The new question-of-the-week is:
What is working and what is not during this school year?
Editor’s Note: Neema Avashia agreed to be the guest editor for this special issue of Classroom Q&A. You might also be interested in her two previous posts:
‘Obsessions With Normalcy and Learning Loss’
Neema Avashia is an 8th grade civics teacher in the Boston public schools, where she has taught for the last 18 years. She was a 2013 Educator of the Year in the city of Boston:
Last spring, I took the time to talk with my students about what was working and not working for them in the context of remote learning and what they wanted our schools to look like when we reopened in the fall. I tried my hardest to share with school leaders what my students were telling me, but by and large, their words have fallen on deaf ears, victims of the twin obsessions with “normalcy” and “learning loss” that have largely driven reopening plans.
As we close out 2021, those of us in school buildings each day can tell you some things with certainty: Both adults and students have struggled, and continue to struggle, with the return to school. Staffing shortages, unmet mental-health needs, excessive accountability measures, destructive social-media trends, and an ongoing pandemic continue to impede the necessary work of teaching and learning. Yet there continues to be a gap between what policymakers seem to understand as the solutions and what people on the ground are saying they need.
I asked some colleagues across the country to share their thoughts on what is and isn’t working in their school buildings this year. As you close out 2021, I encourage you to do the same—to think about what is and isn’t working in your context and to make it known to decisionmakers.
‘I Trust Science’
Donna Reed is a 3rd grade teacher in the District of Columbia public schools:
I had a whole piece written describing how the disrespect shown toward educators during a pandemic is what isn’t working in these times. Then, my colleague and I sent home a student who wasn’t feeling well in one of my classes—who then tested positive for COVID.
I deleted all 500 words.
When a student you teach—in your own child’s class—gets COVID-19, it pauses you.
Like most teachers, though, for better or worse, I only took a moment. Once I’d caught my breath, I frantically switched into damage-control mode and did what I could to help with contact tracing. Midway through that frantic day, my co-teacher said, “You should Google ‘security theater,’ ” so I did. An August 2020 Psychology Today article and the cybersecurity expert Bruce Schneier define it as “actions and initiatives that give the illusion or feeling of increased security without providing any benefit that can be empirically demonstrated.” That’s precisely what 95 percent of our current COVID safety protocols are. Silent but unmasked lunches in a closed space. Outdoor zoned recess. Our “ask-ask-look” district-mandated arrival process and “upgraded filter systems.” All performative—and not really working.
What is working are three simple things:
1) Mask wearing by everyone present at school. When I feel like my head will explode if I motion for another 8-year-old to cover their nose with their mask, I suck it up and do it again because there is evidence that it is protecting us. By having kids’ teachers and friends stay partly faceless for the better part of a year, we’re protecting one another.
2) Working among as many vaccinated individuals as possible. You don’t need to “do your own research” as some NBA players may lead you to believe. That’s already been done by people far smarter than me, and vaccines have been and will continue to work. That has been true for about a century. I’m the child of health-care workers. I trust science.
3) Me. I never stopped working. I’m like that. So are my fellow educators. We’ll keep unapologetically sending kids home to complaining parents. We’ll keep handing out masks and giving reminders. Because it works. And like those vocal parents, despite our differences, we want to keep schools open, too. We’re our own best chance. No performance necessary.
‘Overreliance on Teachers Filling in the Gaps’
Justin Kim is an 8th grade history teacher in the Summit public schools in El Cerrito, California:
A few days before this school year started, I was feeling overwhelmed. More than the normal preyear anxiety, this was a deep-seated fatigue rooted in a lingering question: What if I just don’t have what it takes to be in the classroom anymore?
Once the students arrived, their enthusiasm about getting out of the house and creating new friendships reminded me of the joys of education that we missed over distanced learning; the water cooler talks among teachers have allowed us to build community after an incredibly isolating year.
Yet, on Monday, the 8th grade science teacher quit without warning, citing COVID concerns (70 percent of teachers in our charter network have left since January 2019). Our teachers report feeling too overworked and underresourced to meet the needs of our students. More students are reporting depressive states and recent experiences with death that we are failing to address. Schools in our network lack English-language-learner instruction, school nurses, and an adequate number of school counselors. Much-needed reading and math interventions have been reduced to varying versions of independent study halls.
These are all issues that we anticipated before the start of the year. Spring and summer preparation for the return of students in the 2021-22 school year gave teachers the space to voice these concerns. To the credit of our principal and the Summit organization, we did secure additional mental-health support and we have chosen not to fixate on the damaging learning-loss narrative that plagues other districts. While this may be the most culturally cohesive school I have taught at (which I understand is not the norm at many other Summit schools), the organizational shortcomings continue to deprive students of the support they need.
Many of these problems started before the pandemic and led to the creation of our union, Unite Summit, in February 2019. Currently, Unite Summit and the Summit public schools are in mediation as we try to bargain several large outstanding issues for union contracts. Other teachers and I are constantly being asked to take on more responsibility without proper support or training. I am not a nurse, social worker, mental-health practitioner, ELL teacher, or translator, but I have worn these hats for my students.
A lot of what is mentioned here is specific to my experience, but it’s also about a broader tendency: the overreliance on teachers filling in the gaps of social services and the continuous underfunding of education in California. I feel the brunt of these shortcomings, and despite my love of this job, it is not sustainable.
