The new question of the week is:
What lessons have teachers learned since initial school closures occurred two years ago?
My friend, colleague, and co-author Katie Hull Sypnieski and I co-wrote this response to the question.
We are both veteran teachers in the Sacramento City Unified school district and have co-authored several books on teaching English-language learners.
Listen To Teachers
It’s been almost two years since many of us first closed our physical classrooms because of COVID-19.
The time has not passed quickly for many of us, including those of us who are teachers.
Here are a few lessons we are taking from those 24 months:
A lack of skilled leadership in many, though not all, districts has become transparent. Many districts made—and continue to make—misstep after misstep, including, but not limited to: not understanding the difference between equity and equality when schools first closed by providing the same support to all students instead of more to English-language learners, students with learning differences, and those experiencing other academic challenges; refusing to genuinely collaborate with teachers and their unions—and students and their families—in decisionmaking about how to respond to the pandemic; and not thinking ahead and preparing robust virtual options for students and families who have not been ready to return to in-person school.
Unfortunately, those three blindspots are likely to continue to harm students, their families, and teachers far into the future.
- Our students are generally exceptionally responsible and resilient—perhaps even more than we previously gave them credit for. Soooooo many of our students took full-time jobs to support their families and/or became caregivers/tutors for younger siblings during the pandemic-caused recession and remote learning. We created leadership teams in our classes of students who took responsibility for leading Zoom rooms and helped evaluate and make class changes and have heard countless similar stories of student leadership from teachers across the world. Yes, many of our students are also experiencing stress and need mental health support, and we would bet dollars to donuts that a whole lot of adults are facing similar challenges.
- Tech is not the future of personalized learning. Human contact and attention are. God, how many of us teachers grew tired of the personalized learning through tech refrain repeated by ed-tech companies and funded by tech-supported foundations? Remote teaching might not have been a perfect laboratory experiment for it, but it certainly showed that students and teachers need human contact, caring, and connection. Greeting each student by name, playing games with markers and mini-whiteboards, and having teacher-student conversations beat sitting at a laptop and being assessed with canned “good job” responses.
- The pandemic experience has reinforced the importance of key instructional strategies, including valuing student-centered instruction (their input on content and teaching lessons connected to their lives, goals, and dreams), providing student choice, incorporating fun through games, and including scaffolding strategies to maximize the chances of student success. In other words, genuine accelerated learning.
- Many critics of public schools have seldom let the lack of evidence stop them from making their critiques, and not even a pandemic will stop them. Numerous critics inaccurately accused teachers’ unions of focusing on the needs of adults instead of students at the heights of the pandemic when they pushed for remote teaching (even though it was the right move for students, families, and teachers). Then, many went on to blame remote teaching for being the primary, if not only, reason for academic challenges experienced by students (even though education researchers question that cause and effect for many reasons, including the fact that the vast majority of factors affecting student achievement are nonschool ones) and used that belief to paint schools choosing short-term closures during the omicron wave as uncaring toward students and families. The more things change, the more they remain the same.
- Speaking of which, teachers are not superheroes, and if maintaining safe and healthy working conditions (which are also learning conditions for students); providing autonomy for us to use our professional judgment to determine our lessons; and offering sufficient pay and benefits are not all made priorities by public officials and districts, then we will leave. And, if we don’t leave immediately, do you really want many of us often thinking about it?
- Teachers have always known that a good principal is as good as gold, and the pandemic reinforced that belief as many have held things together at their schools in the face of tremendous challenges. We’re crossing our fingers that they’ll stay.
- Maybe, just maybe, those who hold the education purse springs have realized how important school mental health services are to students and to society. Schools have generally been the primary source of mental health support for our students, and, in the past, it’s mainly been us teachers who have unofficially provided it. Now that the tsunami of trauma caused by the pandemic has overwhelmed us, funds have finally been provided to hire genuine mental health professionals - if they can be found - to provide support.
- This final lesson is similar to the first one, and it’s important enough to state again: Even though a large number of districts made a zillion decisions without consulting with teachers, and MANY of them turned out to be bad ones (for example, our own district disregarded our union’s proposal to create a virtual learning academy last spring, and some students are still waiting in 2022 to be enrolled into the district’s hastily-created alternative), many continue to believe they know best and will continue on their own “unmerry” way. Key policy decisions should not be made without consulting teachers in the classroom—and students and their families—because we’re all the ones who end up paying the price if and when things go sideways. Unfortunately, even a pandemic can’t seem to teach that lesson to those who need it most.
Unfortunately as well, it appears that we will have more pandemic time to learn additional lessons.
Good luck to us all.
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