Catching Up

My son returned to full time, face-to-face instruction today. When the pandemic hit last March, his school moved instruction online for all of its students. When the new school year started last fall, the school employed a hybrid remote model where half of the students participated synchronously while the other half attended physically. Depending on the day of the week, different students participated virtually or physically.

If you’re a parent of a school-aged child, that description probably sounds familiar. Many schools employed some version of that instructional model for their schedule this year. Some schools adjusted this model based on the grade level of students or the physical space or professional staff to which they had access. But now that vaccination rates have increased and infection rates are beginning to decrease, schools are starting to return to more face-to-face instruction. And today is my son’s first day of school.

It’s odd to think of a random day in April as the first day of school, but that’s what I’m hoping many people adopt. Today is the first day my son will be in classes with all of his friends. Today is the first day that the teachers will have all of the students together. Today is the first day in over a year that the students are returning to a version of school that resembles normalcy.

I’m not kidding myself. It’s not really the first day of school. They’ve been attending classes since late August. But my fear is that teachers and administrators are going to see the return to face-to-face instruction as the chance to “catch up.” I’ve spoken to tons of teachers and administrators who feel they weren’t able to accomplish as much academically as they usually do by this time of the year. The hybrid remote model caused them to teach differently and they feel like they’re a chapter or unit (or more) behind. And some of them are staring down the remaining few weeks of the school year and thinking this is their chance to get caught up. Maybe if they cover things a little more quickly, they’ll be able to catch up to the curricular benchmarks they usually meet.

And that’s why I think adopting my “first day” metaphor is so important. It changes how we view “catching up.” Rather than seeing this as the time to get caught up curricularly, let’s view this as a time to get caught up personally. On a normal first day of school, teachers take a few minutes to find out what people did during their summer vacations. They would build in opportunities for classmates to meet one another. They would lay the foundation for the academic year because they knew the students had spent the last few months apart.

And that’s how we should view today. It’s the first day of school.

In some ways, catching up today is more important than ever. Our students aren’t returning from summer vacation. They didn’t spend a week at the beach. They didn’t get to travel to Disney World. They’re returning from all sorts of experiences that we need to honor. Consider this essay written by Teresa Thayer Snyder, a former superintendent in upstate New York.

“When the children return to school, they will have returned with a new history that we will need to help them identify and make sense of. When the children return to school, we will need to listen to them. Let their stories be told. They have endured a year that has no parallel in modern times. There is no assessment that applies to who they are or what they have learned. Remember, their brains did not go into hibernation during this year. Their brains may not have been focused on traditional school material, but they did not stop either. Their brains may have been focused on where their next meal is coming from, or how to care for a younger sibling, or how to deal with missing grandma, or how it feels to have to surrender a beloved pet, or how to deal with death. Our job is to welcome them back and help them write that history.”

I know this year has been challenging for everyone, but it’s not made easier by ignoring those difficult experiences. And while my son may be three quarters of the way through this academic year, it’s not a random school day in April. It’s his first day of school.

Now, let’s catch up.

What the Pandemic Has Taught Me

As we recognize the one year anniversary of the educational disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, I invited readers and colleagues to share what the pandemic has taught them about teaching and learning. I shared three brilliant posts over the last few weeks. This week, I share my own. Note: If you’re interested in submitting a reflection on what you’ve learned from teaching during the pandemic, email me at oliver.dreon@millersville.edu.

As I’ve thought about what I have learned about teaching and learning during the pandemic, I keep returning to an unusual incident that happened earlier this year. While the story may seem unrelated to global pandemics and education, I promise that it relates.

A few months ago, I went to reheat a cup of coffee for a mid-afternoon jolt of caffeine. As I opened the microwave, I was surprised to find a breakfast sandwich perched on the carrousel inside. Removing the breakfast sandwich, I could tell that although it may have been cooked at some point earlier in the day, it was no longer hot. Since my teenage son is the primary consumer of breakfast sandwiches in our house, I figured he was the culprit. But, how did a cold breakfast sandwich end up in the microwave at 2:00 in the afternoon? I set out to find some answers.

