It’s easy to list the ways the coronavirus pandemic has negatively impacted students, teachers, and learning. The real challenge is finding any positive aspect. But there are actually silver linings. Here are five that I think are important.
Early into the 14 weeks of home learning this past spring, I saw a big shift in my students. When I would give an assignment, many students would run with it. If I asked for two Google Slides, I would get six. If I asked for two paragraphs, I got several. Students would replicate projects on another topic of their choosing, innovatively exploring their interests. With fewer distractions came greater focus on self-driven learning. Students’ sense of freedom and responsibility empowered their learning and boosted their pride. As confidence grew, they expressed the joy of learning and wanted more.
Sadly, equity is a topic mostly focused on in certain arenas such as teacher leadership organizations or nonprofits. This pandemic shone a spotlight on the existing disparities in every corner of education, as if the arena lights were turned up at the end of a show. The digital divide immediately became evident as students were sent home without the resources necessary for distance learning. Soon, fragile learners began to struggle more than their peers in the less structured and supported learning environments. Food insecurity became a central topic that needed to be addressed urgently. When grades were due, all stakeholders began to debate the role of varying degrees of parental support in student achievement. These conversations are now leading to policy changes on a scale we have not seen before. One indicator is the discussion around access to Wi-Fi as a basic need instead of a luxury item.
For years, teachers have been charting their own professional learning experiences. Many have spent valuable time reflecting on their pedagogical choices and exploring better ways to reach educational goals. Technology has been at the forefront of our minds as we prepare students for jobs that do not yet exist. Yet while many teachers have embraced teacher agency and technology, many others have remained steadfast in their traditional methods. Suddenly, however, the latter group was forced to reflect and change. Throughout the educational ecosystem, leaps of progress were occurring. In-person meetings were transformed to virtual formats, or informative emails. Families could now participate no matter where they were.
Teaching and learning saw great changes. Outdated, irrelevant assignments were abandoned or updated. Student engagement became a priority, driving teachers to examine and improve instructional methods. Professional learning was overhauled and focused only on what was most relevant. Collaboration, innovation, and creativity were required as everyone became a first-year teacher overnight. No one alive had experience teaching during a pandemic. There was a general sense of “roll up your sleeves and let’s solve this together.”
Like equity, social-emotional learning tends to be a niche interest for teacher leaders and guidance counselors. With the pandemic, the concept of Maslow before Bloom has really experienced an uptick. Focusing on basic needs now includes making sure our students are emotionally ready to learn. Because of this pandemic, trauma-informed teaching is now a universal skill that all teachers should learn. What is revolutionary is the expansion of this conversation, which has traditionally concerned students and now includes educators and parents. It has been said that a teacher’s working conditions are a student’s learning conditions. With teaching and learning now happening in home environment, the family is part of the classroom as well. We are redefining the educational ecosystem and the need for emotional support for the whole community. This will benefit students in the long run.
One last shift in school culture has been in the area of grading. Many spirited discussions have centered on the topic of report cards and grades. A teacher’s philosophy on assessment and grades is usually established early in their career. It doesn’t often get challenged and reexamined. But the pandemic has led many of us to reflect on core beliefs as to how we assess learning. What role and purpose does grading have in the equation? How can we be fair in grading when the degree of support provided in each student’s home is so varied? These conversations are ongoing, and the debates are far from over, but they are happening, and that is a good thing.
The pandemic is something I never would have wished for; it has cost me a lot personally that can never be restored. I have seen suffering, fear, and trauma, but as in all things, there is a choice to find the positives.
Michael Dunlea became a teacher to make students feel valued, become empowered and live extraordinary lives. This is his 18th year and he teaches 3rd grade in Tabernacle, NJ.
Michael received the Presidential Award of Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching and is National Board Certified in Early Childhood. He is a 2020 NEA Global Learning Fellow. He was also selected as a 2020 Global Teacher Prize Top 50 Finalist.
Michael has served as an advisor to the NJ Department of Education. He is on the New Jersey Education Association’s state Elections Committee and serves as an NJEA state delegate to the NEA Representative Assembly.
Michael founded the non-profit Stafford Teachers And Residents Together (START), when Hurricane Sandy hit where he lives with his wife and his 3 children. He was President of Alliance for a Living Ocean, ALO from 2012-2019.
He holds a Bachelor's Degree from Thomas Edison State College, a Masters Degree in Educational Technology from New Jersey City University and a Masters Degree in Teacher Leadership from Mount Holyoke College.