Teaching in a crisis: Finding solutions during a pandemic

Six teachers discuss how they are creatively managing different types of instruction, and how policymakers and stakeholders can help.
By: | November 30, 2020
Adam Kaz/Getty Images

What mode of instruction has your school district been using? Has it changed from the start of the 2020-21 academic year?

Like a blizzard of snowflakes falling from the sky, no one district or state plan has utilized the same methods for educating students – be it remote, in-person or hybrid.

For teachers, that’s meant adjusting on the fly to fluctuations in the COVID-19 pandemic, catering to the whims of students and parents and adjusting the days in which they might be teaching to a camera or to those inside their class … or sometimes both.

One of six accomplished teachers recently featured in the online panel discussion “Voices from the Classroom: Teachers on Teaching in a Pandemic” called his scheduling weeks a “nightmare.”

And yet, he and colleagues from across the country have managed it as well as can be expected. They shared how their schools have adapted to remote learning over the past nine months during the session, which was co-hosted by FutureEd, TeachPlus, and Educators for Excellence and moderated by Thomas Toch, education policy expert at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy and FutureEd founding director.

Those teachers – from New York, Minneapolis, Chicago, Los Angeles, Denver and the Boston area – also offered up some recommendations on how policymakers and school leaders can make their lives easier.

Here is what they had to say …

DIFFERENT SCHOOLS, DIFFERENT LOOKS

Two of the six teachers offered unique insight into the operation of their schools each week during remote learning.

Shayna Boyd, a middle school English/Language Arts teacher, is instructing in a fully remote environment as are all educators in Chicago Public Schools. She said Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Friday all look the same, but their “Flex Wednesdays” offer a chance to break from the norm.

“It is an opportunity for kids to figure out which class they want to go to,” said Boyd, who noted there is also a mentoring component in the afternoon. “We do different educational activities that are fun for them. We have these different rotations. One of the things I did was art expression. So, we are writing songs using the beat of one of their favorite hip hop songs. Or they can go to typing class or play chess. We’re trying to engage them.”


Teaching in a crisis Part 1: Educators discuss morale amid COVID-19

Teaching in a crisis Part 2: Life on the front lines and on video


Nafeesah Muhammad, an English teacher at Patrick Henry High School in Minneapolis, instructs at a project-based learning academy within the school that she said is “teacher-powered and student-centered”. She noted that her students struggled in the spring with the transition to distance learning because individual days in front of the screen were overwhelming. So, like Boyd’s school, they broke up the week, but in an even bigger way.

“I only teach a live class on Mondays and Thursdays,” Muhammad said. “I teach all my 11th graders at one time [Monday]. I do breakout sessions in the morning. In the afternoon, I have on-demand and office hours where they do 1:1 teaching with me, or all teachers come together on one Google Meet and we just go into a breakout room individually with students who are coming to check in with us.”

If students can get that work done on Monday, they can focus on math on the next day.

“They have expressed to us that they are grateful for the schedule because they don’t have to manage so much,” she said. “We’re trying really hard to take the thinking out of trying to do the work and just get right to the learning.”

That type of schedule, which involved a lot of cross-curricular planning, affords students who have to work or care for siblings, added flexibility. Muhammad also has additional time blocked off during a “power hour” on Wednesdays for students to connect and ask questions.

HOW MUCH LEARNING IS ACTUALLY HAPPENING?

Boyd said attendance in her online classes has been good at about 96%, but noted “that attendance has not necessarily been engagement.”

She said that about 60-70% truly are paying attention and learning, down from what she approximates would be 85-90% in class. That immediately raised concerns for her students, since 70% of their final grade was based on a class essay.

“I’m thinking about all these things that our kids are going through,” she said. “I was terrified the week leading up to the due date, because my fear was that my kids aren’t going to fully engage and get their work done. If they don’t, then what do I do?”

She said 40 of 48 submitted the project.

Mike Loeb, a seventh-grade science and special education teacher at the Urban Institute of Mathematics in New York City, expressed concern about those engaging while working fully remote because he has seen patterns that inhibit can learning – poor wi-fi, no parental guidance, childcare concerns and cameras being turned off. However, he said he has faith that even with a divide that his independent students will continue to do well.

