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How Did COVID-19 Change Your Teaching, for Better or Worse? See Teachers’ Responses

June 02, 2020 18 min read
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The sudden and unprecedented shuttering of our nation’s school buildings due to the COVID-19 pandemic forced educators to face the most jarring and rapid change of perhaps any profession in history. Within a moment’s notice, teachers were asked to leave their classrooms indefinitely and, in many cases, to recreate a learning environment that is 100 percent virtual.

As challenging as that dictate was, it represents possibly the best-case scenario in what’s proven to be an incredibly inequitable landscape during the pandemic. Whereas some school districts are conducting online learning in what’s been described as a fairly seamless transition, many others are struggling simply to connect with students and families to ensure that their basic needs—including sufficient food—are being met. Just as school districts’ responses during the pandemic have varied widely, so too have teachers’.

We at Education Week reached out to K-12 teachers across the country and asked them to answer this question: How has the shift to remote learning changed you as a teacher, for better or worse?

Their responses range from heartening to hopeless, and everywhere in between. Though varied, almost all of the feedback we received illuminates teachers’ commitment to their professions and to the students they serve. Here, we share a large selection of the responses we received via email interviews and an open-ended question on a recent EdWeek Research Center survey, edited for clarity and length.

Marilyn Pryle

10th grade English
Abington Heights High School, Clarks Summit, Pa.
2019-20 Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year

I find myself constantly asking the question, “What’s the most important thing students have to do or know?” when I look at each new topic. I have become an essentialist. And I’ve learned that the most important things are still possible with distance learning: reading, writing, discussion, choice, authenticity, and creativity.

Sophena Flowers

Special Education Teacher
Virginia Beach Middle School, Virginia Beach, Va.

Having the students move away from a physical class where I am there to teach and answer questions immediately and where I could read the body language and facial expressions of my students takes away from my effectiveness as a teacher, relationship building, and the personal touch that special education students need.

Liz Russillo

9th grade science teacher
Smithfield High School, Smithfield, R.I.

The shift to remote learning has changed me as a teacher. I can wholeheartedly say that the change has been, and will be, for the better. This shift has required me to use innovation and creativity for the most critical assessments while highlighting the importance of the teacher-student relationship. I will never again take for granted the student showing up for class early to tell me about their weekend or the student sitting in the back of the room trying to stay under the radar because they are having a bad day. These relationships are the foundation of the classroom and just so challenging in the remote world. Equally important as the relationships with students are the relationships with colleagues. As colleagues, we are collaborating more than ever in this remote world. We are relying on one another and working together so that all of our students are able to succeed.

Heidi Mozoki

Kindergarten Teacher
Roland Park Elementary/Middle School, Baltimore City schools, Md.

Teaching kindergarten remotely has been an adventure. I have had to put on my vulnerable hat by allowing 26 families access to my home. I began by making short learning videos to engage my students in our curriculum. But as time has gone on, I have had to become extra creative in what lessons will keep my students coming back to my online Blackboard Collaborate meetings twice a week. I am glad that I developed strong relationships with my kindergarten families prior to the start of remote learning because it has made the transition smooth, and I have been able to connect with all of my students each week. Remote learning has validated that teaching is my calling. I love greeting my students each morning and learning all about them. I love hearing their stories and getting my daily hugs. I love watching the children play at recess, creating new games, and including new friends. The human connection side of teaching is what I value most, and with remote teaching, it just doesn’t feel the same.

Jim Ryan

3rd-5th Grade STEM Teacher
Holy Spirit STEM Academy, Los Angeles, Calif.

As difficult as the transition to remote learning has been, I think it’s greatly improved the relationship I have with my students. I’m always trying to be better at differentiating instruction. I know that Zoom has had its issues, but personally, I love using it for my synchronous learning times. Breakout rooms have enabled me to continue boosting collaboration among my students. Additionally, I have more opportunities to meet one-on-one with students who are struggling without the distractions that naturally occur in the classroom. This time has also made me much more empathetic and flexible. I want my students to complete their assignments, but there is more going on at home than I know about. The learning must continue, but it shouldn’t come at the cost of the emotional well-being of the students.

