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What We Can Learn From Educators in the Pandemic: Remote Teaching and Learning Guides

(This is a guest post by Rebecca O’Neill, executive director of the Robertson Center at Success Academy. She previously served as Vice President of Communications at Teach For American and Vice President of Pro-Social Initiatives at CIVIC. She completed her graduate work at Columbia University’s Institute for Research in African American studies, where she focused on the intellectual history of race and racial injustice.)

Across the country, educators are headed “back” to school. In some places, that means masks and plexiglass. In others, it means video calls and chat boxes. Everywhere, it means an approaching September unlike any before. 

When the crisis first hit, educators scrambled to respond, and schools took an almost cup-of-sugar-like approach to sharing resources and ideas: “Here, try this;” “Can I borrow some of that?” Now, months in, with a fresh school year underway, the strategies we all hoped would be stop-gaps stick with us. Consider, for example, the number of coast-to-coast kindergarteners who will have their very first school experience from behind a screen –– nervous walks down colorful hallways replaced by primers on how to ‘mute’ and ‘unmute.’ This, suffice it to say, is an entirely different ball game. 

Last week, to support principals and teachers in this very strange, very new normal, Success Academy released a set of “2.0” resources for K-12 remote teaching and learning. Among them: sample schedules, tech guides, virtual community building ideas, and a set of emerging instructional best practices, now informed by months of teaching from afar. Like it or not, we all know more about this world than we ever planned to –– both about what’s good for kids, and about what works best for the time- and energy-strapped educators working to keep them engaged, learning, and well. 

“Across resources, we aim for simple, clear, customizable,” said Stacey Gershkovich, Managing Director of Sharing at the Robertson Center, which offers free programs for educators and parents. “No school community is exactly the same, but none is entirely unique either. We always aim for that sweet spot of universality and adaptability, where educators have what they need, then are freed up to focus on what only they can do.”

The tools land at a particularly high-stakes moment. Every day, as well-resourced parents arrange for pods and private tutors, school districts and networks scramble to meet a full, complex set of needs: from academic and social-emotional, to nutritional and technological. As they do, it feels like we’re watching the educational opportunity gap widen, in real time, right before our eyes. And meanwhile, teachers must teach. Their already hard work somehow, suddenly just that much harder. 

And yet, in precisely this group, we also see glimmers of hope – perhaps even a few lessons for the future. One teacher, Alison Bergman, who leads elementary school science for Success Academy Harlem 6 here in NYC, recalls her students’ reaction to the chance to watch her… wait for it… make a sandwich. 

“Being at home offers a unique opportunity to integrate your home life into your teaching,” she said, “Pets, lunch, your kitchen –– these quirky, authentic moments offer up a real source of joy.” 

Other teachers note how being “in” their students’ homes has taken their relationships with parents to levels they never could have imagined. Many also remark on how, freed from the logistical demands of a traditional school day, they have more time for 1:1 and small group instruction –– the chance to go deep with kids.  

And, on the other side of the screen, parents see this, too. Eavesdropping on FaceTimes and Zoom calls, they hear conversations between their kids and teachers who really know them –– laughing, asking interesting questions, investing young people in the power of their own hearts, minds and efforts. Serene Jones, president of the Union Theological Seminary, wrote once about the “agile, insistent persistence of grace in our midst.” Surely, this is who she meant. 

In the search for silver linings, this new-found front row-seat to the science and magic of great teaching stands among them (“Been homeschooling a 6-year-old and 8-year-old for one hour and 11 minutes,” tweeted Shonda Rhimes in the earliest days of remote learning. “Teachers deserve to make a billion dollars a year. Or a week.”). We’re also lucky to have been reminded, however painfully, of the central, organizing force schools play not just in the lives of families, but for our society writ large. Once we get this crisis in the rear view, we’ll be well served to remember this –– to keep in mind how much we rely on schools, and how much schools rely on us. 

“Hope,” said James Baldwin, “is invented every day.” Here’s to the teachers, principals, counselors, coaches, and administrators –– our national corps, these days, of inventors.  

What do you think?

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