Muhammad said she has noticed one group of students doing better than they do in in-person environments.

“My introverted babies, the ones who usually sit in the back of the classroom who won’t usually talk, are killing it!” she said. “They’re showing up, they’re turning on their mic. To see them now, writing and talking and blossoming, it’s like, yes! Maybe we do need to continue this when we do go back to school.”

Daniel Helena, a sixth-grade teacher at Alliance College-Ready Public Schools in Los Angeles, also has noticed improvement in some students. He said teachers have a big role to play in that development.

“There are some students who are doing better in the distance learning or hybrid model,” he said. “There can be fewer distractions, maybe less social issues, depending on who the student is. On the teacher front, we have to really be on our game, especially if we’re teaching strictly virtually. My economy of language, the precision of my directions, everything that I give my students, has to be very clear. Time is very precious.”

Takeru “TK” Nagayoshi, an English teacher at New Bedford High School in Massachusetts, agreed. He said beyond academics, there needs to be a more holistic approach taken during the crisis.

“As educators, we have to make sure that we’re equipping our students with the tools to help them navigate the mental health and motivational issues that they’re going through,” he said. “You have to invest them into this new reality, but also in a way that holds them accountable. As an AP teacher, sometimes that means that I have to put my academic hat on the back burner and treat our students as people-first scholars, second. Grace over grades.

“Doubling down on communication and relationship building. Investing in the skills to talk to and listen to our students. Being humble enough to acknowledge that there’s a million ways to get our students to be these smart, problem-solving and empathetic learners. Curriculum and teaching is just one of those ways.”

HELP FOR TEACHERS

For all the hard work and challenges they’ve had to overcome, Toch asked the teachers: “What would make your jobs easier?”

Boyd: I would like to see an emphasis on ensuring that our kids are supported socially and emotionally so that they can reach the academic goals that we have set for them. And not just for this current year, but for the foreseeable future. Ensuring too that those [caseworker and counselor] jobs are there strictly for that purpose.

Muhammad: More time. If you allow parents to decide: I think my child needs to do third grade over because their grade did not serve my child, I think they deserve that right. Because what happens is, I get whatever educational experience those students have had. So, I am tasked with trying to figure out what that education needs to look like for them going forward. But if we could put a pause on it and give the time back to the students and to the teachers, I think we could probably fill in those gaps.

Helena: We saw how quickly the higher ed world was able to de-emphasize the importance of standardized tests, like the SAT. I’m wondering when and how the K-12 community will consider how we can diversify how we measure student learning outcomes. Because at least from the community that I teach in, there’s so much that’s not represented in the standardized tests that we have to take. … I’m not for the elimination of measuring student growth. We’re here to educate and expand our students possibilities through academic learning. But that’s not the only way to know if students are learning.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Several of the panelists offered up their thoughts on 2020 and a vision for how and what the future should look like:

Helena: Value students. Value teachers. A lot of students don’t necessarily come to school with an intrinsic motivation. It’s up to us to make sure we’re meeting their basic needs so they feel connected.

Boyd: Educator mental health is a big, big concern. It’s not enough to just say, take a bath and lie down. These are critical times, and we need all educators’ hands on deck. We need to ensure that the weakest link, which often is our kids and certain communities, that they’re fully supported so that we can make the gains necessary in order to overcome what has transpired.

Nagayoshi: Oftentimes, we hear folks saying, I just can’t wait to get back to normal. But there isn’t going to be any normal, because things weren’t working beforehand. So, the conversations that are happening right now are going to be the blueprint for how we’re going to move forward.

Jamita Horton, third-grade charter school teacher at Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest in Denver: One of the big questions I’m thinking about is what is essential for kids and families to walk away with after this time? We have all of these big gaps already with systematic oppression, but we didn’t know what families didn’t have until we got in this situation. We didn’t know that they had issues with food security. In some cases, we didn’t know that they didn’t have internet. So building those connections between the classroom and home is so essential.

Muhammad: We’re feeling all the inequities that have already existed, but we do know more now. We are getting more resources, more help, more consideration. So, hold on to that. If it’s working now, it will work whenever we go back into school. Don’t take it away. And teachers are essential workers. So we should be the ones that policymakers are listening to.


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