Five Lessons from the Spring of 2020
by Miriam Rock
Posted on August 19, 2020
Miriam Rock is an Upper School English Teacher at Friends Select School. She earned a B.A. from Yale in English and an M.S. Ed from Penn GSE’s Teacher Education Program. In addition to a year of student teaching, she has spent five years as a classroom teacher, first at Sandy Spring Friends School in Sandy Spring, Maryland, and now at Friends Select School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She also serves on the executive committee of The Miquon School board. This past summer, Miriam worked with Authentic Connections as a research assistant. The reflections she shares here, as a teacher during the pandemic, are insightful and will be valuable for leaders to consider as schools reopen.
Friends Select’s last day of in-person classes was on Friday, March 13th. From then until the end of the academic year, we cycled through three different schedules, three different web-conferencing platforms, and 11 weeks of distance learning. Administrators and faculty worked tirelessly simultaneously to support students through these transitions and to reimagine what a Friends Select education should look like during this crisis. As of now, the school is planning to be able to easily transition among three different modes in the fall: 100% in person, 50% in person, and 100% remote. I am working from the assumption that, for Friends Select, at least some portion of the 2020-2021 school year will be remote. Accordingly, I want to share five lessons from distance learning this spring:
Lesson 1: We are all new teachers
In January 2020, I was a (relatively!) experienced teacher. In March 2020, I was not.
Successful new teachers approach the profession humbly, recognizing how much there is to learn. I was blessed in my early years in the classroom to have a series of wonderful mentors who supported me, gave me feedback, and celebrated my progress. While my graduate school coursework was invaluable in teaching me key frameworks through which to view education and a set of concrete strategies to employ, I learned the trade of teaching through a mix of experience, trial and error, and seeking out the guidance of more experienced colleagues.
This past spring, with the exception of educators who built their careers in cyber education, we were all new teachers. The classrooms we were trained in were not the ones we faced. Classroom management in a room filled with desks is different from classroom management on a Zoom call. Asking students to turn to the person next to them or work in a group of three is different from creating breakout rooms. We had to shift from using a projector or white board to using screen share or the chat function. In place of the homework we normally assigned, we instead assigned asynchronous work. Instead of students forgetting to bring their book to class, students came to class with broken webcams. Each of these differences can be addressed; all of them together necessitate that educators reevaluate how we build and teach our curricula.
In recognition of the differences between the career we were trained for and the job we are now doing, many administrations have asked faculty to complete summer professional development courses. Such courses are crucial in this moment. They give us tools, they teach us current research, and they help us develop relevant strategies. That said, they are not sufficient. The reality is, all of us are new teachers, fresh out of three months of student teaching. If we spend some portion of next school year online, we will once again be teaching in institutions without any experienced teachers we can turn to.
While this reality is deeply overwhelming, it is also an opportunity. Unlike experienced teachers who have settled into their curricula and only change details from year to year, new teachers are constantly innovating. As educators, let us view the coming school year as an opportunity to rethink our assumptions, rework our curricula, and analyze the resulting education. As administrators, let this be an opportunity to support faculty as they develop new skills, such as by offering ongoing internal professional development programs like Critical Friends Groups or bringing in speakers for focused discussions. Most importantly, as with any new practitioners, teachers need the space to experiment and redevelop their professional strategies. As a field, we have settled into a series of assumptions about what an education can and should look like. If schools can work cooperatively to leverage strengths and wisdom within our communities, we very well may upend some of these assumptions and improve how we teach in the post-pandemic world.
Lesson 2: Something vital is lost when everyone is muted
I cannot overstate how much I miss the glorious noise that fills a classroom when eight pairs of students are all talking at once. Group work gives shy students space to try out ideas; it gives students who are overflowing with ideas space to share them; it gives students with short attention spans space to not be quite so focused. While breakout rooms enable group discussion to a certain extent, they prevent eavesdropping, which can be a helpful opportunity for students who are having trouble answering the questions on the board or looking for a new approach. A classroom filled with overlapping conversations builds community. It gives the opportunity to more deeply embed humor, joy, and life into the learning process.
During a casual conversation this spring, one of my students shared that, before distance learning, school was where he learned and where he socialized. From my student’s perspective, our entire student body was staying up until 3am because zoom classes were only fulfilling half of what they looked for in school: they were learning, but they weren’t having opportunities to chat and joke with peers. Staying up late was their only time to talk with friends.
Distance learning platforms (or at least the ones I have tried) cannot sustain multiple, simultaneous, overlapping conversations. For many, the norm is to stay muted unless you have something to say. While this sounds similar to running a class discussion, any teacher who has tried to facilitate a class discussion on a Friday afternoon knows otherwise. Gone were the whispers between students who somehow thought we couldn’t hear their side conversations. Gone was the giddy laughter at a joke that wasn’t that funny. Gone were the moments when a student made a joke that actually was funny and the teacher joined in the laughter.
As our schools face possible future periods of remote learning, we have the opportunity to be intentional in facilitating the type of socio-emotional learning that comes from students casually and thoughtfully engaging with their peers. Friends Select’s schedule this spring focused on having frequent advisory meetings. Through this context, we worked to build a forum in which students could interact casually. Similarly, I developed a practice of consistently opening my zoom calls ten minutes before class time in order to give students the opportunity to socialize casually with me and with whichever of their peers showed up. I encourage administrators to think about ways to balance the need to give students a break from their computers with the need to facilitate social interactions. Informal, intimate social opportunities benefit both the naturally extroverted students who crave the social release and the naturally introverted students who may not independently be pursuing social connections.
