The aftermath: “My observations and experiences in a nutshell.” by Aida Tate, Ed.D.
I have been visiting classrooms and observing instruction since 2004 when I was an instructional coach. But nothing could have prepared me, and my team, for the COVID-19 pandemic.
When the state mandated school closure on March 16, 2020 (a day I will never forget!) due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we had to, literally overnight, convert from in-person instruction to distance learning. Many educational institutions, including my own, did not have the resources necessary to take this monumental leap side-ways. We, like many others, found ourselves lacking the infrastructure (computers, internet, video chat cameras), the software, and the relevant experience to immediately foresee a course of action. The problems we faced at the time seemed insurmountable.
Despite the stress, we had to ask ourselves: What do we do to ensure that all our students receive the instruction they need and deserve? How do we ensure that every child has a computer and can connect to the internet? How should we pivot our lesson plans to take place through complete virtual connections?
We are inching towards the one-year mark since that fateful day in March. As I look back, I celebrate, appreciate, and reflect upon the lessons and opportunities that this pandemic presented us with. The phrase that comes to mind is “bountiful harvest!” To me, this phrase has taken on new meaning and has nothing to do with crops. A bountiful harvest is a successful undertaking, involving many resources and learnings, that elicit a sense of achievement and pride. This bountiful harvest was due, primarily, to the work of my teachers who evolved based on the needs of the situation. Their courage in the face of uncertainty and nimbleness in a profession entrenched in rigidity and known structures, allowed our students the opportunity to experience learning in an entirely different way.
Though daunting it was, computers and connectivity were the foundational pieces we needed to secure. Beyond that, it was our teachers’ courage, collaboration, and caring that got us through.
This is our story of survival and our journey toward the bountiful harvest!
Computers and Connectivity
When I was younger, my mother used to say that patience was life, but also acknowledged how difficult it was to be patient. She would say, “Համբերությունը կյանք է, բայց շատն ալ տանջանք է։” This pandemic not only tested our patience, and confirmed the strength of our determination, but also assessed the quality of our planning. When the state mandated schools to close on March 16, 2020, we did not have a 1:1 ratio of computers to students. Furthermore, we were unaware of the connectivity capabilities of our families, outside of standard email. Patience from families, and from ourselves, was of utmost importance as we began adapting and building the new infrastructure for educating our students. Once the much needed federal and state funding became available, to build out the new virtual classroom, we purchased devices for every single student. Internet issues were being addressed, all along, through the purchase of hotspots for our families who needed them most. Through appropriate funding, patience, and planning, computers and connectivity were established to launch remote learning, notwithstanding other challenges.
But the implementation of remote learning required much more than computers and connectivity.
Courage and Commitment
Change is scary, but the shift that took place in education because of this pandemic was formidable.
As Franklin D. Roosevelt once said: “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the assessment that something else is more important than fear.”
What was that something else? You guessed it! Our students and families. Every teacher at my school has made a commitment to students and families and shows that commitment day in and day out. This was yet another opportunity. The courage displayed, across the board, was not because of the absence of fear, but an ingrained commitment to support the community.
My teachers entered this uncertain and uncharted world with various levels of technological know-how. Learning the features of Zoom and online curriculum, and how best to support students were their top priorities. They struggled through days that did not present the best learning environment for students. They, at times, felt defeated and a victim of circumstance. They spent many late nights learning, reviewing, and practicing remote lesson execution. However, instead of being paralyzed by the unknown, they faced it head on and persevered through Zoom lessons that, they knew, were not up to par. They proceeded to show the courage and commitment needed to get better at utilizing online curricular tools, they expected and eventually delivered smooth and timely transitions between videos and discussion sessions and reflected upon daily lessons with a critical eye. This mindset carried them through, made them stronger, and increased and improved their skills.
Collaboration and Curiosity
Zoom became our new meeting room! Grade level teams met frequently to create new ways of teaching and learning. My teachers realized, early on, that the online curriculum did not have the interactivity tools necessary for successful delivery of lessons. The onset of this pandemic, with minimal tools and knowledge, took us back 30 years to the days when teachers were filling buckets, instruction was top down, and student voice was on mute.
The struggle was real! How do we transition from one lesson to another successfully and effortlessly? How can we replace our treasured chart paper and whiteboard? How do we increase manipulatives in students’ hands to make math and phonics more concrete? How can we engage students in discussions and create collaborative groups? We were grappling with more questions, than we had answers for.