Teresa M. Diehl

High School English Teacher
Antilles School, St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands

I certainly have had to change my plans and assessments, and I’d say that’s generally a good thing since stagnant teaching and meaningless assignments can occur when we recycle the plans we’ve had success with in the past. Being forced to be creative in our delivery requires a rethinking of the content we’re teaching as well. My classes have each been shortened by 10 minutes, and we are discouraged from assigning homework, especially if it involves more screen time. Every minute of instruction, now, needs to be that much more meaningful and relevant. I assume students have complete access to books, notes, friends via text, and our good friend Google while taking a test or quiz, so I’m relying on higher-order questions to judge what they have learned.

Despite the shortened time, I’ve felt it is crucial to make a point to connect in the beginning of class by saying hello to individual students and asking them questions that will foster personal connections among them and with me. They need to know that they are not operating in a vacuum. It is frustrating to not be able to judge their facial expressions and demeanors as well as I could face-to-face, allowing me to get a good sense of students’ comprehension, confusion, and general well-being. And while I once bemoaned the class clowns and distractors, I now wonder if those same kids are quieter now because they’re depressed or their focus is elsewhere. So I have sent more emails, I stay behind in the Zoom room to see if anyone lingers with a question after class, I push harder for students to visit during extra help time, and I reach out to students’ parents, advisors, and appropriate administrators more to make sure their academic, social, (and WiFi connections) are moving forward. It has been more important than ever to understand students’ academic and home lives without judgement, and I hope we all carry that same degree of understanding once we can meet again face-to face.

Steven Tyler

Health and physical education teacher
Plaza Middle School, Virginia Beach, Va.

Although I frequently use various technologies in my classes, this period has forced me to work outside of the box and use technology that I had not previously used as a part of my classes. Remote learning has served as a vehicle for me to become a more well-rounded teacher, and it has opened my eyes to the extremely difficult situations that some of our students face. It also has given me a new appreciation for the simple ability to go in to work and be with my students and colleagues.

Jim Parry

REACH Program Coordinator
Stewartville High School/Middle School, Stewartville, Minn.

I have always created my own classroom lessons by using real-life examples found on YouTube and other media. But also, I have always felt like I could be creative and do more. I have wanted for years to record videos with character lessons that we focus on in class. When I realized we would be moving to distance learning in our state...and likely not returning to school this year...that was my motivation to jump into a dream of mine. I wanted to make videos not only for my students, but also their families, and other students and families anywhere. The idea of REACH Reflection videos came to life with my first recording. I have now recorded about 40 of these videos, all of them focusing on character. They are posted on Schoology for my students and on social media for anyone else interested. In each video, I share a personal story, link it to the viewer’s life, and challenge them to put that lesson into practice. Being able to share these lessons has allowed me to dig deeper into how I feel about character, life, and how I teach. My REACH Reflections videos have brought a whole new layer of meaning and purpose to my teaching.

Leila Kubesch

Spanish and English Language Learner teacher, 7th and 8th grades
Norwood City School District, Norwood, Ohio
2020 Ohio Teacher of the Year

The shift to remote learning didn’t change my practice—only the delivery. I think it is important to be flexible and prepared for anything. The positive change is how fast I found myself learning and embracing the format of technology that I didn’t choose in the past. Once school returns, I will always make videos of lessons to reach out to those who are home-bound and we will be better connected than before.

Erin McCarthy

8th grade social studies teacher
Greendale Middle School, Greendale, Wisc.

The shift to remote learning has reassured me that the work I was doing to focus on the whole child in middle school before the pandemic hit was the right shift to make. Now that we are in week six of digital learning, I’ve been able to reflect, and I continually ask myself, “Am I providing continuity, consistency, flexibility and relevance in the activities and investigations I create?”

I’ve always known that helping students find their voice is one of the most important parts of teaching middle school. During digital learning, I’ve heard students say that they miss collaboration and working with partners to construct learning, so I’ve developed activities to meet those needs. I offered students the opportunity to collaborate in groups as they developed proposals for a business idea. I’ve also offered simulation games via Zoom conferencing so students can spend time with their friends despite social distancing. These elements make me a better teacher in many ways.

Anthony Grisillo

Teacher Librarian
Glenwood Elementary, Rose Tree Media School District, Media, Pa.

I have been teaching for 22 years, so I am always looking for new, innovative, and virtual ways to connect with my students in authentic ways. Being forced to rethink all of my strategies, while incorporating methods I know to be effective, has energized my teaching. The excitement I feel when finding a new online resource or tool that will help me have a personal interaction with my students is incredible. Knowing that I need to focus on making sure my students’ human needs continue to be met in the virtual classroom, coupled with rigorous opportunities allowing kids to still take risks, has made me a better teacher.

