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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

This Is What Teachers Want Us to Know About Pandemic Learning

By Peter DeWitt — May 10, 2020 12 min read
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My school administrator has discouraged us from talking to our students through video conferences. I feel they would learn more if I could directly teach them and not just assign busy work. Teacher Survey response

Having been a teacher for 11 years and a principal for eight years, I can attest to the fact that many teachers are some of the most hardworking perfectionists and overachievers we could ever meet. They spend countless hours creating lessons and spend countless dollars buying supplies for their classrooms, which usually includes snacks for students who cannot afford to bring in their own.

The perfectionsist comes from the fact that so many teachers have had to plan lessons for hundreds of students over the years, and despite all of the issues students may have going on, teachers can still get many of those students to focus and learn. As a former elementary school teacher, I had to plan lessons in 15-minute segments all day long, so we have always felt like we can control time. You’d be amazed at what we can get finished with 30 1st graders in 15 minutes!

It should come as no surprise that this pandemic has knocked teachers off balance, because the parts they love the most about teaching are on hold for a while. Those parts I speak of are their students, their classroom, and the buzz that takes place when both of those things converge each day of the work week.

Teacher Surveys
It’s hard to describe for those people who work in other professions what it’s like in the moments before students enter into a classroom. Some may describe it as the calm before the storm, but the anticipation of a day of new learning and building relationships with students is one of the best things about being a teacher. It’s one of the reasons why so many teachers refer to their students as their “kids.

That void that teachers feel right now leads to depression, guilt, and a feeling that no matter what they do in this virtual, pandemic teaching experience will never be enough. However, just like teachers do every day in a real-life classroom, they are getting up in the morning and taking on these challenges of the virtual, pandemic classroom that also doubles as their kitchens, bedrooms, and living rooms.

But let’s be clear, this is never going to be viewed as good as in-classroom teaching, and in most cases, this cannot be viewed as virtual learning...yet. This situation that we find ourselves in is referred to as pandemic teaching and learning. Pandemic teaching and learning happens when the concepts of virtual learning are adapted as best they could be overnight, at the same time teachers are set up to teach in their bedrooms, home offices, kitchen, or living room and their students are at home with their parents or caregivers who may have lost their job during this pandemic. It’s a recipe for stress and depression, and teachers are doing their best to step up.

However, it seems like everyone has an opinion on what teachers should be doing, despite the fact that so many are working overtime to connect with their students, and as you read in the opening of this blog, some are being told not to connect with students through video, even though student surveys suggest that video is the way students long to connect. Is it any reason why teachers feel like no matter what they do is not enough?

In a survey of over 400 pre-K (2%), primary (36%), middle (12%), junior high (15%), and secondary (35%) school teachers from nine countries/continents including Canada, U.S., U.K., Africa, Saudi Arabia, and Australia, they were asked to answer 19 questions. The teachers work in suburban (48%), rural (27%), and urban (25%) settings. In future blogs, I will explore different parts of the survey but for now wanted to explore just eight of the questions to provide a sense of how they are feeling during this time.

The following are their responses to those questions:

My school was prepared for virtual learning
It is not surprising to find that the teachers surveyed did not feel their school was prepared for the pandemic.

Personally, I felt prepared to virtual teach when our schools closed due to the pandemic
It is also not surprising to find that the teachers surveyed did not feel they were prepared for pandemic teaching.

How often do you ask students for their opinions on what/how to learn during this pandemic experience?

