Back at School: Educators Speak Out about Teaching and Learning in 2020

This school year has been far from what we once considered normal. COVID-19 has drastically shifted the way students learn and teachers teach. Most students are learning remotely at least part of the time, and when children are in school they are wearing masks and staying distant. It’s a challenging time for students, teachers, and families. But amid all these sudden changes, are there opportunities for long-term improvements that would make our schools even better than before the pandemic?  

To find the answer, we went to the experts: educators. Last month, we teamed up with the Education Trust, Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, Massachusetts School Administrators’ Association, Latinos for Education, the Teacher Collaborative, Teach Plus – Massachusetts, and the Teachers’ Lounge on a virtual forum to hear from teachers, school and district staff, and community organizations that work with schools. The number of educators who made time to join us after their busy school day—including 17 who volunteered to facilitate our small group sessions—highlights the dedication and passion of so many in this field.

While there are many challenges for teaching and learning in 2020, this group started by sharing with us the bright spots they’ve seen over the past few months. Many said the obstacles schools have had to overcome during the pandemic have led to more collaboration among teachers and school staff, families, and communities. Others felt that amid the uncertainty of this difficult time, teachers were able to build a stronger connection with students. The group also reported feeling hopeful about the resilience of their students, saying many are engaged and excited to be back to learning again. Some pointed to a silver lining of remote learning: the ability for teachers to more easily individualize lessons and for students to work at their own pace. Finally, educators pointed to the potential benefits of more fully integrating technology with instruction, noting that students and educators have been able to improve skills and strategies for learning.

Many of the educators we heard from felt that the pandemic has left our education system at a crossroads, giving us the opportunity to lean into the changes they felt have been needed for many years. So what are those changes? Participants gathered in small groups to discuss what they feel are the biggest needs for teachers and students over the next few months. Each group’s top priorities were then voted on by all participants. The results are listed here, in order of the number of votes they each received.

-  Focus on racial equity by developing and implementing anti-racist curricula, increasing teacher and student voice in decision making, and fostering collaboration with the community.

-  Rethink accountability by focusing on equity and access and addressing the potential for MCAS to stigmatize low-income and marginalized districts, schools, and students.

-  Commit to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) training by establishing standards and accountability measures to address DEI and implicit bias that can be adopted by all schools.

-  Support families by increasing funding and services to address critical needs like food, housing, health care, and technology, and by connecting schools to essential public services and community resources.

-  Consider new models of schooling by rethinking current approaches to school calendars, structures, and schedules in order to provide more flexible, year-round supports for students, greater access to real-world learning, and more student-centered approaches (ensuring students have greater autonomy, agency, and voice in their education).

-  Provide access to resources by increasing funding for staff to work outside the school day; developing more targeted interventions and remote learning plans for high-need students; and addressing the digital divide in both the short- and long-term.

-  Support whole child development by providing resources, human capital, and time to address trauma; developing standards for social-emotional learning; and supporting student-to-student learning networks (especially amid remote learning).

-  Establish transparent communication by creating clear protocols to share information with educators and families about remote/hybrid learning, encouraging realistic expectations for schools engaged in remote/hybrid learning, and establishing a place to share resources and information.

While this list represents the beliefs of a relatively small group of educators and others in the field, we think it’s an important snapshot of what learning looks like in 2020 and what it can look like in the future.

As the pandemic continues to disrupt our way of life and learning, let’s not lose sight of the silver linings. Sometimes great change can come from our darkest hour and greatest need. Let’s continue to listen to educators—and students and families—about what’s working and not working right now and use those lessons to propel our education system into a future that’s brighter for all students.