Amy Campbell

Special education teacher
Helen Baller Elementary School, Camas, Wash.
Washington State Teacher of the Year 2020

I think it’s made me a better teacher already. I’ve always thought of myself as an innovator. This has really pushed the innovation envelope. During the shutdown, my teaching partner and I have been able to make many materials–YouTube videos and resources–available on a newly-created private class website. This is the first time I’ve created a way to ensure access, in one place, to a whole package of resources for students with disabilities to access outside of school. Use of these resources–accommodations, modifications, sensory strategies, augmentative communication devices–need to be visible and normalized so that the broader community understands how to support inclusion and improve access for all learners. I am excited to have this in place.

Jessica Davis

11th and 12th grade math teacher
South St. Paul Secondary
2019 Minnesota Teacher of the Year

I’m still trying to figure out if it’s for better or worse. As a teacher, I’ve struggled most with reimagining how to fulfill my purpose as the connective piece for my students’ access to learning opportunities. It’s been a huge challenge to find the best ways to support all of their unique needs during these unprecedented times. That said, this whole experience has reaffirmed and increased my confidence in my own teaching philosophy.

Up until this point, all of my 14-year teaching career has involved regimented standards and standardized assessments. The COVID crisis has resulted in relaxing requirements around those standardized measurements. I’ve discovered that a huge challenge has been to get kids to try something new and independently when a previous accountability measure is no longer relevant. I teach math. I love math. But solving a quadratic is not the most important outcome in math class, especially not now. I now assign students to schedule a check-in with me. The lesson teaches them to navigate a new system, practice how to communicate a need for help, and research and seek answers to questions. In many ways I don’t really feel like I’m teaching math. Instead, I’m teaching confidence.

In the long run, on the other side of this, I’ll be a better teacher, and human, overall. I have more empathy for life outside of school, and I have more trust in my students and what they’re capable of.

Rachel Rodriguez

Grade 6 English teacher
Plaza Middle School, Virginia Beach, Va.

The shift to remote learning has changed the way that I understand the level of clarity a middle school student needs and how I will run my classroom next year. When I create assignments and upload them, I try to create activities and directions that are as clear as possible. It helps me understand what is truly essential to their understanding so that they can be successful working on their own. I have also learned how to create video instructions using Loom. Now that I have the skills, I can use them in the classroom next year for students who need directions repeated as well as for students who simply need clarification. This way, I may be able to reduce the number of hands in the air during class so that I can successfully run a small group, and students can work toward being more self-sufficient during independent work.

Dena Lindsey

7th/8th Grade Social Studies Teacher
Wilder Middle High School, Wilder, Idaho

I believe I have managed to keep students at the center of learning. The same students who struggled in school, in general, are the same students that are struggling to work from home. Establishing and maintaining student relationships has become more difficult in isolation, which is unfortunate because that can drive student motivation. Now, I’m a distant cheerleader. I’m making efforts to notice and acknowledge students’ efforts, their passions, and what really matters to them. Does this work for every student? No, but part of my “practice” is to be able to adapt to the individualized needs of my students, so I’ve had to remain flexible, sensitive, and responsive. So from that perspective, nothing has really changed.

I’ve had to also really watch for those students who may be struggling emotionally, and direct them to the right people for support. I think the virtual meetings I have with my kids have helped to provide some sense of normalcy, just seeing each other face-to-face, but nothing replaces that daily interaction. I miss the kids.

The following responses came from an open-ended question on a recent EdWeek Research Center survey of K-12 educators. The responses do not include the names of the respondents or their schools.

Elementary school teacher
North Carolina

I have become so much better with technology! It was “sink or swim” and I have persevered and am so much more knowledgeable with using technology. I now have the time to research the numerous resources for teachers. This has also become an addiction of sorts! I can’t stop creating fun and engaging lessons! I suppose I feel I am trying to “keep my students close to me.” The computer has become my life-line to my students and I have a difficult time pulling away from it. Still trying to find the balance.

High school arts teacher

It has made me realize that remote learning is a horrible second choice to in-person learning. It can never replace a live teacher, because live teachers can watch the students as they are teaching the class, therefore getting feedback on how the students are comprehending the lesson.

