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Shanker Blog: Teaching During School Shutdowns Should be a Team Sport

This post is part of our series entitled Teaching and Learning During a Pandemic, in which we invite guest authors to reflect on the challenges of the Coronavirus pandemic for teaching and learning. Our guest today is Susan Moore Johnson, the Jerome T. Murphy Research Professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Other posts in the series are compiled here.

When schools suddenly closed in March and moved to online instruction, I wondered how I would have responded if I'd still been a high school English teacher. I imagined having to prepare a series of engaging Ted Talks with follow-up Q&As. But having talked with many administrators and teachers, I’ve realized that good online schooling during the pandemic is a team sport not a solo performance. It calls for careful preparation and coordination among many players. Just as Covid-19 has revealed hidden shortcomings in our society, it has exposed the limitations of compartmentalized schools that continue to rise or fall on the skills, autonomy and self-reliance of individual teachers.

As teachers faced the sudden reality of online teaching, they had many pressing questions: Are my students safe and confident or are they at risk, hungry, and fearful? Am I responsible for finding students who don’t show up online? What kind of schedule provides meaningful routines with necessary flexibility? How can I create social learning experiences for students who are isolated at home? What can I do to help students who fall behind? How can we meet the special learning needs of students who rely on one-to-one support? How can I fairly grade students’ progress when I can’t provide extra help to those who need it?  

In many schools, teachers struggled with such questions alone. Without a reliable forum where they could explore and resolve urgent problems with others, individuals did their best. Some convened their classes occasionally for live meetings, so students to could see one another and talk about how things were going for them. Many prepared weekly work packets for parents to pick up at the school or they posted assignments online—typically math problems or reading comprehension questions—for students to complete and upload for grading. Some relied on web-based educational resources, including short lectures by presenters their students had never seen. Many teachers were dismayed to realize that their repertoire of instructional practices had been drastically reduced to a few barren components. Meanwhile students within the same school might have either engaging or tedious learning experiences, depending on who their teacher was.

But some schools pivoted far more quickly and coherently to provide their students with consistent schedules, opportunities, and expectations. Teachers were not left on their own to decide what to do or how to do it. Instead they relied on established teams of peers to plan and share the work. Importantly, teachers in these schools were accustomed to counting on their colleagues. They already had an established process for facing new challenges and learning together. Figuring out how to respond to school closings was an unexpected, daunting challenge, but they were prepared to face it together.

In my research I’ve found that schools can succeed in serving students from low-income communities when they develop systems for working together. For example, instructional teams of teachers who are responsible for the same subject select curriculum and tailor it to meet their students’ needs. Then they plan lessons together and use common assessments to discover whether their students are learning what they think they have been trying to teach. Meanwhile grade-level teams meet to track their shared cohort of students, assessing the progress of individuals and ensuring that they have the supports they need. Over time, this organized collaboration becomes, as one teacher explained, “the way we do things here.” That process feeds the culture and the culture fuels the process. The experiences of teachers in such schools differ markedly from those of their peers in other schools where individual teachers are on their own to decide what and how to teach.

As I talked recently with principals and teachers about how their schools were dealing with the Covid-19 closure, I realized that the same principles hold true. The new demands of this virus have revealed the strengths of an interdependent school where teachers collaborate, and they illuminate the weaknesses of a compartmentalized school, where teachers work largely on their own. Schools that pivoted quickly from in-class to on-line learning already had strong systems in place through which they could make the change.

For example, at Spark Academy, a neighborhood, middle school serving students in Lawrence, Massachusetts, the state’s poorest city, educators relied on their school’s established teams of teachers to create a system of live instruction and support for students. When the Mayor provided funds so that all Lawrence families could have a computer, Spark created three engaging websites, one for each grade. There students could find photos and greetings from their teachers who, as the principal explained, “express their positivity to students, see their kids, and say ‘Hey, we’re in this together. How’s everyone doing?’” On their website, students also could easily find both their assignments and opportunities for enrichment. They were required to attend three live classes each morning at 9:00, 10:00, and 11:00, where their teachers provided short lessons in math, ELA, and science, facilitated informal discussions, responded to questions, and held small group tutoring. Students would then complete their assignments and receive feedback using Google Classroom. Students also were required to participate in a daily, live fitness class and one of several other options, including music, counseling, tutoring or an enrichment exercise. 

Meanwhile, Spark teachers continued to meet regularly with their teams. Before online instruction began, they joined their colleagues virtually to experiment with the technology and explore websites offering resources that might align with their curriculum and goals. A math teacher said that she and her subject colleagues asked, “How can we give students as much feedback as possible, instant feedback on their work?” Teachers discussed questions such as “Where do we want to start? What do we want to be assigning? How much work should students have each day? What does a daily class look like?” And together they set norms for all three grades.

Whereas many teachers in urban schools report reaching only 25% to 50% of their students, Spark set an initial goal of having 80% of their students log on consistently. By early May, they had reached 75%. The school surveyed students weekly asking questions such as, “What do you feel you’re missing from school? What resources do you feel you need from us?” The 6th grade math teacher I spoke with was hosting a weekly lunch group for 7th graders. “A ton of teachers do that. Just by opening your virtual classroom and letting kids come in and chat. I think that’s huge for them.”

However, teams and shared school norms did not resolve all the challenges and limitations teachers experienced with online learning. Some families had trouble managing the technology, lacked reliable access to WiFi, or had to share one computer among several children whose classes occurred live at the same time. Or parents worked during the day and could not provide their children with the support they needed during classes.

Teachers also worried about students who relied daily on the help of specialists’ help to support their learning. A Spark teacher said that it was difficult to provide every student with “a quality, engaging lesson.” She explained, “It’s difficult to do with the computer. It’s very hard for our special education students who usually have that one-to-one support.” However, students could benefit when regular teachers and specialists co-taught heterogeneous classes. One ESL teacher at an elementary school co-taught with the 4th grade ELA and math teachers. During the shutdown, they continued to co-teach online and the ESL teacher enriched their slides and presentations with graphics and videos meant to be helpful to their ESL students.

Other teachers missed being able to engage students in group projects. A science teacher at Spark said, “Everything I’ve assigned has been individual because it’s nearly impossible for group projects to happen. I know that students are talking to each other and working together on certain things. I can give them instructions to do a simple experiment at home and some of them can do it. But I can’t watch them work together to problem solve. And I think that’s the biggest thing that’s missing.” 

As teachers in such interdependent schools prepare for the new school year—which may well start with several months of online learning—they’ll work together on teams to improve their approaches and better meet their students’ needs. They’ll learn from their experience this spring and adapt online platforms so that they can again rely on a broader range of instructional strategies—science experiments, group projects, simulations, debates, and facilitated discussions. 

Make no mistake, even teachers in well-organized schools are still not happy with the current constraints. As one said, “I miss the kids terribly. It’s definitely not the same.” But for now, they’re satisfied that they’re doing whatever they can to make their online school work for their students.

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Susan Moore Johnson

Susan Moore Johnson is director and principal investigator of the Project on the Next Generation of Teachers and the Jerome T. Murphy Professor of Education at th...