remote learning

Pandemic or Not, Students Need Great Content Paired With Strong Teaching

When teachers welcomed their students on the first day of school last September, they never imagined ending the year on Zoom. Now, as the new school year looms, they’ll have to continue to contend with health, safety and trauma concerns. Plus, they’ll be contending with these issues on top of the growing inequities and budget challenges exacerbated by the pandemic. 

No wonder it is easy for teachers and principals to feel paralyzed and confused. There are an overwhelming number of attention-getting issues in play. Student needs that live near the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy are taking high priority. That is as it should be. No one would argue you can simply overlook needs for safety and well-being in order to fast-track needs for self-actualization. 

Yet, we can still ask ourselves if we are giving enough attention and support to higher-level learning needs. We can do that in the eye of the storm. We can ask ourselves how to do this better so that students will learn this fall. In fact, this must be the center of any plan to reopen schools.

In June, National Institute for Excellence in Teaching (NIET) released a new report: “High-Quality Curriculum Implementation: Connecting What to Teach to How to Teach It.” It illustrates some practical advice for setting up structures that can guide and support teachers as they propel students to higher-level thinking and learning.

I know there is a lot on any educator’s plate. Focusing on curriculum implementation probably seems like one project too many. But that’s the heart of the problem. Too often curriculum has been viewed as a “one-off” initiative, and as a result, has been divorced from the practice of teaching.

When districts adopt new curriculum, it’s often introduced with little professional development for teachers or buy-in from leaders. Research continues to show that just putting better content into the classroom does not alone create better outcomes for students. What does? Ongoing, job-embedded coaching makes or breaks the success of new curricula. Right now, as districts and schools are already redesigning systems and reimagining what teaching looks like, is the time to get this right.

Here are three ideas for where we can start now:

  1. Focus on leaders first. School leaders need time to learn any new content or curriculum and understand how it aligns to other core instructional elements, and that foundation will equip them to leverage curriculum to advance student learning. Right now, that understanding will help them coach their teachers on how to translate materials and content into a virtual environment so they can maximize their effectiveness.
  1. Create time, structures, and formal roles for ongoing professional learning. Rethink how professional learning should be scheduled, structured, and facilitated to help teachers build deeper content knowledge and necessary instructional skills. Teacher leaders are the key here, and they can provide regular feedback to their peers. Right now, teacher leaders can begin planning for how curriculum and content from this spring can be embedded into what teachers will cover in the upcoming semester—as well as how they will revisit those plans regularly in PLCs and coaching meetings.
  1. Gauge where teachers are in using the curriculum and what they need to progress. Curriculum implementation is an ongoing process, and as school leaders coach and support educators, they should continue to help teachers go further in their blending of the “what” and “how.” Right now, leaders can plan for how they will look at instruction and student work to monitor this over the coming year.

Taking this summer to reset on what we are teaching and how we are teaching it will be critical if we are going to regain momentum and advance student growth. Being intentional now on how to blend quality content with strong instruction is a focus that will not only help educators start the year off strong, but it will help them advance student learning throughout the year. 

We can’t get paralyzed and distracted by all that weighs on us as we consider reopening. We have to act. Students deserve that teachers focus primarily on how to maximize their learning.

As 2020 Alaska Teacher of the Year, Amy Gallaway, recently said on a Zoom call about reopening next year:

Students craved more rigor and more learning this past spring and we can’t let them down again this fall.

This starts and ends—pandemic or not—with great content paired with strong teaching.

Dr. Candice McQueen is the chief executive officer of the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching (NIET). Prior to Dr. McQueen's role at NIET, she was Tennessee's commissioner of education for four years. As commissioner, she led the creation of a strategic plan called Tennessee Succeeds, which became the department's plan for the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Tennessee ...

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