What sudden virtual classrooms made evident about education today.
In March teachers all over the nation were blindsided by the choice for schools to shut down and go virtual. It was a necessary action to slow the spread of COVID 19 and give hospitals the time to prepare themselves for the oncoming pandemic.
Today the debate about returning to classrooms is in full swing. This is a difficult place for us all to be. Parents and educators alike find themselves in the midst of tough decisions about what the end of August might look like for them.
I cannot say I have the answer to whether or not students should return to their face to face classrooms. Or if they do, to what extent, or what the parameters should be. However, I can, with confidence, say that our education system needs to shift its thinking about how we train teachers.
I’ve been an educator for eleven years, seven of which I’ve spent operating in virtual online classrooms. Currently, and for the last three years, I am an instructional coach at an online school. Meaning, I spend my working hours training and supporting online teachers.
Overall the second half of March was business as usual for me. The drop-in centers my school utilizes to support students face to face (if they choose to come in) closed. Our engagement strategies shifted slightly. But for the most part, my job remained the same. I met with teachers virtually who met with their students virtually. Our goals were the same, our curriculum didn’t need adjustments, our platforms and methods were already in place, and teachers didn’t need any additional training to keep doing what they were doing.
That was not the case for a majority of schools. Through no fault of their own, educators floundered and scrambled through the final quarter of the school year. They had a very steep learning curve, adopting methods and programs they’d never been taught. Teachers rose to the occasion and did what teachers do, their best for students. They learned platforms and programs, found ways to innovate and engage. They did everything they could do with no notice.
The result was spotty.
I live with two children and witnessed how inconsistent their education became.
The seventh grader’s teachers scrambled to email out worksheets, post things to the district’s website, and provide content on Schoology. Sifting through multiple locations and inconsistent directions became a major frustration. Some teachers sent (no kidding) hundreds of worksheets. Others were radio silence for up to a month before a few assignments began to come in. A few offered optional Zoom sessions, for students who were in need of support. Others called to touch base once or twice a week.
I could tell these middle school teachers were trying, but didn’t have the tools they needed.
The second-grader in my household had nothing to do. For several weeks we attempted to find communication from his teacher as to what he should be working on. Then we discovered an eight-page packet sent home on the last day students had been in the school building. The packet was tucked behind our second grader’s bed. When asked about it he said that the teacher had said they could “do this work if they wanted to.”
He did not want to. I get that. Me either.
After a conversation (finally) with the teacher, our second grader began to use two online platforms to complete school work. Each with a separate login. Both took hours to figure out how to get into, navigate, and complete work.
I spoke with parents I know who had varied experiences. One pre-schooler had to attend a Zoom session every day for an hour. A first grader’s teacher called and said she was trying to send home enough to keep students engaged for 6 hours a day. She also had daily Zoom calls. Both of these teachers, though meaning the best, were asking a lot of some pretty young kids. Not to mention some overwhelmed parents.
I could keep outlining the anecdotes, but you understand my point. The education system did its very best, but its very best was unprepared to move into virtual teaching.
The school I work for was called on to help support. We presented in virtual sessions about the strategies of online teaching. We got on the phone with teacher friends from places we used to teach. We did what we could to help them navigate Google classroom, Microsoft Teams, Schoology, and any other tech tools at their fingertips. We did what educators always do, our very best for students (even students who aren’t at our school).
Now that we are facing down the fall semester, I see a lot of push for teachers and students to come together in a classroom. I also see a lot of resistance to the idea. I can see both sides.
The chance of the solution being one thing or the other, or even permanent seems pretty slim. We may see school go back in fits and starts. Something blended or hybrid, a few weeks back and then back to virtual school at home again.
Regardless of the answer school districts and communities come up with, it seems that now would be the time to change how we approach educating teachers.
Online teaching is nuanced, just as classroom teaching is.
I have worked with some amazing classroom teachers who struggle to make their style and content work in the virtual world. They can do it, always, but it takes some support, an open mind, and some outside of the box (classroom) thinking. It takes some training on how to navigate the endless tech that is available. Sometimes it takes years of adjustment and learning.
I hope that all districts in the nation take a hard look at their professional learning plans moving into the 2020–2021 school year. I hope they consider how they can grow their teachers' abilities in person and online. Because as we move into a world changed by this pandemic, the need for better virtual teaching strategies will only grow.
Education is a field that requires continuous learning. The way we teach today is not what I experienced as a K-12 student. My hope is that students of today will say the same when they are grown because the world is ever-evolving. I hope that the confusion and hard lessons of the pandemic creates an opportunity for growth. Twenty-first-century learners deserve to learn in the same environment in which they will eventually work and thrive. It is evident that that environment will be more virtual than ever before.