A high school math teacher is recording short lessons on his phone in his basement, using a dry erase board and marker as he explains new math concepts. He posts the videos and then offers one-on-one and small group coaching during his designated class time as well as before and after regular school hours for anyone who wants to join. He jokes with students and asks about their families as he supports their math learning.
Another high school teacher, at this same school, told his students, “I’m not comfortable teaching online. I run a discussion-based class, and I can’t do that now.” He sends home weekly Civics reading assignments and requires kids to read the assignments and write summaries. It’s five weeks into remote learning, and he hasn’t been online once with his students, despite his administration’s requirement to do so.
A team of second grade teachers at one school meets several times a week to plan together for their students. They are offering rich and varied choice-based activities to support their students’ learning, and they’re meeting with students online and by phone on a regular basis.
At this same school, a third grade teacher was copying giant packets of worksheets for all students to do—most of which were clearly busywork. The principal told her to stop and gave her suggestions of other ways to support at-home learning. Instead, this teacher emailed packets of handouts to parents and told them to print them at home (even though many families don’t have printers). She is not calling her students or utilizing the online platform the school district is using.
What’s going on? Why are we seeing such dramatically different responses from teachers in the same schools—teachers who are supporting students in similar grades and with similar demographic profiles? How is it that some teachers are pivoting so quickly while others aren’t?
What Are We Learning?
As I have talked with school and district leaders, given podcast and video interviews, and watched my own two children adapt to remote learning, one question keeps surfacing: “What are we learning from our current situation?” Another version of this question is a bit more specific: “What are teachers doing that is working, and what isn’t working?” It’s taken me a while to sort out what I think (so far, anyway) is perhaps my biggest take-away from the shift to at-home learning. My current answer: Let’s not confuse what or how we teach with why we teach.
What Is Your Why?
When you think about your vision or purpose as an educator, what comes to mind? What’s most important to you? What do you most value?
This is a question that’s important for us to answer both individually, and collectively. When I ask this question of schools I work with, the answers are remarkably consistent from school to school. Most educators believe that schools should be safe, supportive, and nurturing places where kids are respected and valued. Most believe that learning should be joyful and interesting. Most believe that kids want to do well, both academically and socially—even the kids who often struggle.
Here’s one example of positive beliefs surfaced at a school I’ve worked with. These belief statements help guide educators at this school in all they do:
So, let’s let our positive beliefs about children and learning guide what we do. Let’s remember that what we teach, and how we teach, are vehicles for getting to why we teach. The what and the how are means to an end, not ends in and of themselves. This understanding can help us pivot our what and how in times of change.
One Shift to Make
Here’s an example of how this shift in thinking might play out. Let’s say you have a unit coming up on the Napoleonic Wars. If you lead with your what and how, you might think, “Okay. I need to teach kids about the Napoleonic Wars. They all need to learn these 20 facts and concepts. I need to figure out how to get them to pass the test I used last year.”
What if instead, your planning was guided by your positive beliefs and goals for students? Instead you might think, “Okay, kids really need an ally and a champion right now—I need to connect with them and help them connect with each other. I also believe that kids want to and are capable of learning. How can I support those goals through the topic of the Napoleonic Wars?”
Now, instead of passing kids information to read and facts to memorize (and trying to swing the logistics of administering a test when they’re not with you), you might pivot. Instead, you could send everyone links to a few articles and videos, and have kids pick a couple to explore. Have them generate their own questions they want to discuss and facilitate 10-minute small group discussions about their questions.
When we lead our planning with our what (What do kids need to know?) and our how (How do I normally teach this?) it’s harder to think creatively—it’s harder to adapt. When we lead with our why (Why do I teach? Why does this matter in the long run?), then we can view the what and how as vehicles for accomplishing our mission. Will this solve all of the challenges we’re facing right now? Of course not. But our energy will be more positive, and we’re more likely to support learning that connects with what we know kids really need.