Tales from the Pandemic: Silver Linings and Lessons Learned

Michael Ida, NBCTMarch 1, 2021

Unless you’re a journalist, it’s dangerous to write history while it is being made.  However, as teachers, we don’t always have the luxury of waiting for the dust to clear before taking stock.  We have a tremendous opportunity in front of us.  Having no choice but to try new things during the pandemic, we have the rare chance to rebuild things from the ground up.  When things do return to some semblance of “normal,” we can’t just go back to business as usual.  Before we lose the moment’s sharpness and the adrenaline fades, let’s seize the moment and maintain focus on the good things that we should maintain going forward.

Let’s give every student a voice.

Contrary to the conventional wisdom that online platforms give students even more of an opportunity to hide from view and avoid interacting with others, I have had some of my most withdrawn students (when present in-person) open up and even blossom when given a chance to ask questions and interact in a breakout room via chat.  Voice doesn’t have to be sound waves traveling through the air but can be electrons traveling through wires.  Giving students choice of their mode of communication can, as is true, lead to more fruitful and sustained interactions whenever they are given a choice.  Not every student will take advantage of the opportunity to communicate through alternative channels, but some will, and it is for those students that broader our definition of voice.  How about having a chat room or app like Remind open online for students who would prefer to communicate that way despite being physically in class?  [Can we leverage our hard-won experience with technology to give all students a voice–those who are verbally expressive in the traditional sense and those who have only found their voices through our vastly increased reliance on technology?

Let’s give students’ emotional well-being the centrality it deserves.

Most teachers will have an icebreaker with students on the first day of class.  Once the second day rolls around, the pressure to get through the curriculum and prepare students for The Test kicks in.  Instead, it’s time to get down to the real work of the class.  For high school teachers in general, and probably for math teachers in particular, content becomes king.  For students sitting at home for months on end with nothing to do but stew and brood, focusing on the quadratic formula is simply a non-starter.  How can we incorporate activities back into our in-person routines to address students’ social and emotional needs?  Can we use some of the online tools that we’ve picked up during the pandemic to make a personal connection with every student and to let them know that they are important?

Let’s let go of the need to have every student on the same page every day.

The industrial model of education is dead.  If nothing else, the pandemic made starkly clear that many of the paradigms that made our country strong and prosperous in the previous century have run their course and are no longer viable models for moving ahead in the twenty-first century.  Not that any of them were terrible–many are, on the contrary, entirely understandable in the context of earlier ages.  Times and circumstances change, however, and one of the things that has changed the most from the early twentieth century is the power of technology and the Internet.  When given no other option, many of us have become on-the-spot videographers and online personalities.  Can we use some of those skills along with the flipped instructional models that they supported to allow students some measure of individualization when they return to our classrooms?

Let’s teach and assess higher up on the taxonomy.

This is certainly not a new one.  As a math teacher, I have been told that I should be assessing “higher-order thinking” and “problem-solving” since I began my career a quarter-century ago.  However, what the pandemic has brought to light is just how fragile learning based on rote regurgitation is.

Forced to administer all assessments online during the first semester, I was very quickly brought up short with a hard dose of reality.  Students would and did cheat with abandon on any assessment that asked them to simply parrot facts or apply rote recipes.  It was simply impossible to monitor students remotely, and with the Internet and Discord at their disposal, there was no stopping them.  The only real way for us to compete in this academic arms race is to rethink how we do assessment.  And rethink it for real this time—no half measures to add a word problem and call it problem-solving.  Let’s take a hard look at project- and problem-based learning.  Writing, anyone?  Yes, there will always be a cohort of students for whom the traditional way works fabulously well–and we should honor that and provide for them.  But seriously–if there’s a phone app that will allow students to take a picture of a math problem and will then show them the steps to its solution, what is the point of making teaching them to do so by hand the final product?  Can we take a fresh look at strategies like PBL and use our educator networks to create a critical mass of teachers working to build a sustainable culture of authentic problem solving and critical thinking for students?

Let’s look for ways to spice things up.

For a student signing in to an online class, the temptations are boundless and irresistible.  Should I take notes and work through some problems, or should I turn off my camera and catch up on my gaming?  For all but the most disciplined, the choice is obvious.  Refusing to give in simply, many teachers have pushed themselves to fight tooth and nail for students’ attention, coming up with some fantastically creative activities and structures.  Amazed and humbled by the incredible creativity and dedication of those who have shared their efforts, I can’t help but feel that as a profession, we have a small window of opportunity not just to tweak but reboot how things are done.  Initially forced on us by necessity, the radical change in our practice has called our bluff.  The shift in perspective and the reevaluation of everything we do presents with a once-in-a-generation chance to sift the good from the bad and take the good and normalize it.  Can we summon the strength, perseverance, and mindfulness to push just a little bit further and to check ourselves every time we are tempted to fall back into pre-pandemic habits?