COVID-19 has disrupted the K-12 school year’s natural cadence, causing teachers and students challenges. An experienced fourth-grade teacher reflects on teaching practices that help her be a better teacher due to this pandemic.
On March 13, 2020, students packed their bags and anxiously exited the classroom eager to start their spring break. Since then, no student has stepped foot in my classroom despite many detailed plans and ambitious attempts.
When students didn’t return from spring break, teachers immediately began teaching online with no time to plan and limited resources: teachers, students, and families dove in headfirst to this new type of learning. Teachers and students alike learned as we went. With no prior training or time to plan, teachers had no choice but to try new things, fail, and learn from our mistakes.
One School Year Ends and Another Begins
As the last day of school approached, I had been teaching online from my home for nearly three months. My students had met my daughters, my pets, and my unshaven husband in his pj’s. They have participated in classes in my living room, at my dining table, and even in my bedroom. I, too, met their siblings, pets, and favorite stuffed animals. Despite this new type of learning’s physical distance, the bond between myself and my students was undeniably intimate.
On the last day of school, I sat at my dining room table feverishly checking my inbox to see if any students still needed help. I felt lost, missing the closure that comes with hugs at the doorway, cleaning the classroom, stacking the desks to make way for the new incoming class. The pandemic left the boundaries of home life and work-life deeply blurred.
Summer wasn’t summer. After the last day of school, teachers at my school began meeting weekly to plan for the upcoming school year. We worked together to plan lessons, schedules, safety precautions, and contingency plans — we focused on ways to improve our K-12 teaching practices. Being flexible and learning to pivot on a dime as COVID-19 numbers and state mandates changed became essential skills.
At the end of August, I started a new school year with a new class. I have now been teaching 100% online distance learning for a month. It has not been easy. But despite the myriad of challenges and multiple missteps, I am discovering new ways to communicate, collaborate, and celebrate that are improving my teaching practices.
Three Ways to Improve K-12 Teaching Practices
Before the start of school, I arranged one to one family meet and greets. There was a set of questions I asked each student and family. It helped me get to know each student’s family and build a relationship before the school year started. Equipped with knowledge gained from the interviews, I have been better able to support my students. These personalized meetings helped students feel more comfortable on the first day of school. I will continue this practice every year to build relationships and better support my students.
Another helpful practice that benefits student learning is a weekly parent “Coffee Talks” help sessions. In addition to providing office hours for students, I offer informal weekly help sessions for parents, followed by an opportunity for questions. Coffee Talks are an excellent way for parents to stay connected to what is happening in the classroom and build relationships with each other. I plan to continue this practice when we return to school face to face.
During distance learning, there are no classroom walls. Students learn in their living rooms, bedrooms, and kitchen tables. Mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, and pets frequently make cameos in our lessons. With this in mind, I have found ways to leverage these situations into meaningful learning opportunities. For example, students enjoy interviewing family members, inviting little siblings to join in our virtual field trips, dance along to our Zumba classes, or family members join the class to teach us a lesson.
Also, collaboration with my colleagues in my school and across the state has increased. My colleagues and I share lesson plans, templates, and communications with families. Learning from each other has strengthened our team and our teaching. During the pandemic, teachers across the state use Twitter to share lesson plans, ideas, and encouragement. Collaborating, in this way, has enriched not only our teaching but the profession as a whole.
Sensing that students are craving validation, I find small ways to celebrate them daily. I make it a habit to pour on verbal praise as much as possible. Lacking our regular quarterly award ceremonies, I have started student of the week awards. Building up our students’ self-esteem and confidence is equally important to teaching content. We are modeling for students how to lift each other’s spirits even when times are tough. A happy student is more eager to attend classes and engage with classmates than an unhappy one.
My administration has also made celebrations a priority. Teachers slogging away in their classrooms are treated to lunch deliveries, loads of praise, and much appreciation. Like students, teachers who receive kind words and actions are more likely to treat their students well. Teachers who feel appreciated want to pass that feeling along to others. When valuing individuals at all levels in the school community, kindness becomes the school culture.
As educators, we know that when our students have no choice but to think outside the box, they experience a transformative learning experience. COVID-19 has created that moment for all of us in education. While distance learning is far from perfect, discovering new ways to communicate, collaborate, and celebrate with students, their families, and my colleagues makes me a better teacher for which I am grateful. The lessons I have learned that improve my K-12 teaching practices will be ones I take forward for years to come.