Middle school teacher

Better–I’ve learned a lot more technological tools; email is helping me talk one-on-one with students. Worse: I haven’t figured out how to assess students at all.

Middle school teacher

My stress level is through the roof trying to balance home responsibilities, school responsibilities, and worry about my students. My frustration level is through the roof because I can’t be as effective as I was in the classroom and because I can’t get in touch with the students about whom I am most worried. I don’t seem to have clear work times. Some days I start before 7 in the morning and finish at 9 at night. I’m trying to be available to kids who need me at odd times. I’m trying to accommodate parents who need to let their kids sleep later because the parents are working from home. I have become much more aware of differences in students’ home lives. Things that they kept hidden have come to the forefront.

Elementary school teacher

As the oldest teacher in the school, I was not prepared for teaching online the way the younger teachers were and I wasn’t ready for the loss of contact. The learning curve was steep and I’m still learning. Still grieving the loss of the way teaching used to be. I’m trying to find ways to continue that remotely.

Elementary school teacher

It has made me more compassionate for varieties of dynamics within family units. I am “stressed” in new ways. In the beginning, because this is my last year teaching, I spent endless hours crying and waking at night with nightmares about how I would push out lessons that were quality, with online resources that I wasn’t capable (at that moment) of using. It has made me see that I can do hard things. I have learned so much in the past several weeks and what a way to leave the profession.

High school world languages teacher
New Jersey

I have taught myself how to use new technology and have been forced to think about how I deliver the content. This has been a painstaking and time-consuming process. Because I am constantly grading or creating lessons in a digital format, I feel overwhelmed and have very little time outside of schoolwork to devote to my own well-being.

Elementary school teacher

I honestly think this challenge has changed me for the better. I’ve had to explore and become adept at a wide variety of online platforms. I’ve developed new ways of communicating with students and parents, and have generally become more available. Because we will not have testing this year, I’ve been able to offer my students a wider variety of enrichment opportunities. And to be honest, it’s made me appreciate my students a whole lot more.

High school arts teacher

I’m depressed and I miss my students. I can’t connect well this way.

Elementary school teacher

It confirms for me the need for face-to-face interaction and instruction. Many of my students are not doing the level of work that they would in class because they don’t have me physically there to hold them accountable. Many of my parents work and don’t understand the material. If they do not have a computer, the children are working on their own and the parents are not really helping. I teach at a Title I school with extended hours to help the struggling students. That support has been taken away. Technology is great, but overall for the students who need the most help, it does not serve them well.

Elementary school teacher

It has made me realize how much I enjoy being in the classroom even after 35 years of teaching. It has also made me doubt my ability to continue to teach in an online situation.

Elementary school teacher

I’ve had to come out of my comfort zone with relation to technology. The amount of time I spend designing fun, creative, engaging assignments to be delivered via Google Classroom is overwhelming. The emotional stress put on me has had a negative impact on my health resulting in illness.

Elementary school teacher

I have gotten better using technology that I would have never used before, and now I would consider using it next year—Google Meet for parent teacher conferences or helping students with homework questions. And for students who have been absent, it’s also allowed me to check in with them in a more visible and interactive way.

High school special education teacher
New York

My role as an educator has changed for the worse. I am attempting to support my students with 504’s and IEPs in an environment in which they simply cannot thrive. While I am technically providing their accommodations, they need the human social emotional connection. They need me to be there for them.

Elementary education teacher

I have more empathy for students’ home situations.

High school physical education teacher

It’s been extremely frustrating not being able to see the students live. Much of what I can assess in the physical education class is based on skill performance, and the ability to relate and work with others. Distance learning challenges both of these. Physical education has turned into a much more academic course, which could lead to more stress for students.

Elementary education teacher

Way worse! It is not any fun and is very stressful and feels unproductive! The only plus is I have learned more technology and formed closer bonds with the parents who faithfully participate.

Elementary school teacher
New York

This has pushed me to try resources that I never had time for.

Elementary education teacher

I’m more adaptable, less motivated.

Middle school history teacher

It’s made me learn quicker how to use some aspects of technology. I think it’s changed me for the better.

Contributing Writer Elizabeth Heubeck contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the June 04, 2020 edition of Education Week as Education Week Asks Teachers: How Did COVID-19 Change Your Teaching, For Better Or Worse


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