Talking with my son, he seemed confused. He thought he had eaten breakfast but looked at the sandwich and began to doubt himself. As he retraced his morning, he definitely remembered putting the sandwich into the microwave but then started thinking about his schoolwork for the day. His school has been running a blended schedule with half of the students attending physically on some days while the others participate virtually. The schedule changes with holidays and breaks, so he remembered reviewing the schedule for the day. He also remembered thinking about which classes the teachers were planning synchronous meetings and which ones the teacher has assigned asynchronous work. He had a big test coming up, so he thought a little about how he could fit some studying into his day. As he navigated his memories from his morning, he said, “I guess I forgot to eat breakfast.”

If you’ve ever lived with a teenage boy, you’ll realize how remarkable that statement is. My son forgot to eat. He was so preoccupied with the educational expectations and changes in his school day that he simply forgot to remove the breakfast sandwich from the microwave and eat it. While this forgetfulness could be attributed to his developing adolescent brain, I think it also showcases some of the indirect cognitive impacts from the stress and chaos caused by the pandemic. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you’ll remember that Sarah Rose Cavanagh’s book The Spark of Learning resonated with me when I read it a few years ago. While the book mainly focuses on the positive impacts that emotions can have on learning, this pandemic has shown the negative impacts that emotions can have, too. For my son, it was forgetting to eat breakfast. For other students, the impacts may be more significant. This pandemic has created job loss, food insecurity, homelessness, illness and death. It has also created a specter of fear and stress that permeates almost every aspect of life. And that emotional toll is impacting learning.

I guess I’ve always known this to some extent. I remember giving extensions to students who had experienced a death in the family or who have been ill. But this pandemic has shown these emotional impacts can happen on a large scale, too. And that requires educators to reconsider our roles and our expectations.  I’ve been preaching “Lead with empathy” for a while but this pandemic has prompted me to wonder whether empathy is enough. Not just during a global pandemic, but always.

Scrolling through Twitter last week, I came across a colleague’s educational expectations for his classes. Chris Hoadley is a faculty member at New York University where he teaches in the Educational Communication and Technology Program. Chris taught one of my doctoral classes when he worked at Penn State and he served on my dissertation committee. In his expectations titled “It’s okay to not be okay,” Chris writes:

As far as our class goes, I want to state my priorities. People first, learning second, rules/bureaucracy last.

If you’re wondering what Chris means when he says “people first,” he explains it clearly later in his expectations.

(Y)ou are enough. For many of us, academia makes us want to prove ourselves worthy but we’re already worthy. Quoting from writer Erin Bahadur: ‘You are enough. There is no goal that you could ever achieve that will convince you that you are enough. If you don’t already believe it before you get there, you still won’t once you do.’ Even when you are not okay, you are enough.

The pandemic should remind all of us that education is a human profession. Beyond the syllabi and the lectures and the exams, we’re working with people who may not be “okay” and we may never know it. We may not always find a forgotten breakfast sandwich and realize that someone is overtaxed. The impacts aren’t always so obvious.

And that’s the problem with empathy. As Paul Bloom, author of Against Empathy, discusses in an interview on Vox,

Empathy’s design failings have to do with the fact that it acts like a spotlight. It zooms you in. But spotlights only illuminate where you point them at, and for that reason empathy is biased.

As teachers, we don’t always know when empathy is needed. The “spotlight” might not show us the student who is living in difficult conditions or the one who may need some extra help or a deadline extension. For every disparity and inequity illuminated by this pandemic, there are still so many that have gone unrealized. Through this, the pandemic has forced me to consider the roles that equity, justice, and compassion play in my teaching, in my classroom, and in education more broadly.

And it’s also taught me that I still have so much more to learn.

What the Pandemic Has Taught Me… by Scott McDonald

As we recognize the one year anniversary of the educational disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, I invited readers and colleagues to share what the pandemic has taught them about teaching and learning. I’ll be sharing these posts (and my own) over the next few weeks. This week, we hear from Dr. Scott McDonald, a teacher educator in Science Education at Penn State University. Fifteen years ago, Scott served as my doctoral advisor and dissertation chair. He and I now co-host the Science In-Between podcast together. Note: If you’re interested in submitting a reflection on what you’ve learned from teaching during the pandemic, email me at oliver.dreon@millersville.edu.

