“Distance Learning”: Can an Oxymoron Illuminate Joyful Teaching?

By Shelley Sherman

Today’s blogger is Shelley Sherman, who was the author of the article “Nurturing Joyful Teaching in an Era of Standardization and Commodification,” which appears in the January-March 2021 issue of The Educational Forum. This article is currently available free online.

Movement. Energy. Spontaneity. The spirited staccato of a classroom discussion. A touch on the back. A subtle gesture. A warm, encouraging glance across the room. Distance learning cannot replicate the interpersonal dynamics and joyfulness of school communities where rich learning takes place moment-by-significant-moment in the classroom. What’s more, everyday experiences in many now silent hallways, gyms, cafeterias, and playgrounds play a significant role in learning, too. Can meaningful teaching and learning and the joy attached to them be experienced in the artificial glare and virtual reality of an electronic screen? Yes. And no.

During these fraught times, highly committed, caring teachers find paths to communicate their care and dedication to their students, animate and energize learning, and continue to persevere no matter the context. Such perseverance can yield joy in unanticipated ways for teachers and students, even at a distance. The fortitude of indefatigable teachers is fueled by passion for their work, the commitment to their calling. Where there appear to be no options, dedicated, talented teachers find them.

But distance learning also suggests a contradiction in terms. Learning brings us closer to, not farther away from, new understandings. It strengthens, rather than weakens, capacities to think deeply, and cultivates, rather than hinders, habits of mind that cross disciplines. A teacher’s capacity to nurture meaningful learning’s ineffable features, to coax gradually that which may be tentatively unfolding, is handicapped by physical distance. The realization of these aspirational aspects of teaching and learning is what makes them so profoundly joyful.

And distance is not the only barrier to experiencing joy for teachers or for students. The commodification of education, the notion that education is something to be delivered, has already taken a toll on teacher morale and co-opted teaching autonomy during the normal academic school year. Those who suggest we have to use distance learning to teach new “material” liken learning to a commodity. In many instances, teachers feel the pressure to maintain the pace of curriculum expectations regardless of the significant challenges to do so in a virtual environment.

Joy is attached to both pedagogy and relationship in teaching. How, then, can these anxiety-laden times provide a space for reflection about what teachers do have control over in classrooms, virtually, albeit with considerable limitations, and, with unlimited possibility, in-person? Serious-minded teachers cultivate trust and nurture mutual respect gradually, one student at a time, and, simultaneously, build a collective culture of trust and respect across a classroom of individuals who regularly engage with one another in both intentional and serendipitous ways. The limitations of distance learning and closed schools in creating such a culture bring home the ways in which teachers can make a profound difference in their students’ lives, and vice versa, when schools are open. The moment in which we find ourselves invites timely reflection about sustaining a vision for joy.

Questions such as these widen the lens on such reflection: How do I see each and every student in ways that are unique and personal?  How have I made a positive difference in the life of a particular student? When have I said something harmful?  Something that has impacted a student for better rather than worse?

As David Hansen (2018) suggests, finding oneself in the role of teacher means finding oneself in the practice. It includes experiencing personal fulfillment and joy in distinct ways and recognizing one’s shortcomings as well as one’s strengths (see Sherman, 2020).

There is no better time for those who see teaching as a calling to reflect upon how being present with each student as a unique human being, moment-by-moment, day-by-day, sustains the steady, joyful heartbeat of their practice. There is nothing virtual about it.


Hansen, D.T. (2018). Bearing witness to the fusion of person and role in teaching. The Journal of Aesthetic Education, 52(4), 21-48. https://doi: 10.5406/jaesteduc.52.4.0021

Sherman, S. (2020). Evolving enactments of personal fulfillment and service in teaching. In D. De Marzio (Ed.), David Hansen and the call to teach: Renewing the work that teachers do (pp. 13-26). Teachers College Press.

Shelley Sherman is the author of Teacher Preparation as an Inspirational Practice: Building Capacities for Responsiveness, for which she received the award for Exemplary Research in Teaching and Teacher Education from the American Educational Research Association in 2015. She has published numerous articles about teacher responsiveness and the moral dimensions of teaching and is Associate Professor of Education Emerita at Lake Forest College.

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