30 Apr Education in a Pandemic Era: A Collection of Hope Teacher Interviews
“This has been the most challenging year of teaching in my 22-year career,” said one Hope teacher when asked to give us an account of her pandemic experience. While most of us have some sense of what education and student life have become over the past year, Hope teachers’ first-hand accounts are revealing the breadth of challenges, surprises, advantages, disadvantages, uncertainties, innovations, and emotions that characterize the past, current, and f uture educational experience. In the midst of a transformative time, delivering education has never been more difficult, nor as crucial.
The most evident pandemic shift has been what one teacher described as “the forced utilization of technology and the need to be creative with online instruction, as well as trying to build a classroom community through Zoom.” It has become clear to many that “educators can’t just do the same thing online that they would do in a classroom and call it a day. Instructional design is an enormous part of an instructor’s job and has completely changed.” “The days of making posters, dioramas and working with a group or partner are [regrettably] no more.” “Google classroom and slideshows are prepared in place of hands-on demonstrations;” “music classes have adapted their curriculum to accommodate digital delivery with devices such as Chrome Music Lab;” “teachers are having Zoom meetings with students at 7 or 8 PM to accommodate students’ schedule uncertainty due to added homelife responsibilities;” and more recently, “students wear masks, sit at desks spaced six feet apart and use Chromebooks instead of textbooks.” While some aspects of “pandemic learning” will subside as we return to a more regular in-person instruction style, it is a common sentiment amongst Hope educators that the increase in technology use is here to stay.
Along with increasing technology reliance, there is a heightened awareness of the institutional and educational injustices and disparities already familiar to Hope. Teachers were quick to emphasize that “while inequities within the education system have always existed, COVID has highlighted and further exposed these injustices. The pandemic has revealed how difficult access to education is; the general public now has a better idea of the structural obstacles that face everyone trying to reach educational goals.” The disproportionate availability and accessibility to needed resources drastically impacts education outcomes.
It was clear from teachers’ responses that the unpredictability of COVID has compounded the emotional lives of students. From “schedule and classroom uncertainty” to “health and safety worries” students are “stretched physically and emotionally.” For many teachers, the focus on “emotional health and physical health needs to be the priority” for both students and teachers. Incidences of depression and anxiety amongst students are deepening and becoming more widespread as teachers report a litany of stressors, explaining that students “experience constant loss and a lack of normal socialization;” “worry about getting sick or about one of their family members getting sick;” and become overwhelmed with “fear.” As one teacher exclaimed, “we have always known how much our learners’ life situations affect their ability to learn, and how the cognitive load of living in poverty is a major barrier to their educational goals. Now those barriers are even higher, and educators are working harder than ever, trying to overcome the instruction and technology challenges while dealing with this trauma their students are facing.”
Responding to student stress and “undeniable trauma” has become part of teacher’s daily practice as they work to “reassure students that they are safe and that we are doing everything we can to protect them, to help them stay hopeful and optimistic while focusing on the current day rather than what is lost, and, to be the source of calm inside the storm,” explains one respondent. Because “educators truly care about their kids not only as students, but as people, the lines between educators’ work and personal lives have become even further blurred.” One teacher said, “I could easily spend 80% of my time working on addressing the underlying issues our students face before ever getting to a minute of instruction.” While not new, but writ large during the pandemic, the role of ‘teacher’ is clearly so much more than a conveyor of academic content – “teachers are a second mom, a counselor, an advocate, and a role model to students.”
Some pandemic changes have been positive, stimulating new opportunities and ideas. One notable example is more options for working with students one-on-one. With an in-person school setting, “there are other students around and thus, unavoidable disruptions.” Remotely, “if someone needed extra help, I could schedule a Zoom with that specific student while letting the other students work independently.” This attention “provides the students with individualized learning experiences tailored to their unique strengths and challenges and arms them with strategies for targeted improvement.” Direct face-to-face interactions are key to fostering and nurturing successful learning, and we know that the absence of such interactions strains relationships. Technology-enabled personalized learning sessions have given students and teachers an in-depth base for building and growing these needed effective partnerships.
Also, students are learning new means of expression and self-care. “With few options for socializing and outside activities, the reading and language arts courses allow the students to be transported through literature, beyond the quarantined space of their homes. For many, it is a respite from the isolation and difficulties brought by the pandemic.” For others, music has provided relief and Hope’s music teacher explained how “even when we must limit the amount of singing done in person, students have learned we can still express amount of singing done in person, students have learned we can still express ourselves through song as they engaged new tools, learned how to compose songs, and learned a sign language version of Louis Armstrong’s ‘What a Wonderful World,’ which has helped deepen their understanding of sign language while also building ensemble skills and their toolbox of self-care options.” Mindfulness practices at the start of class and virtual nature walks through lush forests have become customary practice at Hope to relieve the anxiety of living in these stressful times. One teacher proclaimed that “while there have been a lot of limitations to what we can do, students have loved using their creativity and imagination.”
One teacher told us that “the gift of a crisis is that it reveals what really matters,” which sums up many of the responses shared here. It is apparent that education is more than just transmission of knowledge. A focus on social and emotional well-being is crucial. Access is essential – from food, to technology, to relationships, partnerships, and interconnectedness. Teachers have shown remarkable resiliency, and one respondent explained that in the end, “changes caused by COVID have forced us to learn that education is not just about acquiring knowledge but about gaining wisdom, and ensuring the well-being of all, regardless of our distance from one another.” A true education is much more than a number, and much more than a learned fact; it involves a relationship between brain, spirit and body that must be equitably provided to everyone. Education cannot be judged through a single ubiquitous lens and “it is impossible to truly evaluate education and student growth on a single standardized test scale. Despite the enormous challenges, Hope has continued to serve its students and support its teachers as they navigate the heroic task of meeting this moment. Education is what prepares us for the future. The Head of School is proud that Hope students are still “making learning work,” and “though a lot has changed about the way we learn at Hope, our core values will always stay the same.”