Answer Sheet: How Schools are Missing a Chance to Try Something New During the Pandemic
Education looks a lot different than it did a month ago in most parts of the country, with a mass rush to provide distance education to students whose schools suddenly closed because of the coronavirus pandemic. Millions of kids are at home, with their parents or caregivers, doing schoolwork online or on paper instead of in their classrooms.
Yet what is happening may not be as different as it seems. Kids are getting many of the same lessons, and administrators are doing some of the same things in ways that may not make much sense in the current circumstances. That’s the argument made in this post, by Katherine Schultz, a former teacher and elementary principal who is dean and professor at the School of Education at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
Schultz’s work focuses on the research, development, and dissemination of practices that support new and veteran teachers working with marginalized populations in high-poverty areas. Her most recent book, “Distrust and Educational Change,” explores the role of distrust in the failure of educational change and offers concrete recommendations for addressing distrust in classrooms, schools and districts to create spaces that honor human dignity.
By Katherine Schultz
We are all caught up in a time of tremendous turmoil and disruption. One of the many institutions that have been disrupted in unprecedented ways is school. Instead of parents, caregivers and school buses dropping children off at school buildings to be taught in classrooms by their teachers, school is happening at home and online.
In our haste to rethink school for shelter-in-place, I worry that we are opting for taking business as usual online, and in so doing, losing an opportunity for responsive creativity and change. While there has been much discussion of online teaching practices, little attention has been paid to administrators. In a time when many people — especially parents — are seeing teachers’ work in a new light, administrators can also begin to rethink their roles. Rather than focusing on how to monitor teacher practice and outcomes, they can begin to trust teachers.
For the last several weeks of this strange new education world, parents and teachers have prioritized enrichment activities and emotional support. Teachers have focused on creating humanizing materials and online interactions that respond to their students’ needs in the moment. They are teaching what they can, while addressing the life circumstances of their students.
Most administrators want to support teachers and families in any way they can. However, as time passes, they are feeling pressures from state departments of education, school committees, superintendents and even families to hold on to the same standards as before, to ensure that students don’t lose too much learning during this indefinite period of social distancing, and to make sure that teachers are covering the same content as before.
The result is that, in many cases, principals are monitoring their teachers in much the same way they did in their brick-and-mortar schools. They are literally conducting “walk-throughs” in the new virtual classrooms, modeled on practices from the “real” world. In what has become a common practice in many districts in the United States, principals or administrative teams conduct walkthroughs during which they stop by classrooms for about five minutes, observe practices, collect data and travel onto the next classroom.
The idea behind walk-throughs is to collect schoolwide data on a regular basis and/or provide unscheduled feedback to teachers. Walk-throughs are a consequence of the accountability movement, which started out focusing on high-stakes testing but has extended to increased monitoring of teachers.
Principals can now conduct walk-throughs by joining teachers’ classrooms virtually. One teacher told me she was instructed to include both her principal and instructional specialist as instructors for each Google classroom site she created. That way the administrators could check on such things as how frequently she meets with her students, the nature of her teaching and the quality of her assignments.
They also have asked her to fill out cumbersome forms to document whether she is teaching synchronously (in real time) or asynchronously (by posting videos), the amount of time she spends teaching and students spend working on assignments, and the completion rate of assignments. Her students are being asked to give feedback on her teaching and their online learning each week. These data will be compiled and used to evaluate the teachers.
The bottom line is that administrators are collecting these data not to support teachers, but because of contemporary American education’s unceasing focus on accountability.
What this approach leaves out is the reality of classroom life in these times. This teacher, like many others, is trying to figure out how to address the life circumstances of her students, who may have parents out of work, sick friends and relatives, or not enough food in the pantry. She is struggling to learn how to teach in an unfamiliar environment and do her best to get results.
And like all of us, she faces the ever-changing context of the virus. In such a moment, the principal’s insistence on being included in the Google classroom and their incessant push for numbers decenters the teacher’s humanity. As importantly, these practices are likely to miss the everyday creativity and inventiveness their teachers are demonstrating.
While the coronavirus is absolutely a crisis, it is also an opportunity to do things different.
What if principals consulted teachers about how to take stock of their teaching? Rather than scheduling virtual walkthroughs or counting how many assignments student complete, what if principals set up individual conferences with teachers to ascertain their needs and support them in addressing the trauma of this moment for their students and themselves?
What if a teacher-led committee worked with administrators to design teaching and learning goals?
What if principals saw themselves as advocates for their teachers and students, whose job is to ensure that their needs are at the center of every decision, while still meeting the demands of local school committees and state departments of education?
We live in a world characterized by distrust. In this crisis, we see distrust of politicians, of scientists and health officials, and even of the general public. We also see distrust of teachers. But what if, in this particularly difficult moment, principals set aside their distrust of teachers and replaced it with compassion and understanding? What if administrators at all levels of our education system chose to trust teachers to do their best in these circumstances and gave them grace?
What if we truly recognized that in these unprecedented times, teaching and learning will necessarily look different? What if we acknowledged that the greatest lessons we may all learn from this crisis are about how to reach out to others and how to accept help when we need it? What if we could find opportunities to trust each other more?
What if we could use the education upheaval to rethink some of our educational practices for the long haul? Just think what we might all learn.
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