“This is a new normal.”
“We are in uncharted waters.”
“We’ve never seen anything like this.”
“These are uncertain times.”
Ever since the COVID-19 outbreak of 2020, these are the words we’re hearing from every sector of K–12 education. Our worlds have been turned upside down as we face teaching and leading from home during this time of unprecedented mental, physical, and emotional needs. Navigating e-learning is a great challenge, not to mention trying to meet IEP goals, fulfill graduation requirements, and support families who may not have the resources to manage online learning.
So what do we do when no one has prior experience or research on how to teach in the aftermath of a pandemic? Where do we begin when schools open again, with the knowledge that our students will have missed four months or more of quality teaching? We’ll be getting first graders who missed the last third of their vital kindergarten reading and writing instruction. How will we handle math students, at all levels, who have missed essential building blocks?
The answer is: Follow what you know.
We’re all on a common path of having to pick up where we left off, months ago, and try to get back to where we were. How we do it will be trial and error and a new learning process. However, if we stick to some tried-and-true educational principles, we’ll be able to keep ourselves and our students on the path to success. Here are a few of those principles, from a former principal:
Shift Your Mindset
When classroom doors open up, learning gaps will quickly become evident. For the coming year or two, we can no longer assume students will enter our classrooms with the same level of schema and skill sets that most had in previous years. We need to acknowledge this reality and prepare accordingly.
These differences will be shocking at first, but teachers, more than many professionals, have practice at being resilient and solving problems on the fly. Collaborating with colleagues will be more important than ever, as we need creative ideas for bridging the learning gap created by prolonged school closures. We’ll all have to take a step back and rethink starting points. We will have to shift from what we used to do, to what we have to do.
Rely on Assessment
Best practice has always been grounded in assessment. Preassessments and formative assessments will play a more important role than ever, as the results from these assessments can help guide the type of instruction you offer. At the beginning of the school year and at the beginning of each new unit, it will be critical for teachers to determine what students need to bring them up to speed on standard content and grade-level curriculum guides. Formative assessment will also provide vital feedback during the learning process.
Advocate for Changes in Requirements
Boards of education may have to temporarily rethink graduation requirements and prerequisites. It will take, at minimum, two years to get students back on track. For accelerated students, catching up will be easy, but the majority of students will need more time.
My hope (and plea) is that state testing for all students will be either greatly revised or put on hold for two years. Accountability may need to look different at the national and local levels for a while, and that’s okay. Ideally, schools should measure and study progress at local levels before moving back to state and federal systems of accountability. Schools may also consider changing graduation credit requirements for an interim period, even if it is just for a year.
Temporarily Shift Professional Development
Summer is a time when many teachers participate in professional development. That’s why summer PD is a great time to focus on dialogue and planning for the new reality. Teachers and leaders do not need to be writing new curriculum, learning new programs, or creating new strategies. Instead, they need to lean on each other to:
- Identify anticipated gaps in learning.
- Develop a plan on how they will start the school year.
- Identify steps to address acceleration and remediation needs.
- Collaborate with colleagues in prerequisite courses and grade levels to better address deficits from months of missed school.
- Make plans to address the social and emotional needs of students.
Be a Part of History
It can be easy to get caught up in the challenges of this time. However, there are ways to put a positive spin on this historic period. Encourage your students to document their experiences in real time, and help them see the importance of learning from history to create a better future. Here are some ideas for classroom activities you can do with your students right now:
- Create historical archives with your students by having them write about their experiences in and out of school, draw pictures, and hold discussions about the year 2020.
- Use technology to create timelines and reflections, including live interviews, photos, and written reactions.
- Have students begin journals where they record past feelings and current thoughts.
- Analyze the progression of the pandemic, using maps, print articles, multimedia resources, science, and history to draw conclusions and make predictions for the future.
The most important thing you can do is follow the needs of your students and colleagues. Educators are the first to say that learning is a journey. It is not a sprint, but a marathon. Now is the time to put words into practice. Keep expectations high, but realistic. Students, families, teachers, and leaders have all changed as a result of this pandemic. We must be patient with old and new fears. Show extra patience with students who may have experienced extreme traumas while living in isolation. Let your school be their safe haven once again. Be patient when you don’t have the answers or when your leaders don’t have the answers. Collectively, you will all overcome these challenges. You will be stronger and more knowledgeable than ever before.
As in all areas of education, consult research-based best practices, use common sense, and follow what you know works. You are teachers. You can do anything.