‘My Students Showed Up’
Zeisa Vieira is a 7th grade math teacher at KIPP in New York City:
What’s not working?
Our school schedule, it’s just not sustainable. We’ve had three schedule changes between August and November, and with each new schedule, teachers’ prep period is shortened more and more. Due to COVID safety guidelines, my school created four homerooms for each grade instead of three. However, I don’t think teachers’ workload was considered when making this change.
Some days, I am able to use my scheduled two hours of prep, but most days, I only have 30 minutes because of unexpected coverages. In addition to grading, printing materials, conferencing with students, and contacting families, my prep period also includes a bathroom break, lunch break, and planning meetings with my co-teacher twice a week. All of which are not happening. I can count on one hand the amount of times I was able to meet with my co-teacher and instructional coach in the last three months. It’s either I have to cover a class or they do. I’m not sure how much of this I can sustain for the rest of the school year. And many other teachers at my school feel the same way. Six have already left.
Grading has been a struggle due to the constant positive COVID cases in my grade. About once a month, we’ve had to learn remotely for 10 days because of positive cases. Trying to hold students accountable for their grades while also considering their home environment is not ideal. Most students do not attend class when we are remote but are at school every day when we are in person. Their grades are suffering tremendously because as a school we are expected to submit three grades per week. This also includes monthly assessments that are administered by the network. Assessing a student who has missed 10 days of remote classes is not fair. Assessing those who were present remotely is also unfair: Most students cannot learn math through a computer.
Maintaining consistent communication with parents/guardians has also been challenging. In previous years, I made a lot of positive calls home and/or texted families during my prep periods. These days, however, the planning and teaching workload, combined with having to prioritize making calls to families of students who are not making the best choices, just takes up too much time.
Our leadership team has a presence in classrooms to support teachers. They have also hired assistant and substitute teachers to cover duties such as recess, lunch, math- and reading-intervention periods. This has allowed content teachers to get some time back to prepare and plan lessons. Although the recent increase in content teachers leaving has required these substitute and assistant teachers to fill in for those classes, if we hire more teachers, we could resolve the issue of overworking teachers with coverages.
Adapting to using technology in the classroom and seeing students learn new computer skills has also been amazing! This school year, I’ve seen students create beautiful presentations, self-advocate by emailing their teachers, create and share a Google Doc, use Google slides, and access all of our remote learning platforms easily. They’re experts in accessing Zoom and Nearpod. These new skills have broadened my approach to using technology in math class.
I was very surprised that my students showed up. Students came on the first day of school eager to learn and all wearing masks. They didn’t complain about the new COVID safety guidelines and they did everything they were told to do! They showed more appreciation and excitement to be in school than I had seen in years past. Their desire to learn motivated me to change my attitude about the new school year despite all the new changes and limitations COVID brought.
‘Give Teachers Space to Talk Openly’
Adina Schecter is a transformation coach in the Boston public schools:
When I was a teacher, I was always more vulnerable when my coach or principal was in my classroom, even if it was someone I trusted and even if I felt really confident about what my class was doing that day. No matter how much I planned out every detail of my lesson, it was hard to watch someone observe me sweat through every moment-to-moment response and decision I made. I felt an unspoken pressure to perform with perfection at every turn.
In the seven years I’ve been an instructional coach, I’ve tried to remember that vulnerability when I walk into classrooms, but it’s on the forefront of my mind every day as I now watch teachers with the additional burden of projecting their voice through a mask, reminding students to pull up their own masks, and supporting young people who are in emotional distress. I want to do everything I can to help teachers right now, but it’s clear that my past coaching structures involving observation and feedback are not realistic or helpful when teachers and students are in crisis.
So the question I have had to ask myself, that every single person in a school- or district-level leadership role needs to ask right now, is how will my role change to meet the needs of teachers and students at this moment?
We must push aside the computers, the coaching protocols, and the observation trackers, and give teachers space to talk openly about what they are experiencing and what they need.
Protocols and structures might be useful at times, but right now when I meet with a teacher, I need them to see that I’m on their side, that I will do what it takes to come through for them, that I will roll up my sleeves and help them manage a class with more needs than any one person can handle alone. The focus of my meetings should not be getting through a protocol or having a preconceived agenda about what I think should happen. In my recent meetings with teachers like this, we come up with tangible ways for me to support them: leading restorative-justice circles, co-planning lessons, or gathering resources for an upcoming unit.
Create space for teachers to be together without administration, coaches, or evaluators.
I have always led weekly content meetings, and a lot of what I did was based on a district-led focus, to prepare for an upcoming standardized test, or to plan lessons based on the relentless pace of learning standards that drives a lot of stress in the teacher profession. A lot of these agendas do not show trust in teachers to do the work they need to do. The agendas and meeting times do not take into consideration what teachers need right now: connection with their colleagues, breathing room to slow down and process what is happening, and time to plan so they are not having to do the bulk of their work late at night or on the weekends. They need their time off to decompress.
We also must face the truth that many of these coaching protocols and trackers have actually never worked because great teaching is not born out of compliance and top-down agendas. Pushing through with business as usual will only cause more harm and hopelessness. Leaders in roles like mine must step back and listen. We must create space for teachers to reimagine the structure of the school day, with a laser focus on teacher and student wellness. Then, we must put all our energy into fiercely advocating for what teachers say must happen next.
Thanks to Neema for guest-editing this post and to her contributors!
Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.
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