Information for this article was taken from teacher interviews and a poll responded to by 25 Ingraham teachers.
The Coronavirus pandemic has uprooted the daily life of all students. During this time in isolation, it can sometimes be difficult to realize how the Coronavirus is affecting the people that students interact with every day.
How are teachers handling online teaching?
Teachers have been forced to completely reconstruct the way they teach. Conventional methods of teaching like lectures and discussions are ineffective in a online format due to technical difficulties and low student engagement. In response, teachers have had to find unique ways to connect with students. Conventionally, teachers have found that the most effective way to reach students is by having individual sessions. One-on-one sessions are by far the most effective way to reach students, because they allow teachers to tailor their teaching specifically to the needs of the student.
Teachers have also been using online tools like digital notebooks to make material distribution and workspaces more organized and better connected.
Surprisingly, another effective way teachers have been connecting to students is by taking a step back.
Teachers have been left to their own devices to figure out how to adapt to their new circumstances. Guidance for teaches from the school district or the state superintendent have been inadequate. For example, teachers were given only two days to learn the new online system before the school year began and have since been left in isolation to learn how to engage with students. With the exception of an occasional inspirational, mass email or redundant training, teachers have been left in the dark.
While teachers are working hard with little help to overcome these difficult circumstances, not everyone has been successful. At the end of the day, it takes time and energy to create lesson plans that work online, and sometimes things just don’t work out.
Despite the hardships, the thing teachers miss more than anything else is the students. The job of a teacher revolves around students. When the latter is taken away, teaching can feel meaningless. Like everyone, teachers miss the human connection of in-person school; they miss talking to their coworkers and chatting in the hallways.
Not-every aspect of teaching online is bad. Overwhelmingly teachers do not miss having to drive to school everyday and having to fight seniors for parking spots. Teachers also don’t miss some of the typical things students do not miss, like having to get fully dressed every day or put on a full face of makeup.
While some of these nuances have made life easier, they have had no effect on the emotional toll that online learning has taken on teachers. With insufficient support from the school district and scant feedback on lessons from students, teachers find themselves putting all their effort into teaching without reaping the benefits they experience in a physical classroom. The effect of this toll has been split between putting on a mask of unrelenting optimism, hoping to provide a beacon for anyone else struggling, or succumbing to the pressures and failures that come with online teaching.
After examining the perspectives of teachers about online school, some broader themes emerged about the larger impacts of this unusual year.
What has online learning uncovered about the education system?
When looking at the impact that remote learning has had on teachers, the lessons to learn from this time are more significant than just how to mute your microphone on Teams. Online learning has failed on multiple levels: student engagement is low; curriculums have had to be reduced to skin and bones; and schools are finding it difficult to even get students to log in. While it is easy to blame these failures on the online format, these issues have always been present in public education and are simply being exacerbated by online learning.
The central issue in public education is ensuring that students learn the subjects that the district/state requires of them. In a perfect world, fostering an environment of learning would solve this issue, but realistically, sometimes kids don’t want to learn. This leads schools to find ways to enforce the learning for their students, the burden of which has been placed on teachers, parents, and administrators. This personal safety net makes it difficult for a student to slip through the crack. However, with online teaching, the cracks have widened, and it has become easier for a student to seemingly fall off the face of the Earth.
The solution to this has been placed on the system of grading, using the threat of a low grade and its consequences to incentivize students to learn. Over the years, the emphasis from schools/administrations has shifted from learning to the grade itself, causing some educators to place more focus on their grades rather than the learning of their students, continuing a false system that equates the two. However, it has been proven that so called “bad students” can be extremely intelligent, but simply don’t perform well in modern education systems (Reis and Hebert, 2007; Ford, 1992). In this type of system, some students flourish, while others struggle. This disparity is further highlighted when viewed through socio/economic categories and ethnic demographics. One’s race, economic status, and family life have more influence in determining one’s grades than work ethic or intelligence (Kitano and Kirby, 1986; Ogbu, 1978).
Online teaching has shown schools what has been apparent to many for a while: Some students are unmotivated to learn. Now that it is extremely easy to tune out a lecture or skip a homework assignment, student engagement is at an all-time low, a statistic supported by the Seattle Times. However, this is not just a byproduct of online teaching. It’s a byproduct of our flawed grading system. Students have been conditioned to trade understanding an assignment for checking enough boxes to receive a passing grade.
An important issue always present in our education system has been that of equity. Historically, Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) and low-income students have been underserved in schools, and have lower graduation rates and lower performance levels than their white/higher-income peers as reported by the Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI). It would seem probable that online teaching would have an effect on education inequality, as all students in Seattle Public Schools have access to a school laptop. Unfortunately, the effects may never be known, as much of the usual data to compare inequality was not collected or is not available for the 2020 school year. Although, the one characteristic that can be tracked is the graduation rates for the class of 2020. Even that does not tell much as graduation rates increased among all races last year, even more so for BIPOC students than white students. This increase in percentage does not erase the 8.4% gap between white graduation rates and African American graduation rates reported by OSPI. Graduation rates also increased across student demographics, such as students experiencing insecure housing or homelessness, low-income students, migrant students, students with disabilities, and English language learners (ELL). However, these increases in graduation rates could be attributed to the automatic As that all students received in the second semester of the 2019-2020 school year. The real impact of online learning on equity will not be known until data is available for the 2020-2021 school year. Although, one can expect that because it is much easier for students to fall through the cracks, these inequalities will widen.
So what can we do?
During the Coronavirus pandemic, fixing broken systems can seem like a lost cause. Creating a more equitable and productive education system requires placing an emphasis on learning rather than on grading. While this idea may seem obvious to some, it would require letting go of preconceived ideas of success. When learning is prioritized, it may mean letting a student who puts in minimal effort pass a class, or a student who doesn’t turn in assignments on time graduate, but that’s ok. If this idea makes you uncomfortable, ask yourself why the default response to a struggling student is to diminish their chances of future success?
As this is all a hypothetical hope, one may ask what can we do now? All we can do is lead with compassion. The education system has tried to create as close to a cookie cutter system as possible, leaving little room for people who don’t fit with the system. If something comes up in a student’s life where school cannot be a priority, it can be very difficult to stay on the right track. When we focus on compassion before everything else, an environment for true learning can be created.
This idea of compassion applies to everyone, including students. The main way to help our school move forward is to show compassion to everyone: our teachers, our peers, and most importantly ourselves. Remember to thank your teachers. It may not seem like it, but they are struggling without their students.
Notes: Reis, S., & Hebet, T. (2007). 16. Supporting Academic Achievement in Culturally Diverse and Academically Talented Urban Students. Counterpoints, 306, 233-244. http://www.jstor.org/stable/42979469 Ford, D. Y. (1992). Determinants of underachievement as perceived by gifted, above‐average, and average black students1. Roeper Review, 14(3), 130-136. doi:10.1080/02783199209553407 Kitano, M., & Kirby, D. (1986). Gifted Education: A Comprehensive View. Boston: Little Brown. Ogbu, J. U. (1987). Variability in Minority School Performance: A Problem in Search of an Explanation. Anthropology & Education Quarterly, 18(4), 312-334. doi:10.1525/aeq.1987.18.4.04x0022v