The new question-of-the-week is:
What do you think district staff who are not working full time with students and public officials who influence education policy need to hear/learn from educators who are working directly with students every day in this environment?
Unfortunately, the voices of teachers are sometimes not heard (or, they might be heard, but ignored) by district central-office administrators or by public policy officials.
Today, teachers Bobson Wong, Larisa Bukalov, and Sarah Said, and others who are readers of this column, share some thoughts about what they would like those central-office staff and public officials to hear—clearly.
Before we get to them, though, here is some of my brief advice to central offices:
For districts in high-infection COVID-19 areas that have spent little time helping teachers improve remote instruction and that, instead, have been spending months and months, and millions of dollars, preparing for a day this school year that is never going to come when their schools can physically reopen: Maybe you should ask teachers what kind of support they need to become better at distance learning and then give it to them. Better late than never.
It would be great if those same districts could spend stop wasting that money on reopening pipe dreams and, instead, spend it on providing additional social-service support to track down and help the 10 percent or more of students who have just disappeared from some schools during this pandemic year—before we lose them permanently.
And, perhaps, districts could apply resources from that same pot of funds to pay educators to teach additional live online classes to some of our most vulnerable students, including English-language learners, instead of depending on the commitment of teachers to go the extra mile for free, as we so often do....
Now, it’s time to hear from guest contributors...
Learning the difference between tools we can use and tools we should use
Bobson Wong and Larisa Bukalov teach math at a New York City public high school. They are the authors of The Math Teacher’s Toolbox: Hundreds of Practical Strategies to Support Your Students (Jossey-Bass, 2020):
Teaching during this pandemic has been an incredible challenge. The unfamiliarity and isolation of our situation has often made us feel like first-year teachers. Over the past few months, we’ve discovered many ways to improve our remote instruction. At the same time, we’ve also discovered limitations to our work that can best be addressed with help from school districts and educational policymakers. Here are four aspects of remote learning where we have made progress but need additional support to make it more successful.
The Need for Guidance
Since we teach at a large school, we are accustomed to meeting with colleagues regularly to plan lessons, mentor, observe peers, and discuss common problems. Much of our most valuable professional development has come from conversations with fellow educators. Working with other teachers enables us to share ideas and workloads while reducing our stress level.
Although the pandemic has severely reduced our opportunities to work together, we continue to reach out to our colleagues as best we can by phone and email. These conversations have helped us improve our teaching during these difficult times. Among other things, we’ve shared ideas on how we can run online meetings effectively, foster student collaboration, build meaningful student-teacher relationships, and monitor student learning.
Unfortunately, professional-development opportunities have been severely limited during the pandemic. This is an opportunity for districts to step in by creating an online resource that describes useful material and best practices for online and hybrid learning. This central resource can explain what tools are licensed by the district as well as what other tools are available and permitted. Resources can be grouped by category, such as lesson planning, formative assessment, summative assessment, collaboration, and support for English-language learners and students with unique needs.
Although we can easily learn what resources we can use, we find it much harder to get useful recommendations on which tools we should use in our classroom and why. Many teachers have useful firsthand experience with what works best in classrooms, but they don’t have the time to write articles or run professional-development sessions. Thus, districts can reach out to and provide incentives for educators to create short two- to five-minute videos that answer questions about choosing the best tool (Pear Deck or Nearpod? Google Meet or Zoom?), finding the best strategy (How can my students work more collaboratively online?), or making online or blended learning sustainable (How much work should I assign?). Districts can then edit these videos, supplement them with written tutorials, and use them for professional development.
The Need for Consistency
In our experience, running a well-organized classroom sets a foundation for successful learning and helps communicate high expectations for students. When we have a supportive relationship with students, they tend to be more willing to take chances. This sense of safety promotes learning.
The closing of our school buildings in March disrupted our classroom norms. In the trauma of last spring, we didn’t know how many online meetings were appropriate or when we should hold them. Sometimes, we wound up holding online classes that conflicted with those scheduled by other teachers. We found that this chaos seriously disrupted our students’ ability to learn.
After hearing the concerns of students, parents, and teachers, our school created more consistent student and teacher programs in the fall. To avoid conflicts, our classes are scheduled in nonoverlapping periods that start and end at the same time each school day. (Our school started the school year fully remote, but we opened our building to students who came in occasionally to receive support or other special services.) Our programs remain unchanged and are taught by the same teacher or teachers, whether classes are in person or remote. In a time of great uncertainty, where school buildings may open and close depending on the virus’ growth, knowing that our classes will meet at the same time every day and are taught by the same people has helped us develop effective routines for online learning.
