You don’t need me to tell you how difficult this year has been. Teachers have had a front-row seat to the changes, unease, and insecurity that this global pandemic has caused. One day, we’re teaching in our comfortable classrooms, following a familiar routine. The next day, we’re at home, wondering how we would be able to acquire the basic necessities for daily life while attempting to teach virtually, unprepared and learning new technology on the fly. Our work and home lives were upended while we fought an invisible battle for our health. There were so many changes in such a short amount of time. Many of us felt scared, stressed, overwhelmed, and a multitude of other negative feelings.
Here we are, though, after one of the most unique years we will likely encounter in our teaching careers. We’ve had to learn new things quickly and shift our entire way of teaching while continuing to be flexible with our methods. This year-long journey has been difficult yet rewarding, and we have seen students achieve success in a variety of ways. We’ve all been changed because of this “unprecedented” year, and while I’m certain many of us are ready to leave this period behind, there are lessons we’ve learned that will stay with us for the remainder of our time in the classroom.
Of the many words that have defined our experience over the past year—adapt, challenge, pivot, distancing—adapt is the one that recurred perhaps most often. Adapting was absolutely necessary for teachers to continue to provide instruction and maintain connections with students. It was how we attempted to take a classroom environment and put it online, literally overnight in many cases. At first, the notion of adapting our instruction seemed impossible and overwhelming. Do you remember those first few weeks of planning? Adapting your instruction using digital tools that you’d never used before and websites that your students had never visited before felt so improbable. How would it ever work? Yet somehow, it did, and we found our first bits of success.
We adapted to online instruction using tools such as Zoom and Google Meet. Once students were comfortable working the mute button and webcam, we adapted how to interact with them. Gone were the days of leaning in together during a read-aloud or turning to talk to partners during a math warm-up. We had to teach students how to use hand signals or raise their “Zoom hand” to share their ideas. Eventually they learned, and we started talking to each other again. We then adapted how we assigned and collected work. We may have used tools such as Seesaw or Google Classroom before, but not every day. We taught students how to check their feeds and submit work. While we received many blank assignments or watched kids play with their pets instead of talking about their math problems, they did get the hang of it. We started seeing work, providing feedback, and monitoring growth.
Now that we have adapted almost every aspect of our day in the classroom to an online version, we have effectively doubled our teacher toolbox. Some of us may have been intimidated by technology before this year, but now we have these tools to reach students. We have discovered many engaging websites and found a multitude of online resources. These “adaptations by necessity” have given us new ways to reach students. We have grown as teachers, and because of that, we have succeeded.
What is it they say about the best-laid plans? Teachers are used to making adjustments to our instruction. Feeding off of the students, we are able to take their lead and adjust our discussions, activities, and partnerships according to their needs. However, the era of pandemic teaching forced us to adjust much more often than we had in the past. We would revise plans and put them in place, and then new changes, protocols, or guidelines would force us to adjust again. For some of us, it would involve minor changes to our schedule, Zoom groups, or Google Classroom activities. At the start of 2021, some teachers left their virtual classrooms and returned to in-person ones, once again having to adjust and reconsider how we taught in that space before March 2020. The frequency with which we were asked to readjust left many educators reeling, and it felt like every day brought another change. Adjusting to change became part of our routine. Flexibility wasn’t just a desired trait, it was necessary to survive.
At times, the constant adjustments and changes have been stressful. But we did it, and we proved to ourselves that it was possible. We have found ways to adjust our lessons to reach our students, and our plans are now inherently flexible. We are able to look at a topic or unit and see a variety of ways to teach it: in a whole group on a rug, in small groups virtually, with one or two peers in a cohort, or as independent learners online. Despite sometimes suffering from “adjustment whiplash,” teachers and students have found success.
After our experience this year, we now realize that our students’ success won’t always be connected to mastery of a standard. Through all of the adaptations and adjustments, they have learned differently, and we have taught them differently. However, we are learning that it’s okay to do things differently. With that realization comes the idea that achievement may look different as well. How will we measure success now?
Before the pandemic, for example, we may have scored students on a rubric to determine their understanding of a math standard, or we may have used work samples or checklists to look for growth on writing metrics. Now, we may notice and measure growth in other ways: Seeing writing prompts turned in with an enthusiastic voice-over can help us determine if a student has made a connection to the content; hearing students unmute and feel confident explaining their thinking during a word problem can show us their understanding of the math goal; and observing students having conversations with friends they have never seen in person gives us insight into their ability to interact with peers.
Educators may still measure success by percentages and scores, but this experience has given us a different insight into our students’ achievement. Just getting them to show up in a virtual meeting or turn in completed assignments is a win. They’ve achieved the biggest goal we have for them: confidently sharing their thoughts and efforts with us and their peers. Even if districts don’t pass sweeping reforms to grading or make lasting changes to teacher evaluations, we can measure achievement for ourselves and our students in ways that support personal growth. Without a single numerical score, we can see success.
While nothing about teaching in a pandemic is easy or simple, it has allowed us to see ourselves in ways we may never have before. I see myself as a more capable teacher, ready to adapt to different scenarios. I see my students as much more resilient learners than I previously thought, able to adjust and learn in a variety of new ways. I see our system as one that must consider the whole child—and teacher, for that matter—when measuring success. I see a world that once felt so predictable and comfortable as one that is much more uncertain, but in a way that has prepared me to be more flexible. My hope for all educators is that through all of the uncertainty, you and your students have found success, were able to adapt to new methods, and have persisted through all the changes. And that you never have to hear the word “unprecedented” again.