The pandemic has not taught me something new, but deepened something I already knew – that teaching and learning is relational. This may not be news, but there is some nuance in terms of the impact of the pandemic’s imposition of remote or socially distanced teaching. When I say teaching is relational, this is in contrast to transactional notions of teaching. To think transactionally about teaching is to imagine it as an exchange between the teacher and the student. The teacher is giving students knowledge and the students are giving the teacher attention or at least quiet and submission. Alternatively, teachers give students evaluations as grades or points, and students give seat time, work, and activity. Our educational systems are built on transactional notions of teaching and learning, and when we think transactionally we implicitly dehumanize our students. To think of teaching relationally is to see it as about developing relationships of trust, caring, and respect with students. Relationships with students are not different from relationships. This may seem self evident, but in fact it is a radical departure from how schools and universities currently operate. What the pandemic has given me, however, is that not only is teaching relational, but so is the most fundamental human function of both relationships and learning – memory.

The pandemic has distanced me from my students and this distance makes it harder for all of us to remember things. When is that thing due? Is that next week? What happened in class last time? What week is it? Part of the reason for this is that memory is deeply tied to all our sense data, not just visual and auditory, but also gesture and relative body position, and the most powerful sense for memory – scent. We have been deprived of all this data to anchor our thinking, and so our memory suffers. Another part of our memory loss is that our memory is linked to place. We remember things based on where they happen, but now everything happens in the same place – a collection of boxes on a computer screen see from our seat in the same chair. Every place is the same place. Hardly the rich, diverse contexts and places we were learning in before the pandemic. So, not surprisingly, we have trouble remembering things, and this has a fundamental impact on learning because memory is the foundation of relationships.

The lack of sense data and place access makes it more difficult to build relationships with people, because relationships are built on memories of people, and in particular memories of shared activity in shared places. The other consequence of being behind a screen rather than moving through place/space is that we have lost serendipity of contact with people, which is fundamental to not just learning, but human relationships more broadly. In our distanced world, students all arrive to class at the same time because all that means is turning on their camera (or not). Once they have arrived, there is not space to have side conversations with each other and chat about nothing (which is really everything when it comes to relationships). When I met in person I could chat with students when they arrive early on the only bus they can take to campus. The only time I have with them, and they with each other, is tightly prescribed time that constitutes “class time”. All the implicit work of building relationship has lost is space to breathe. I have learned this means I must take the space back and build those relationship explicitly.

In response to the systematic loss of memory, I have made the choice to devote class time to relationship building with my students. I no longer think of class time as an opportunity to “cover content”, though I honestly never did. Now, however, I enforce structure on the relationship building. My class met twice a week (T/R) and every Tuesday we instituted peaks and pits. I simply ask each student to describe their best and worst thing from the last week to the rest of the class. I participate as well. I will admit I have small classes (typically less than 20 and never more than 25). Still, this takes a significant chunk of class. I don’t see this as “lost” time, I see it as fundamental to teaching and learning. I also “arrive” to class early and stay late, that is open up the zoom room before class starts and let in students from the waiting room, and I hang around to chat and answer questions after class. Once students know this, they take advantage of the time. This is because they are also invested in the relationship, even if they don’t know it explicitly. Students want to be known by their teachers. Not just their names, but who they are. Just like in all relationships, with all human beings. What matters isn’t what you cover as a teacher, but who you connect to as a teacher. We lose sight of that a lot in teaching, for lots of reasons. If the pandemic has taught me one thing, it is that both memory and relationships are delicate and contextual. They need to be cultivated and in an environment where making relationships is difficult taking them for granted kills them. And you cannot teach people you have no relationship with, all you can do is transact.