Districts should encourage schools to create consistent schedules for learning so that classes run more smoothly. To make workloads manageable, teachers should teach using one method of instruction (online or in person) at a time and have no more students than they normally would during regular in-person instruction.
The Need for Compassion
Some of our students don’t keep up with our work because they have poor internet connections, work during the day to support their families, or are too distracted to keep up with schoolwork. Since we are both parents and teachers ourselves, we’ve had to teach a full workload while managing our own children’s learning and taking care of our own families. Everyone that we’ve talked to - students and colleagues - feels overwhelmed by the constant stream of work.
As a result, we’ve modified our expectations of both our students and ourselves. Since we find that covering content takes more time when done remotely compared with in person, we’ve compacted our curriculum to make sure that we can cover the most important topics. We’re more flexible with assignment deadlines because students sometimes have difficulty submitting work online. We’ve also reached out to the families of students to see how we can help them. We find that being mindful of everyone’s social and emotional needs makes this challenging situation more manageable.
Districts can support teachers by not imposing policies that could increase students’ and teachers’ stress levels. For example, districts can modify grading policies and other academic requirements or give teachers more time to reach out to students and their families.
The Need for Cooperation
None of the ideas that we have discussed here is possible unless teachers, families, and districts cooperate. For example, schools will need increased funding to reduce class sizes, which can only happen in a coordinated effort. People may have different ideas on how school buildings should open and what online learning should look like. However, the pandemic has shown that schools are a vital part of our society. As the people who interact with students daily and have expertise in education, teachers have unique insights that can improve schools during and after this pandemic. We should be an important part of this conversation, but we cannot do this alone. Ultimately, teachers, families, and districts must work together to ensure that schools run smoothly and effectively.
Just ask us...
Sarah Said currently leads a multilingual learning program in an EL education school in a suburb 30 miles west of Chicago:
This is probably one of the most vulnerable posts that I will write during the pandemic. I sure have written a lot regarding schools ... the virus ... the way we are trying to all handle it ... and policy. Full disclosure, these times have been rough on my world more than others could believe—it’s impacted my mental health, my family, my friends, and my colleagues in ways that I wouldn’t imagine. This is the most I’ve cried and felt so alone in my 17 years in this field. We educators in K-12 schools working with students and leading teachers through this in the trenches are the soldiers of pulling schools through these times. When making decisions about our schools, our funding, our students, and the future “post-COVID,” policymakers just need to “just ask us” what more can we handle.
Think about this: The world of education is always going through changes of advancement. Usually in a district, change has to be managed steadily because with all that teachers manage themselves, they really feel weighed down with so many curricular, policy, and leadership changes that happen in “normal times.” Now we are in a time where we have to make 1-3 years worth of changes in a matter of weeks and at times even days. This has created change fatigue for so many teachers across the country. With that fatigue on top of the fear of this pandemic, we have lost some valuable professionals who have lost a passion for this field after years of being in it.
To our policymakers ... just ask us what our students need ... and also ask us what we need in these times to keep our faith in this field from fading. What can I tell you we need? We need mental- health “oxygen masks.” We work with our youths- many of whom are facing traumas on a day to day basis - as are we. With a new administration in the White House, I would ask that they strongly consider programs to support the mental health and stability of educators - teachers and school leaders - during and after this crisis. If we can’t take care of ourselves and our well-being, then it’s difficult for us to do that for our students.
Also, we really need to think about teacher retention and recruitment in this country. This field needs to be revived with energy and sophistication put into incentivizing staying in this field for a number of years as well as building the capacity of and recruiting high school and college graduates to join our field. If we don’t try to regrow now, this field may starve later.
Policymakers ... talk to teachers, talk to school leaders ... talk to K-12 educators across our nation. “Just Ask Us,” and we will tell you what you need to know to improve the state of K-12 schools in our country.
Comments from readers
Everybody needs to step up and help ... smaller classes, less movement ...
Camie Lystrup Walker:
Everyone is under trauma right now. Teachers, students, and parents. This means flexibility, kindness, & SEL connections are what’s important.
Our kids’ need for social interaction and a sense of belonging is critical. Denying them an education, forcing a virtual quasi-education (in many cases) on them, and forced isolation is a violation of their human rights. By now we should be together safely!
Thanks to Bobson, Larisa, and Sarah, and to readers, for their contributions!
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