You will notice that there was a percentage of teachers who chose “Other” on the survey. Their answers in the comment box were the following:

  • Students are on track to earn industry standards and intend to meet that goal.
  • In our virtual meetings, I seek out opinions on a variety of things and encourage students to seek out answers to their questions. One particular meeting focused on a student-driven learning path.
  • Asked once... student wanted more of my teaching on video.
  • Occasionally - but the “what” is not really up for grabs, as there is still a curriculum to teach.
  • I don’t ask their opinions about the lessons as I have significantly cut my lesson plans, but I do ask their opinions when we have virtual meetings.
  • I ask during almost every live session, but those are only with 10 percent of my students. The others haven’t replied to surveys and texts.
  • I always have incorporated choice in my literacy classroom, and all assignments are choice-based (text to read, ways to respond, etc.).
  • I am not responsible for assigning subject matter. I am a special ed. support teacher and work all day helping students complete the assignments given to them in multiple classes.
  • I’m still setting the overall content, consistent with what was laid out at the beginning of the year, but I’m asking students to ask me questions about the upcoming lessons, etc., so I can be sure to cover those questions.
  • I only have access to half my students, and most don’t reply.
  • A survey was sent out asking about student preferences for live classes, but when implemented based on student responses, students did not attend.
  • I have asked how they feel about length of assignments and which platform my AP Statistics preferred for the practice but didn’t get many responses.
  • I am an EL teacher... I assess daily and scaffold / review skills daily based on content they like. I also let them choose books to read that they enjoy from a virtual library. The school couldn’t afford to send home devices to do online lessons/ study, so I found a way to furnish seven families. with laptops. I had intended to use them in the summer, but they arrived just in time for pandemic school closure.
  • We evaluate based on our observations of their engagement during Zoom meetings and phone conversations.
  • It’s so hard to even get my special education 2nd graders to participate in a Google meet, how can I ask them what or how they are learning?
  • Bi-weekly. Sometimes their answers make me too sad to ask every week. I feel guilty about that because it feels selfish.

Over the course of this experience, I have offered the following to students. Please check all that apply.

70% of respondents answered that they have offered brand new academic learning the students have not experienced before. 19% of respondents answered “Other,” and the following are some of their responses (there were over 60 and some were repetitive).

  • Choices in which projects they want to do.
  • Virtual field trips (they love these).
  • Safe and well-being discussions about their lives, their concerns.
  • Online discussions and sharing (forums).
  • Instruction in new tech tools and approaches..
  • One-on-one video tutoring/conferencing.
  • The feedback that I got from parents is to not do much online. They want paper and pencil activities. They are working from home and cannot let students online, too. They do not have adequate bandwidth, and in some cases, their only device is their personal phone.
  • We have tried to give students materials and things to do that are relevant to current events (for Earth Day, they had an article on biodiversity); we have also tried to provide work that we thought they might enjoy and might not get an opportunity to experience in reality (virtual field trip). We have also done activities that allow them to reflect.
  • At-home science labs.
  • Hands-on projects.
  • Gamification, Virtual class discussion was typically one on one to practice with my students individually. But games could be played anytime via phone, or FB video calls with their peers. I set up a FB page where they were invited to join and write (low skill for most)/ send private / or post messages to their friends. The Facebook page helped maintain a positive spirit and informed parents of all announcements in their languages. As well as being a " virtual interactive bulletin board” for pinning/ posting their artwork and reviewing phonics and language.
  • Students have offered other final project options, I have offered other. Administration has offered students four unique pathways to completion.
  • Twice-daily option for 1:1 or small-group conferencing via Zoom.
  • For students in my Horticulture class, I sent home planting materials and seeds for them to start planting at home.

The following is the percentage of students who daily engage in my virtual classroom?

The reasons my students may not engage with me are one or more of the following (please check all that apply).

Less than 10% of respondents indicated that their students are not engaging on-line because they, as teachers, did not have a positive relationship with those students. Around 37% of teachers answered that their students are not finding the school work being sent home very engaging. Over 65% of the respondents answered “Other” but many of those answers really came down to the parents not being supportive. The following are some of the “Other” answers.

