May 26, 2021
Learning From COVID-19: What Teachers Told Us
By Douglas Price
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by Education NC on May 25, 2021.
As state leaders, policymakers, and public school systems across North Carolina debated when and how to return safely to in-person learning, WakeEd Partnership hosted three focus groups to discuss remote learning and school re-entry with Wake County Public Schools students, teachers, and principals. This three-part series is a reflection on what was shared from each group.
It has been more than a month since Wake County Public Schools returned to full-time in-person learning with twice-monthly remote learning days. The turnaround for full reentry came at such a quick pace that there has been little time for teachers and other school personnel to learn and critically evaluate the most effective ways to deliver a hybrid model of learning.
Upon initial reentry, WakeEd Partnership hosted a virtual session with teachers to hear from them. This focus group was geographically representative of Wake County and included educators from across grades K-12. We heard about their experiences with reentry models and their perceptions of their students’ experiences in both virtual and in-person settings.
Pedagogical Concerns and Fluidity
According to the focus group, one of the most difficult aspects of the return to in-person learning has been the inability to consider, construct, and refine practices to allow for the best pedagogical methods. Many of the teachers represented in the focus group came from grade-level teams who were executing hybrid learning differently than other nearby schools. Knowing these variances between schools is important as we consider the pedagogical concerns with hybrid learning.
Another nuance is teacher’s ability to academically challenge students. When an educator teaches all students in one location (in person or virtually) at the same time, they are able to engage students where they are — this is known as differentiation. For example, Rashid may be able to convert fractions at an accelerated pace, and the teacher can continue to challenge him with more challenging problems. Ahab, on the other hand, may still be learning the foundations of conversion and may need the extra teacher support and practice to help fine tune his understanding.
This is all a part of a normal classroom. But throw in technology issues, such as when the screen freezes, and parts of a lesson may be missed. Or consider when the teacher is assisting a student in person and is far away from the computer microphone, thus those on the virtual side cannot hear what is being said, so the teacher must repeat the information.
Many in the business and education worlds have spent the better part of the year learning how to navigate the lag that exists in virtual spaces. Now, we are adding a new lag: one that inadvertently penalizes students for not being present in the classroom, while equally penalizing those who are physically present with an additional wait time as the teacher has to repeat directions or statements, impacting the amount of differentiation that can exist in a classroom.
Throughout the focus group, one theme among teachers was the frequency they repeated themselves and the longer wait times between instruction, which decreases instructional time. This concern was also shared in our student focus group. For the teachers present in the focus group who were performing hybrid teaching in its purest form (50/50 virtual and in-person split simultaneously), all of them spoke of the microphone being located on their computer. The computer cannot always travel with them across the classroom, oftentimes because an electrical outlet may be required and/or the laptop may be hooked up to other technology. Once the teacher steps away from the laptop, the microphone can no longer detect their voice. If a student needs assistance at the back of the classroom, those voices will go unheard, and the teacher then has to repeat the scenario back into the microphone for virtual students.
Supporting the Schedule: Asynchronous Days ‘a Must’
With it comes to master schedules — that is, the schedule that each school building creates to accommodate class instructional time, lunch, class changes, and other considerations — teachers are finding it difficult to support the hybrid model. One teacher shared the man-power issues involved in making sure that children are with an adult (such as at lunch time). But because of protocols and spacing issues, teachers could not remove their masks while students were eating and instead resorted to eating lunch in their cars. The man-power issue was so severe that teachers were covering other teachers’ lunch with students.
This is impactful in a lot of ways: in order for one teacher to cover another teacher, the first teacher cannot have students in their classroom. This would mean that either this teacher was on their lunch break or they were on their planning time, allowing them to plan a future lesson. With this time absent from the teacher’s schedule, this leaves no time remaining in the school day for the teacher to dedicate to some of the smaller yet necessary tasks that are required.
The message rang abundantly clear: if hybrid learning is a reality next school year, then asynchronous days are an absolute necessity. These asynchronous days afford teachers the ability to not only conduct parent-teacher conferences and lesson plan, but they also allow them to conduct small group sessions with students and provide quality feedback to their students on assignments. These activities are all a part of quality, holistic teaching practices.
Centering the Student
At the end of the formal interview, I asked each teacher to answer this question: If you had the chance to sit down with students one-on-one, what would you ask them?
- How can we be a better teacher for you?
- What are the lessons, or types of lessons, that you have engaged with the most?
- What do you miss?
- What would you like to see stay from this time? What would you like to see go?
- Are you doing okay?
It comes as no surprise that for each answer, the impact on students remained central to the core of teacher’s questions. Our teachers are compassionate, selfless, and care so deeply for their students — the very group of people who brought them into this profession.
Considerations For the New School Year
We have heard time and again how our teachers are stretched thin in non-pandemic times, and how COVID-19 has stretched them more than anyone could have imagined. We do not yet know what the fall semester will bring, as those discussions are still in flux. But we should listen to teachers as we consider how to move forward.
If hybrid practices continue, then districts should offer more asynchronous days on the school calendar to allow for teachers to plan and create authentic and engaging learning experiences for students. There should also be ample support to provide teachers with the resources that they need to make hybrid learning a positive experience for their students. Instead of expecting teachers to buy the tech supplies they need, districts should provide them with resources that will help to create the best learning environment possible.
At WakeEd Partnership, we recognize the value of teachers as experts and as educational leaders. Teachers are living the daily experiences of hybrid learning alongside our students. The concerns they bring to the table are highly valuable and should be paramount to the execution of continuing hybrid learning next school year. We encourage all districts to acknowledge teacher’s experiences and expertise and to allow them to guide what next school year will look like.
Douglas Price is the Director of Programs for WakeEd Partnership, an independent nonprofit organization composed of business and community leaders committed to improving public education in Wake County.
As North Carolina debated how and when to return to in-person instruction, the primary focus was often on teachers and adult staff members, as they are more vulnerable than students when it comes to contracting severe cases of COVID-19. But too often, the voices that were noticeably absent were those of students themselves. WakeEd met virtually with high school students to hear about their experiences with re-entry models, their perceptions of both virtual and in-person settings, and their feelings toward considerations for the future of returning to school.
As school building leaders, principals also have their own set of experiences and thought processes they bring to the table. As the captains of each proverbial ship within the district, principals oversee the bigger picture of what happens day-in and day-out for every student, teacher, and staff member. In part three of our COVID-19 series, WakeEd asked Wake County principals to reflect on leadership challenges and opportunities they faced during the pandemic, as well as their hopes for the upcoming school year.