On Friday, March 13 of last year, schoolhouse doors closed across the United States in response to the emerging COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic caused the only lengthy, coast-to-coast disruption of American education to have ever occurred.
Those first hours and days were for getting through the crisis. Teachers all over the country distributed materials to students, gathered their own belongings, and headed home that last time.
In retrospect, a massive experiment in education from a distance had begun. The experiment left teachers mostly on their own in efforts to reach students with care and instruction as schools scrambled to create an emergency response. How did teachers respond? And how might their profession be changed as a result?
As in most emergencies, the early days were characterized by an emphasis on survival and a coming together of people. In interviews my research team did with 75 teachers in nine states, it was clear that caring for student well-being and minimizing harm were the priorities for schools and teachers everywhere in the nation. Food and technology were the first order of business followed closely by ensuring student emotional well-being and then finally, attending to academics and learning.
Many schools struggled with defining and sustaining structures to achieve these goals. As a result, they defaulted to baseline requirements and left the rest up to teachers.
In our data, 85 percent of teachers reported that their school adopted “no harm” grading and attendance policies, functionally making class attendance and school work optional. Eighty-two percent of our respondents experienced drops in student participation. An Iowa science teacher had only six of 90 students doing any work. A Massachusetts high school teacher lost most of his 150 students.
“In the very beginning,” the Massachusetts teacher explained, “I heard from maybe 15 percent of them. Then it went to 10 percent. And then I was literally just begging them to answer my messages and tell me that they and their families were OK.”
Most of these teachers worked long hours to sustain connections with their students, stretching their workdays late into the evening and through the weekend. Sixty percent got no working-time guidelines. Nearly half were given no guidance at all on how to proceed, or they were simply told to do something and to give a lot of grace in the process.
The pandemic posed a significant learning curve for teachers: They needed to rapidly develop the technical and pedagogical skills to teach remotely. Only 3 percent of responding teachers reported substantial experience with remote instruction before the shutdown, while 90 percent had no or little experience with it at all.
This learning challenge was intensified by the loss of traditional, in-person support systems. In response, teachers turned toward one another in an unprecedented expansion of virtual teacher networks for knowledge exchange. Seventy percent of teachers in our study said their colleagues were their main source of instructional help and emotional support.
- 77% drew on existing teacher networks
- 66% drew on new teacher networks
Source: Suddenly Distant Project, 2020
Between March 9 and late July 2020, over 150 new teacher groups appeared on Facebook, with a combined membership total, at the time, in excess of 550,000 teachers—about a fifth of the more than 3 million U.S. public school teachers. These groups focused on how to navigate teaching and learning online during the pandemic. Teachers posted self-created and found resources, sought recommendations on needed tools, gave and received encouragement, and shared new knowledge about how to teach and how to sustain themselves while teaching remotely. Teachers connected with peers who used to be next door and others who had been strangers.
Teachers got creative in other ways, too. A veteran teacher in a rural high school posted this request in one of the Facebook teachers’ groups: “I need a millennial. … I’ll teach you how to teach if you’ll help me with these [digital] notebooks.” A novice chemistry teacher from a city in another state responded, and the two started meeting weekly online. The experienced teacher coaches the newbie on effectively scaffolding chemistry concepts, while the younger teacher helps the older one master the technical tools needed for remote instruction.
My school had a teacher [Facebook] Messenger thread going all day long, and people would have questions, and other people would answer and say, ‘Well, get on Zoom, and I’ll show you how to do it!'
The knowledge networks that emerged last year are notable in that they facilitate teacher-to-teacher professional development and support. Born during a crisis, they have every potential to continue to engage and support teachers well past the end of the pandemic.
There is something magical that happens when people pull together toward a common goal. “Giving grace” was the refrain we heard from teachers everywhere as they shared their spring 2020 experience. Teachers felt they gave grace to their students and received grace from their supervisors and from parents, the media, and political leaders.
I didn't feel so alone. I always knew I had groups of people that, through the computer, I could always talk to and get help from and share my help, too.
The unprecedented nature of the emergency meant most schools and districts had to trust their teachers to carry the work of education. All over the country, teachers came together with their colleagues and made school happen. It didn’t look like regular school, and teachers were frustrated by hastily devised policies, worried about missing students, and mourning, with the rest of us, the losses being wrought by COVID-19. But they also felt energized by the clarion call to collective action.
In this experiment that no one asked for, teachers felt their significance and their agency. They saw what their colleagues could help them accomplish with new tools. And they heard appreciation for their efforts. It might have been a turning point for a profession that has long lacked autonomy. As the summer and fall of 2020 proved, it was anything but.
This is the second of four essays on the work of teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic. It draws from Lora Bartlett and colleagues’ “Suddenly Distant” research project.
A version of this article appeared in the August 18, 2021 edition of Education Week as How Teachers Made School Happen in the Pandemic