  • We left school and went into our spring break, lack of incentive to start up again!
  • The student already struggled to accomplish school work BEFORE the pandemic. Poor habits.
  • Not being held accountable at home. Unfortunately, some kids rule the roost.
  • Differentiation is hard with other students to help scaffold lessons. ...and I am a teacher for my students, a bit introverted but kids who don’t talk much often find some relief from the more traditional classroom...I have to stretch myself to satisfy the kids who need a little more energy in the classroom...but I like giving the kids lots of chances to be together and am always willing to negotiate the learning...just this pandemic is killing that.
  • Over half of my students are ELLs and immigrants.
  • They are generally disappointed and discouraged.
  • Social-emotional issues like depression and anxiety.
  • We have created a situation where so much emphasis is put on grades and state testing that without those things many students feel it doesn’t matter. The students who are engaged are either trying to fix bad grades or just want to learn and stay connected. Going into distance learning the lowest grade in my class was a C. My class is an elective which is not stressed as important so only those kids who really want to learn or value the interactions are showing up.

I am gaining confidence as a virtual/pandemic teacher?

What is something you are doing during this pandemic teaching experience that you will keep doing when you are with students in a classroom?

  • Deviating from mandated curriculum to more directly meet actual student needs.
  • Our typical classroom assignment morphed into a playful quiz, and we will continue to do that as students enjoyed the challenge!
  • Use TEAMS and other new technology that have just recently learned about.
  • Recording lessons and tutorials for students to review at home or at school.
  • More individualized work. More work via technology.
  • Not much. I hope that I don’t have to do things this way in the future.
  • I will continue to use Google classroom, Webex, and Zoom with guest speakers.
  • Virtual discussions after in-class discussions for those who did not speak out in the classroom setting.
  • Once I go back to school, I will still plan to use Flipgrid videos as a collaborative way to teach new skills and prove student knowledge, I love the responsiveness that I see in my students and the fact that I can send a reply video instantly to them.
  • Always continue to stay in contact with the parents and continue to seek out more on virtual learning
  • Creative writing off the cuff! I gave the students a list of pandemic words, and they wrote beautiful poetry, and I was able to see in depth their true feelings about C - 19 !
  • I’m retiring so I won’t be back. Sad way to leave.
  • Online platform. Lessons listed online. Videos for absent /all kids. Digital notebooks.
  • Less copies, more blogging and online exit tickets and warmups.
  • Teaching toward independence.
  • I will have Google classroom and I believe I will have check-ins at least once a week when back in the classroom. Just to give the students a chance to express themselves and let me know how they are doing.
  • Open conversations about their social-emotional mindset at the beginning and/or ending of class time.
  • Engage with online discussions, forums, collaboration spaces—more students can participate. Use auto-correction programs to give students more feedback.
  • Make our project due dates more flexible.

In the End
We know that not all classrooms are created equally, so we should not be surprised that not all pandemic classrooms are equal, either. Some teachers lack the supplies they need to adequately teach students, and there are many students who lack the equipment at home that they need to learn. On top of that, most are not allowed to give grades or hold students accountable for not showing up. However, teachers still wake up in the morning and take on the day.

That energy it takes to get up in the morning and take on the day is what will get us through this school year, but it will also be needed to take this from pandemic teaching and learning to a better virtual teaching and learning model. Many of the comments in the “Other” section of the questions provided rich data that I will focus on in other blogs because I believe those comments are worthy of our attention. Most importantly, teachers answered that they are gaining confidence during this time, and I believe that once they gain that confidence, there will be very little that stands in their way.

Questions to ponder:

  • As an administrator or parent, how can I better help teachers during this time?
  • As a teacher, I believe my students like these lessons, but what evidence am I collecting to really know for sure?
  • As a teacher, how am I making sure my activities are leading to learning?
  • If we are school leaders, how can we loosen up on our guideline not to use virtual meetings so students can see their teachers and peers? Yes, I understand family privacy, but connecting through packets is not engaging.
  • We know this is not our favorite way to teach, but what am I learning about myself as a teacher during this time?
  • As sad as the news can be to watch, am I remembering that this is not going to last forever, and we will get through this?

Teachers, please take a few moments to fill out this survey that focuses on your experience with pandemic learning.

Parent of a K-12 student? Please consider having each child fill out this student survey.

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D., is the author of several books including his newest release Instructional Leadership: Creating Practice Out Of Theory (Corwin Press. 2020). Connect with him on Twitter or through his YouTube channel.

Opening picture courtesy of Getty Images.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.