I took a course earlier this year called “Innovation in Education” and the first thing we all acknowledged was that education is the one industry where change is stifled by fear. The risk of getting it wrong has prohibited many from tinkering with the traditional model. At the time, we all wondered, “What could free us from this fear?” And just a few months later we found ourselves facing a global pandemic.
The COVID-19 crisis is a terrible situation. Yet, for us in education, this pandemic is both a gift and a curse. Hear me out. As troubling as these current circumstances are, there is a silver lining—if we take advantage of it. None of us asked for it but we are living through the newest “Great Experiment” in education.
COVID-19 has torn down the barriers that long hindered schools from trying new things and threw open the window allowing them to observe the effects of changes in real-time. Teachers are experimenting with and perfecting new models of blended instruction—effectively combining digital resources with face-to-face time (even if by Zoom) to keep students engaged and learning. A teacher friend of mine recently celebrated that a timid and unsure sixth-grader in her class has “really found his way and come alive” in this new model. He is now leading the class.
Across America, struggling schools have begged for increased parental involvement. I witnessed it myself for decades in the schools I’ve taught at. And yet, right now both sides are learning. It is clearer than ever to parents how important consistent involvement is to their child’s learning, while teachers are testing out every available means to draw families in. My kids and I look forward to their principal's morning YouTube announcements and evening video clips of teachers reading bed-time stories. Previously sluggish risers, my whole house wakes early now, eager to complete the daily lessons.
In my neighborhood, now that we’ve gotten distance teaching down to an efficient system, the conversation has switched to grading. It is daunting to consider everything from how much work is enough and how much is too much? To how should teachers grade it and how much should it count? All the while, everyone can hear the whisper of the old adage that “not grades, but understanding the world and continuous personal improvement make learning worthwhile.” Sure, grades provide accountability, but many of us are embracing the realization we have avoided—that grades are not a significant motivating factor for many students. Instead, school systems across the country are devising creative plans to reward students for performance—and everything is on the table.
Entire school systems, like Poway USD in San Diego, are foregoing grades and instead focusing on feedback and progress monitoring for all students which, if it works for their community, will be a success. Another elementary school has shifted all the attention from grades to a huge end of year celebration honoring students who show the most progress and honestly, if it works for that community it will be a success. We might never replace grades entirely, nor should we, but it will be exciting to see how this all influences our thinking when traditional school resumes.
Most important by far, this pandemic has turned an 800 Watt light on to the challenges of equity in education. Schools cannot blindly push digital learning while some families have absolutely no access to technology. School buses delivering food during the pandemic remind us that while kids look forward to school for learning, some depend on it for their only meals. Without school, some students turn into caretakers for younger siblings, robbing their attention from any type of schoolwork. COVID-19 has brought these and other issues to the forefront.
Indeed, it is a tense time to be an educator. But it is also an exciting time. Taken with the right perspective, the pressure we all feel might be the growing pains of an industry that is changing for the better. I don’t know the answers to any of these complex topics in education, but I believe we are learning them as I type this. None of us saw COVID-19 coming, nor did we ask for it. However, if we bring forward the lessons we are learning through this difficult experience, we can come out of this better than we went in.
I hope all of your families are safe and healthy. I promise you that I feel the pressure you feel. But I am proud of the way we are all responding and I encourage you to take many deep breaths, try new things, learn and grow with the rest of us.
Casey M. Bethel is the 2017 Georgia Teacher of the Year and a 2017 Life-Changer of the Year Finalist. He speaks and blogs teacher recruitment and retention, diversifying the teaching population and school discipline reform. He is a passionate educator, and accomplished scientist and a mentor to students of all ages. Casey now serves as the K-12 Science, STEM and Computer Science Coordinator for ...