’s senior manager of editorial research. She’s also a former special education teacher, neuroscience nerd, and speaker at education conferences across the nation.