Lesson 3: My most successful zoom classes were student driven
It became very clear to me this spring that students could have authentic, deep discussions — comparable to the ones we would have in person — over zoom. I run a discussion-based class, with students spending much of the period actively engaging with the material: in writing, with a partner, in a small group, or in a large group. Over zoom, the classes that worked the best were the ones where students were actively engaging with each others’ ideas.
Accordingly, I shifted my teaching to further emphasize student-driven discussions. My World Literature students read poetry and taught the poems to each other, working in groups of two or three to take over three weeks of class. My African-American Literature students marked interesting passages in Beloved and were responsible during class for either introducing the passages they had chosen or responding to the passages chosen by their peers.
In many ways, this was a win-win! It took greater advantage of asynchronous time, giving students specific tasks to accomplish in this time and concrete ways into the material. At the same time, it facilitated more social interactions between students, and pushed them to actively engage with the material during class.
When we taught in person, there were numerous natural ways to ensure that every student had an opportunity to speak at some point during the period. In remote learning, it was harder to facilitate authentic opportunities for all students to contribute in every session; it was far too easy for a student to get lost in the screen of tiles. We must work to prevent students from spending hours every day in front of their computers, passively and silently observing their education.
As I design my curricula for the fall, I am going to focus on integrating opportunities for student voice and leadership into each and every unit. While I may need to limit the quantity of material I cover, it feels crucial in this moment to sacrifice breadth for depth. A more thorough integration of student ownership into the course will increase my students’ learning and engagement, regardless of whether I am teaching in person or over zoom.
Lesson 4: In distance learning, the barriers to equity are that much higher
In every class I taught this spring, at least two students had technical difficulties. They dealt with having no camera, having a broken camera, using phones instead of computers (and therefore not being able to see everyone in the call), and limited bandwidth. Because of factors outside of their control, these students were unable to fully engage with the learning that we have committed to providing them.
As an educator, there was only so much I could do in this situation. I could check in separately with these students, providing them with additional resources and filling in any gaps that they had missed. I could give them my lesson plans. That said, if they were unable to hear and see or be heard and be seen, they could not actively and fully engage with class discussions. Recordings of the classes are not good enough because all students deserve the opportunity to be more than passive observers of their own learning.
We made a promise to students to provide each of them with a quality education; in this moment, we must figure out how to navigate new realities to meet this promise. During normal school years, schools work to ensure that all students who walk onto their campuses receive an equal education, regardless of their family’s financial status. Distance learning poses new challenges to that goal, and we must work to continue to develop our strategies to monitor student needs and progress.
Schools that are committed to financial aid must be unflinchingly honest about the emergent needs of members of their community. If we have families who do not have the necessary technology for their students, it is not enough to say that the students need to get that technology. Schools should be looking at their budgets and creating a new line for supporting lower income students. We may need to buy them webcams, rent a router for a year and boost the internet in their homes, or loan them laptops. Regardless of the need, schools have an ethical obligation to fill it and should be working to fill it now, in anticipation of a second wave. That way, if we do need to transition back to remote learning at some point in the fall, we will be ready to distribute the necessary hardware to students who need it.
Lesson 5: Relationships with students sustain me
As many people and much research have reminded us, student-teacher relationships are more important now than ever. For students, connections with teachers can be a crucial support system. We can give them guidance, encouragement, and new perspectives. This spring, however, I realized just how sustaining relationships with students are for me.
One day, in advisory, I mentioned that one of the things I missed most about being in school was listening to music curated by the teacher who shares my classroom. A week later, an email appeared in my inbox from an advisee who had created a playlist just for me. She continued to send me weekly playlists until the end of the year.
I am the advisor to Friends Select’s Quakerism club, Quake. The students in this club not only committed to spending this spring developing online versions of Quaker programming for our study body, but they also worked to plan the Quaker Youth Leadership Conference (QYLC) for February 2021. Friends Select has committed to hosting 20+ Quaker schools this coming year, and my students took it on themselves to plan two versions of the conference: one traditional in person version, and one that took place over zoom. At the peak of our planning, Quake students were meeting six times a week, and consistently demonstrating positivity, good humor, and dedication.
These moments were important reminders for me. Now, more than ever, teachers have a lot to complain about. We’re worried about our own health and the health of our loved ones. We’re anxious about the future and overwhelmed by balancing personal and professional demands. We were asked to transform our curricula with very little transition time and familiarity with our new mediums of instruction.
Because of this, it was important for me to have moments of connections with students. It will come to no one as a surprise that teachers don’t go into teaching for the money or the prestige. We go into it because of the young people. As a teacher on summer vacation, I won’t lie: students can be annoying. But they can also be kind, generous, and hilarious. They can repeatedly and enthusiastically take time out of their schedules to plan events that benefit others. My students this spring were a reminder of human potential.
As we transition into the 2020-2021 school year, we must endeavor to actively make time to connect with those young people, not just for their sakes, but for our own. For the health of the community, I urge administrators to make advisories, clubs, and supportive peer groups part of your weekly schedules. As my students demonstrated, the response to the social isolation of living through a pandemic should not be resignation. The response should be a proactive and prolonged commitment to community building.