What the Pandemic Has Taught Me… By Rich Esteves

As we recognize the one year anniversary of the educational disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, I invited readers and colleagues to share what the pandemic has taught them about teaching and learning. I’ll be sharing these posts (and my own) over the next few weeks. This week, we hear from Rich Esteves, an English as a foreign language teacher in Spain. Rich was one of my college roommates and he and I have shared some great road trips and memories over the years. Note: If you’re interested in submitting a reflection on what you’ve learned from teaching during the pandemic, email me at oliver.dreon@millersville.edu.

“Dress for winter,” I advised the class, after one of the students mildly protested to the open window. With a pandemic in our lives, we have had to make numerous adjustments not only to our everyday routines, but also to our teaching environment.

I have spent the past fifteen years teaching English as a foreign language in Madrid, Spain. Most of the year I teach business English to professionals. As the bulk of these classes are one to one, moving to Zoom or Teams was a simple solution which offered more benefits than obstacles. No longer did I have to spend an hour each way commuting, and khakis and dress shoes were promptly replaced with pajama bottoms and slippers. As my students often have meetings which throw monkey wrenches into their agendas, the only obstacle with rescheduling lessons with our new format is having lunch or walking my dog a bit earlier or later.

In the summers, I have been part of a team teaching intensive five-day conversation-based courses to university students. Although their intensiveness can be exhausting for both the teachers and students, they offer a refreshing opportunity to be in contact with the younger generation. The university course had been postponed until the cold months of the end of the year when the organizers could create conditions which minimized risk without inhibiting learning. Students have always been divided into groups of fifteen, and further subdivided into three groups of five. Three teachers rotate between the subgroups throughout the day which gives the students instructors with different accents and teaching methods.

Under normal circumstances, the three groups were often combined for activities. With the pandemic restrictions in mind, students in the different groups were not even supposed to meet each other. Although they had books, which they generally dislike even opening, no other handouts or props could be distributed or handled, thereby making teachers scrap certain activities and alter others. Working with no more than a marker, whiteboard, and my imagination, laying the framework for thought-provoking debates became a staple.

Naturally, masks were a must. While they could create frustration, they were a useful tool for students to make a stronger effort to pronounce well, speak loudly and clearly, and pay closer attention when their classmates were speaking. While open windows often allowed noise from outside to make comprehension more difficult, in the real world, noise is frequent and listening skills need to be adapted to real world conditions.

One of the most popular tasks of the course has always been the group performance. The performance must last approximately ten minutes, have a script entirely in English, and could be a completely original concept, or more commonly, a parody of an existing television series, game show, reality show, or whatever tickles their fancy. Normally, each class would create and rehearse their production until performing it in front of the teachers and other two classes on Friday afternoon. As gathering eighteen people in one room was entirely taboo, they were instructed to make a video of the performance using their telephones and edit it with their laptops and online applications. To wrap up the week, each class watched their own video and those of the other two classes on television after being uploaded to a USB drive. The groups came up with their own awards to vote on, and an award presentation via Zoom call followed. This adapted activity turned out to be an enormous crowd pleaser. The students got an opportunity to practice their English and acting skills, and learned how to put together an amateur video, which on many occasions surprised the teaching staff to the high quality of editing and production.
Teachers evaluate students at the end of the week, and we are also anonymously evaluated by the students. The feedback for this series of courses was better than ever. Having to overcome challenges to reach goals ends up being fulfilling for everyone involved.

What I have learned through this experience is that changing the rules and tools to the classroom environment should be embraced as an opportunity for everyone to hone their skills in a new way. Leaving our comfort zone and having to adapt offers an opportunity to make us stronger. What is fundamental is enthusiasm on both sides, open minds, and a touch of creativity.

What the Pandemic has Taught Me… By Leslie Gates

As we near the one year anniversary of the educational disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, I invited readers and colleagues to share what the pandemic has taught them about teaching and learning. I’ll be sharing these posts (and my own) over the next few weeks. This week, we hear from Dr. Leslie Gates, a teacher educator in the Art & Design department at Millersville University. Note: If you’re interested in submitting a reflection on what you’ve learned from teaching during the pandemic, email me at oliver.dreon@millersville.edu.

Dispositions as Pandemic-Proof Teacher Education

When we no longer know what to do we have come to our real work, and when we no longer know which way to go we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.  -Wendell Berry

This pandemic has taught me that fostering future teachers’ inclinations to reflect and collaborate may be the most effective thing I can do as a teacher educator.

