How Do You Teach in a Pandemic? Focus on Core Values

Opinion | Social-Emotional Learning

How Do You Teach in a Pandemic? Focus on Core Values

By Kristin Kowalew Justice     Apr 12, 2021

How Do You Teach in a Pandemic? Focus on Core Values

For many years, I listened regularly to the This I Believe podcast, which showcased people from all walks of life sharing the core values that guide their daily lives. Though it has been off the air for quite some time, I still think back to these stories and their poignant reflections. As a young teacher, I also engaged my students in their own This I Believe essays once upon a time.

It can be a useful exercise. Not only are we marking the first anniversary of this global pandemic, but we continue to live within a deeply divided, politically polarized nation, where we bear witness to ongoing police brutality, ensuing protests, and pursuits for racial justice. It seems at all times there is a steady stream of opportunity for reflection on the core values that guide my life.

Teaching through the pandemic, there also has been no shortage of challenges to reflect upon this year. But I would be remiss not to also acknowledge the opportunities with which I, my colleagues and students have been presented. I am extremely lucky to teach in a school that had both the resources and human capital that allowed us to open safely in September—PPE, weekly COVID-19 testing, space and class sizes for physical distancing, and technology to support teaching and learning in a hybrid model. Experts have said loud and clear that children need to be in school. And we have been fortunate enough to allow that to happen safely.

School sure hasn’t been normal, but we’ve made it work and I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished. My seniors have missed out on many milestones; but in my class, I can confidently say that the educational experience I’ve been able to give them in some ways has been better than what I would have likely delivered in a normal year. The pandemic exposed our vulnerabilities and forced me to distill my practice and carefully curate my curriculum to identify the most important content to cover and to employ the most effective activities to do so. This approach necessarily involved falling back on tried and true pedagogical best practices that have guided my teaching practice throughout my career while also using innovative educational technology and creative problem solving to assess and address the needs of the moment.

As I reflect at this juncture in the school year, the most effective pedagogical practices that emerged for me include the following:

Relationships are foundational to everything else. To establish trust, buy-in and truly meet the needs of my students, I first needed to know them, and they needed to know me and one another. I am grateful for Flipgrid videos, which can be moderated and provide a channel of communication for introductions, reflections and check-ins between me and my students privately, but also create an open space for asynchronous dialogue among students. Likewise, PowerSchool discussion boards created a space for introverts to have a voice, especially when even raising a virtual hand or clicking unmute in a virtual meeting space can create psychological barriers that stifle discussion. Google Meet breakout rooms provided an easy and immediate way to create virtual spaces for live connection and collaborative work in small groups.

Building engagement into lessons keeps students invested. Whether throughout a more traditional presentation or an interactive discussion, regularly and intentionally creating moments for student input—responses to questions, personal examples, reactions to images—keeps students tethered to the lesson and increases its effectiveness. In hybrid, fully remote and now with a majority of students in person, I have found Pear Deck to be a lifesaver, both in teacher-led and student self-paced mode, to engage students in review and practice of content.

Learning must be authentic and owned by the students. Allowing the pandemic elephant and current events into the classroom to be seen and find their way into our lessons, discussions and real-world applications empowered all of us, students and teachers alike, to navigate our individual and collective experiences this year, especially when we were feeling most powerless. Focusing on skills—notetaking, critical thinking, research, communication—yields long-term growth and mastery that will serve students well beyond my or any classroom. Project-based learning involving student choice and timely and useful feedback has proven to be far more impactful as drivers of learning than traditional assessments, though the latter have value if they capitalize on student reflection on content and skills and opportunities for relearning.

You probably won’t get there, if you don’t know where you want to go. Backward design—mapping curriculum, units, and lessons intentionally with the end goals in mind—has been essential for survival and good teaching. We’ve had much less instructional time at our disposal this year so there’s really no time to waste. Knowing what content, skills and competencies I wanted students to demonstrate at the end of the course provided a curriculum map, which in turn informed the objectives, assessment and activities I chose to include in each unit and helped me decide what to keep and what to cut (and sometimes what to add) given the circumstances of this unique year.

Return to the big picture, often. To me, my job as an educator is to enable all of my students to develop the core knowledge, skills and disposition to be informed, productive, responsible citizens who will thrive in society—and hopefully transform it in the process. Equity, justice and inclusion is a clear and present priority for the broader educator community. Over the last year, there have been more professional development opportunities to share our collective experiences as we reflect on what we teach, how we teach it and how our schools are organized to see, celebrate and support the holistic well-being of all of our students.

I am grateful for professional learning communities that push me to educate myself and reflect on how to build a curriculum and facilitate my classroom to both reflect the lives and identities of my students and provide windows into the rest of the world. Intentionally threaded through my work this year is assessing how I empower my students (and where can I do more) to be active, engaged citizens who know themselves and have a vision for the life and world they want to inhabit…and can go out and make it. I want them to be critical consumers of information as they seek to understand and confront inequities and injustice. And I am proud that for so many of my students, that vision is clearly a world that is more socially just and anti-racist. The foundational knowledge and skills that students master should allow them to continually and actively access, construct and evaluate new information during the remainder of their lives. Schools must provide safe, nurturing environments that support social-emotional growth and character development, and inspire curiosity and exploration as students develop their identities and vocations.

It truly takes a village. Teaching and learning must be collaborative. Especially in times of crisis, we need one another for support and validation. Students need both to stand on their own and partner with others. Teachers, too, are stronger together, whether as teaching teams, departments, or divisions, engaging in mentoring relationships for personal growth, or just seeking some perspective. Families and communities must rally around students and teachers to support all aspects of the development of our young people. These truths have never been more evident to me than in this year of crisis.

As we seek stability in this moment, let us remain focused on what we already know is true, while harnessing the moment and looking ahead with clear, deliberate vision. This is good teaching, and good living. This, I believe.

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