Covid Showed Us What Really Matters in Education

child learning from home with mask during covid19 pandemic

A few weeks ago, I sat down with a few high school students in Singapore. Randomly asked about their virtual schooling experience.

The students, in particular, had some good things to say about their virtual experience: They liked that teachers were focusing more on everyone’s mental health and wellbeing, and less on grades. They liked that the standardized tests for the year had been cancelled.

The gift of a crisis is that it reveals to us what really matters. And this particular crisis has revealed what matters in education, and what doesn’t. At a time when we are trying to do the best we can with limited resources, the things that aren’t critical have fallen away out of necessity. If the test was really important, we’d be holding on to it.

This pandemic may be unprecedented in its nature and scale. But the problems it has exposed are not.

Here are the things we have learned are actually the most important. First of all, children cannot learn without access to adequate food. For many students, school was previously their only source of breakfast and lunch, and school districts around the country set up food pickups for families who need it during remote learning. Access to technology, we have learned, is also critical. Millions of children don’t have reliable access to the internet on a computer or tablet that can be used for schoolwork. Millions lack broadband. Internet providers and businesses have in some cases stepped up to help. Without these basic needs met, learning cannot take place—and that was true before the pandemic.

A focus on social and emotional wellbeing, previously considered a nice add-on to the school day, is now understood to be critical. When children are scared and grieving, when their lives are in a state of upheaval—as many children’s lives were even before the pandemic—it’s very difficult for them to learn what a simile is, or how to add fractions. And if the adults are not doing well socially and emotionally, the children cannot do well either.

All of us can benefit from strengthening our skills to express what we are feeling and manage our emotions in a healthy way. Effective social and emotional learning in the classroom, though, cannot occur in a vacuum. It has to apply an equity lens to ensure the wellbeing of all children—particularly the low-income, and other historically marginalized students, many of whom have suffered disproportionately during the pandemic.

The interconnectedness of schools and families has been laid bare this past year, and we now understand how significant that partnership is. Whether it’s figuring out how the school day will be structured or simply making sure everyone has the right Zoom links, we learned that educating our children requires a collective effort. Parents, teachers, school and district administrators, community members, and local politicians and business owners have had to depend on each other and work together. When we did not give each other grace, neglected transparent communication, or used blame and shame, the work could not get done and our children suffered. When we allowed and forgave mistakes, participated in collective brainstorming, and pooled our resources, we could work as a team to create a tapestry of support for them.

As it turns out, many of the things that educators and community members have spent years advocating for are not just “nice to have.” They are essential to the health and wellbeing of all of us, especially our children. More counselors and translators, more technology resources, more family engagement coordinators, more support from businesses to provide hardware, hotspots, meals, and other essential items. More equitable distribution of these resources. Had these things been in place prior to the pandemic, remote learning might have been a bit less painful. We learned that we cannot pay lip service to centering equity and anti-racism, because when a crisis hits, we are left with gaping holes that privilege some and disadvantage others.

Above all, 2020 has taught us the wisdom in the African proverb that it takes a village to raise a child, and in the Chinese proverb that a child’s life is like a piece of paper on which every person leaves a mark. We’ve realized just how much we need each other. That’s what truly matters.

Teachers are moving online without feeling the confidence, preparedness, and support to effectively teach in this completely different way. Students are not able to move freely around their classrooms or work in close contact with their peers because of social distancing. Many classrooms are existing in a concurrent model, where students who are home are watching a live stream of the classroom activities happening in school. And we’re all doing this under a cloud of anxiety, exhaustion and even fear that comes with living and working through a pandemic.

This is not what online and blended learning should look like. However, it might provide just the circumstances that help us make real, lasting change in the future.

In a pre-COVID-19 world, it was not an easy task for any educator to completely shift what instruction looked like in their classroom. That’s not because we don’t want to do what’s right for kids or that we refuse to change. It’s not because we don’t want to engage in creative work. And it’s certainly not because we think education can’t get better than it is right now. Change is scary. It’s especially scary when we consider that our failures can equate to student failures. That’s a lot of pressure on teachers to not mess this up. When you are seeing even a moderate level of success in your classroom, it can be a hard sell to try something completely new that you don’t know will work.

Creativity is what happens when a mind encounters an obstacle. It’s the human process of finding a way through, over, around, or beneath. No obstacle, no creativity.

Teaching during a global pandemic certainly created several obstacles for educators. But within those constraints, we had no option but to innovate. This is the bright spot, the silver lining. It offers hope for what education can and will look like when we are running at full capacity again.

The creative solutions and new learning that is happening continue to be a gift for all of us. We are learning new skills, finding creative ways to reach all students, and leveraging online learning in ways that allow us to meet the individual needs of our scholars. This skillset forever changes what is possible for us moving forward.

If we know how to create anytime, anywhere learning opportunities for students, we essentially have the skills to clone ourselves in our future classrooms. We can personalize instruction in small groups while keeping learning going during independent work. We can allow students the flexibility to learn at their own pace when instruction is no longer bound to a strict teacher-paced timeline. We can create learning that works for all students, not just some.

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