The pandemic has significantly impacted K-12 classrooms. As a result, the classroom-based field experiences university teacher education programs rely on for future teachers to observe and practice teaching has also been impacted. This semester, I am supervising student teachers who are teaching in K-12 classrooms at the culmination of their teacher preparation program. The K-12 classes in which my students are teaching have smaller class sizes than usual as a result of students split between in-person and online learning. When possible, desks are spaced far apart with students seated in rows, all facing the same direction. Students are not allowed to share supplies. I supervise future art teachers in art classrooms, and let me tell you, this is not how art classrooms typically look or function.

By the end of this semester, I will have conducted over 100 visits into classrooms, mostly in person. I have yet to observe students arguing over markers, pushing one another to get a better view of the teacher as thirty bodies huddle around a demonstration table, or responding offensively when their neighbor asks a question. I was initially concerned that the student teachers were not getting sufficient experience managing student misbehavior given the ways in which the pandemic has also sanitized classroom interactions.*

Managing student behavior is one of the components of the Danielson Framework for Teaching. The university I work for uses a slightly adapted version of this framework to evaluate student teachers, and we have years of data that suggest managing student behavior is one of the main things new teachers struggle to do well.

Without opportunities to fail at (i.e., to learn) addressing student misbehavior, I wondered how my students would fare post-pandemic, when classes will once again be packed with 30 students who all want the blue marker first. At this point I recognized the need to more intentionally foster specific dispositions that would likely help them successfully navigate those challenges.

Our university defines professional dispositions, in part, as “habits of thinking,” and our conceptual framework states, “Professional educators at Millersville University possess a broad set of skills and dispositions and a knowledge base that they are able to apply flexibly in response to new problems, drawing upon the appropriate strategies” (p. 3). Just as K-12 teachers prepare students for an uncertain future, teacher educators are preparing teachers for their future classrooms where they will encounter new problems mostly absent within their current situations.

What student teachers’ current situations do afford are reflection and collaboration. The existing triad of student teacher, cooperating teacher, and university supervisor is a generative means to foster two key dispositions in future teachers: a commitment to ongoing reflection and a desire to collaborate. Here’s my approach.

Reflection
The constant feedback cycle student teachers experience via their cooperating teacher and university supervisor is unlikely to exist after student teaching. It is incumbent that I work to hand off the evaluation of the student teacher’s teaching to the student teacher over the course of the semester. Some strategies I use include:
• Allowing the student to reflect first (before the cooperating teacher or supervisor share their perspectives) after I observe their teaching.
• Generating a list of questions to ask the student following an observation rather than simply providing my feedback as statements.
• Asking my student (before I observe) if there is a specific aspect of their teaching on which they’d like me to focus my observation.
• Assigning students the task of self-assessing using the Danielson Framework, citing evidence from their teaching for their ratings.
Fostering students’ inclination to reflect offers them ownership and agency over their growth as a teacher. Reflection is a chance to learn rather than to spiral into shame and self-doubt when they fail (and they will fail).

Collaboration
The triad (university supervisor, cooperating teacher, and student teacher) is a remarkable opportunity afforded to student teachers. Three-way post-observation conferences that are focused on the student’s problems of practice model the value of collaboration and multiple perspectives. During those conferences, I often tell stories of what I saw in other classrooms (both struggles and successes) as a way for students to see themselves as part of a community of learners.

Four of my students referenced conversations they had with other student teachers about the issue we were discussing in post-observation conferences this week. I was encouraged to know that a month into student teaching, the students were starting to rely on one another to help troubleshoot their dilemmas and for ongoing support.

My focus on helping students begin to reflect on their teaching practice and see the value of collaboration leaves me confident that they will leave this semester ready for the responsibility of their own classroom, despite not having had a more typical experience student teaching. Developing these dispositions, it seems to me, is pandemic-proof teacher education.


*I don’t have room here to celebrate the ways the pandemic will likely leave them more prepared than previous student teachers for careers as teachers, but I see that happening, too!