The commitment, curiosity, and problem-solving capacity of my teachers is unsurpassed. They explored and became experts at platforms such as Jamboard, which is a cloud-based digital whiteboard designed by Google in 2016. Applications such as Pear Deck, an interactive presentation tool, was used to actively engage students in individual and collaborative learning. Curiosity about the power, benefits, and engagement factor in Nearpod motivated teachers to jump in and test the platform. With concepts like polls, questionnaires, and 3D images, Nearpod supported remote teaching and learning. We had pilot teams across the school exploring various applications that support interactivity and dialogue. Traditional and well-known resources, such as You Tube and Power Point, were also used to support and engage.
Caring and Connection
Students and families have been negatively impacted by this pandemic in more ways than one, but the effect of social and school shutdown has topped this list with a few other horrible consequences that this virus has presented us with. Luckily, my teachers banded together in teams, book clubs, and meetings to figure out ways to address the social and emotional strains that students were experiencing. Counselors, behaviorists, and therapists supported teachers and students alike.
A block of time dedicated to the social and emotional needs of students was allocated, during the school day, when teachers engaged in Community Circle type activities, discussions on character traits, and art education. Programs like FriYAY: Happiest Hour were conceived, with external partners, to provide students most in need of social and emotional supports a time to enjoy read alouds, learn dance, and practice meditation and yoga. Counselors worked with parents on creating structures for students to get more out of remote learning.
Furthermore, teachers relied on various platforms to effectively communicate with parents and families. Blackboard Connect, Class Dojo, and Google Classroom were used for information sharing and Kudoboard became the platform for sending caring messages to those gravely impacted by this pandemic.
We have come to realize that the implementation of remote learning depends upon hardware and software, but nothing can take the place of courageous, collaborative, and caring teachers. Research states that the single most important factor in a child’s education, is the classroom teacher.
We have learned that we do not want nice teachers; what we want, and need are effective teachers. We want teachers to speak up to improve systems, we want teachers to say “no, that won’t work and here’s why…” We want teachers to suggest new and innovative ways of doing things. We need teachers to advocate on behalf of their students, because they know exactly what their students need academically, socially, and emotionally.
Corporations across the country can automize functions, and have, once performed by humans, but the world has witnessed that there is no replacement for the classroom teacher. I reiterate, no machine and no program can take the place of the classroom teacher. For the last time, nothing, absolutely nothing, can replace an effective educator. In-person instruction is not obsolete, in fact, we realized how necessary it really is. The best type of learning happens with caring and compassionate human interaction. The high-five, the smile, the verbal affirmation goes a long way. While technology provides us with information, teachers make sense of that information by creating environments that turn that information into knowledge through discussions, presentations, activities, and projects.
Rebuild and Retain
What is next? How can we rebuild but also retain the lessons learned? How can we capitalize on the connection that in-person learning offers while maintaining technological tools that personalize learning and support instruction? Can we pretend this pandemic never happened and go back to where we were one year ago? Is that wise? Is that even possible? With a 1:1 ratio of students to computers, newfound knowledge of the power of interactive programs, and the ability to personalize instruction, severing technological ties and dismissing valuable learnings is not in our plan.
Our road ahead will take a balanced approach. We plan to…
- Keep what is working and discard what is not. The best lesson this pandemic taught us is to remain nimble and change with the times and needs of our study body. The rigid structure of how we educate students has been dismantled.
- Explore and effectively implement blended learning which is an approach that combines technology with the traditional brick and mortar classroom instruction.
- Pay particular attention to and continue to offer services for our newcomers, socio-economically disadvantaged subgroup, English learners, students with disabilities, and high achieving students.
- Address learning loss through in-school and after-school intervention programs that are personalized through technological tools and programs.
- Continue to stay connected with families and provide wrap-around services.
- Continue to foster students’ creative ability through music, drama, and dance.
- Increase and improve implementation of student-centered and project-based activities that focus on reading, writing, listening, and speaking.
- Focus on presentations skills and teach students how to take command of an audience.
- Effectively teach world languages to ensure that students are equipped to enter the world as multi-lingual contributors of society.
- Provide time, during the school day, for interaction, communication, and negotiation for students and faculty.
- Encourage choice, value voice, and appreciate and learn from unique perspectives.
This pandemic has given us a space to reimagine education. Like the caterpillar, we were thrust into a metamorphic state and now we have an opportunity to emerge stronger and better prepared for the challenges ahead. We will continue to persevere through our struggles on this path of regeneration and transformation. Out of turmoil and adversity, will come strength and victory: We will get beauty for ashes!