Monday, April 19, 2021

One Teacher’s Take on COVID Schooling (and Some Recommendations)

‘This Covid thing will be behind us soon,’ I told myself. ‘All of us will soon be able to stop obsessing over pandemic education’s inevitable losing game, and I’ll get back to those instructional-improvement matters I’m so passionate about.’

(Heh. Kinda missed on that one, I know.)

Rather obviously, then, this post is one never wanted to write.

After running a considerable gamut of experiences at my school since this all started, I thought it might be good to share some of what I’ve seen on the ground, along with a few recommendations I’d make in accord. I hope you find the points below helpful and/or affirming, and, well, I hope like hell that I don’t have to write another installment of the ‘Covid-19 Ed Case Chronicles’. Because flatly, and I beg your pardon here, this situation just sucks.  

BEFORE TAKEAWAYS & RECOMMENDATIONS, A QUICK CONTEXTUAL NOTE: My school went from last spring’s ‘band-aid’ response to an improved — if very difficult, see below — hybrid model in the fall. After logging a full quarter with that hybrid model, rising infection numbers in our county drove us back to teaching and learning fully remotely two weeks ago. Informed by this progression, however, our current distance-learning operations have much more structure and considerably higher expectations than last spring’s emergency version did.

Takeaways & Recommendations After Eight Months and Several Pivots

  1. No question, hybrid and distance learners are struggling. I did some quick calculations of grades-earned in my classes, and the differences in performance are quite stark between in-person (on-site all days per week), hybrid (on-site two days per week), and fully-remote students. Over four grades (I teach ELA 8, 9, 10, & 11), in-person learners earned a solid B on average (3.31), while hybrid and remote learners averaged far below (1.87 and 1.03, respectively), even with the considerable flexibilities and leniencies I’d built in. (In short: Students who received failing grades in my classes first quarter did very — and I mean very — little work.)
  2. The struggles in #1 check outWhile it may be tempting to blame the data disparities above on the distance paradigm, I know from previous experience with my students (I taught most of them last year) that many of the most-concerning performers are simply continuing in patterns of low participation, work-completion, etc., and that they do so across pretty well all their classes. The remote instructional relationship may not be helping us to find the keys to motivate these students, but I would hesitate to say that it’s the reason for their failing grades. Going back to last spring, in fact, I can name only one student whose performance/participation just fell off the table when we went to distance learning. On the whole, in other words, students seem to be adapting their ‘studenting’ fairly well to the new terms and conditions: if they excelled before Covid, they excel now; if they struggled before Covid, they struggle now. The search for how to motivate those lower-performing students continues.
  3. Hybrid teaching is very very difficult. At a certain point last summer, everyone everywhere realized that we weren’t yet finished with Covid-compromised schooling. And just around that point, I found myself getting a real kick out of all the policymakers and pundits glibly throwing around the idea of ‘hybrid’ models — y’know, like, despite the fact that no one had ever actually rotated kids in and out and alternated online and onsite days, it made good sense to consider. Well, after having planned and managed it for three months, I can confirm that (1) teaching as such is utterly brain-melting (especially over four separate preps) and (2) my cynicism was fully justified. I could go on here about why, but please…just take my word for it.
  4. In this time, leaders should re-consider how (or if) PD/continuous-improvement fits. In addition to teaching four grades of ELA at our school, I also serve as the school’s curriculum and instruction lead. (It’s work I’m glad to do, too, as I’ve long had a passion for helping schools to effectively improve over time.) And in my two years there, a good improvement foundation has been established: I rebuilt the school’s evaluation rubric to include priority practices, re-designed the observation-coaching process, defined and constructed programmatic scopes and sequences, began acquiring improved curricular materials to bring online, and on and on. As much as I want to continue building up from that foundation, though, a bigger part of me keeps thinking it might be better to just hit ‘pause’ on some of those continuous-improvement aspirations for now. We’re moving ahead on some of them, of course (especially with curriculum — more on that in an upcoming post), but the logistics of distance/hybrid have made implementation rather like taking a strenuous jog across a minefield. And in the event that we’re doing this Covid-compromised schooling deal for several more months, we might be wiser to keep the main thing the main thing and figure out what to do about those kids referred to in points 1 and 2.
    • I urge school leaders everywhere to do the same regarding their ongoing professional development and continuous improvement actions — not to cancel them, necessarily, but just to look at them a bit more critically in the current light. Because if what you’re asking teachers to do is not helping them to do their jobs better right now, and it’s not helping to get more kids participating and learning right now, they just might not be the best uses of anyone’s time. (And believe me: as I’m a big continuous school improvement guy, it’s difficult for me to suggest that leaders should focus so exclusively on the right now. Simply, however, the challenges of our particular right now may demand it. Get as good at doing right now as you can, and, as your understanding of this paradigm builds, continue raising the bar within it. It’s all we can do.)

I have more, believe me, but I’ll stop here as, hey, all this Covid-education talk will be obsolete soon anyway, right? RIGHT?! 

Hang in there, everyone, and be in touch. I have to go get my Google Classrooms ready for tomorrow.

This piece first ran here at Eric’s blog, A Total Ed Case.

Eric Kalenze
Eric Kalenze’s career in education has included posts in teaching, coaching, administration, and consulting. He is the author of 2019’s ‘What the Academy Taught Us’ and 2014’s ‘Education Is Upside-Down’, and he regularly contributes pieces about education practice, research, and reform to publications like Education Week, Education Post, The Hechinger Report, Education Next, and TES US, as well as to his blog, ‘A Total Ed Case’. Based in Minnesota’s Twin Cities metro area, he currently teaches high school and serves as Curriculum and Instruction Lead at Apple Valley’s FIT Academy, plus works with schools/districts as an independent consultant and serves as researchED’s US Ambassador. @erickalenze

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