The evening before the first day of school for students, a high school teacher opened their district email to discover that the schedule for International Baccalaureate (IB) students had changed.
That new schedule is also layered onto the tentative district-wide pandemic schedule that has four color-coded waves of students, divided by last names, who attend one day a week Monday through Thursday with all students remote on Fridays.
This teacher was distraught. To tears and hopelessness.
This teacher has already expressed what I am hearing and reading across the U.S.: Teaching has become unmanageable, and the current teacher shortage is about to take an even greater hit with even more teachers leaving the profession.
To demonstrate that the last-minute changes and the complex system mixing face-to-face (F2F) with remote teaching are, in fact, nearly impossible, this teacher created a mind-numbingly elaborate chart and shared it with the principal.
This is the new normal for K-12 teachers in the U.S. An already nearly impossible profession has been made even more bureaucratic and dehumanizing by the sheer weight of managing all the moving parts.
As a college professor—a teaching profession dramatically less stressful and complex than K-12 teaching (which I did for 18 years)—I have also resorted to color-coding my rosters in an effort to manage that I now have first-year students and seniors on campus and in class (except for those choosing remote learning all semester) as well as sophomores and juniors who are remote until September 14.
On any day, also, students may be remote due to health concerns or quarantine.
My class sessions are a mix of F2F students (no more than 12) and students joining class remotely by zoom, their tiny images in blocks on the computer screen and projected on the drop-down screen at the front of the class.
I am trying to teach and make some sort of contact with both groups; the masked F2F students are disorienting, and the tiny images of students on the screen give a whole new meaning to “remote.”
After the first few days of class, I am also realizing that discussion-based and student-centered teaching are essentially impossible. Our masks make talking and hearing a struggle as we are remaining 6 feet apart, and in order to maintain the social distancing requirements, I cannot ask students to form small groups and interact.
Like many K-12 teachers as school resumes this fall, I must admit that for the first time in 37 years of teaching, I find my work as a teacher something I dread.
And I mean the actual classroom teaching, not just all the other aspects of being a teacher that have always, frankly, been mind-numbing (grading, standards and testing, meetings, etc.).
For K-12 and higher education teachers and professors, we must survive the current pandemic pedagogy (many of the conditions are the only options we have even as they are not good options for teaching and learning), but we must also begin to imagine what the new normal will be on the other side of all this.
When I moved to higher education 19 years ago, one of the first things I witnessed was my university debating a change to the academic calendar, the weekly course schedule, and the curriculum (the general education requirements). This university had a long history of a three-session academic year (students taking three 4-credit courses in fall and spring along with two 4-credit courses in the middle winter session), and students attended all classes five days a week (similar to high school).
This debate took months, but one of the most hotly contested issues was moving from five days a week to the traditional MWF and TTh scheduling found at most colleges.
Many faculty seemed very committed to seat time, acknowledging a belief that learning was essentially grounded in face-to-face instruction. I found that reasoning flawed then, and supported the change.
However, the debate did highlight that the structures we choose for schooling profoundly impacts how we teach and how (and if) students learn.
The pandemic, on the other hand, has foisted upon educators at all levels changes that have not been debated and are often unwanted.
I had to teach my graduate summer course online (with no input on the decision) and have been forced to put all my courses on the university’s course management program that I have always avoided for ideological and pedagogical reasons.
Most educators have essentially no choice except to participate in remote programs (such as zoom) that raise significant questions about personal data and instructional practices.
As I have discussed about moving to remote teaching last spring, there are elements of pandemic pedagogy that match well my practices in so-called normal circumstances, notably individualized instruction grounded in feedback on student artifacts of learning (such as essays).
Ending a well-established course with pandemic pedagogy is quite different than beginning one that way.
I cannot accept that the Covid-19 pandemic will be on balance a positive moment for education—or humanity. The pandemic’s cost to human life and health far outweigh the value of education.
But that ship has sailed; we cannot undo the shift that the pandemic has forced on teaching as a profession, on learning, and on being a human.
It seems certain that what comes next will not be a return to that former normal. It seems certain that we should not want to return to that normal.
However, we should begin the transition to the new normal, and we must do that intentionally.
To accomplish a bit of alchemy, then, we must embrace the pause the pandemic has afforded us in order to reimagine the following:
- The role of F2F instruction (seat time) and whole-group class sessions.
- The consequences of inequity grounded in race, socioeconomic status, gender, etc., for teaching and learning.
- The roles of teacher and student in the teaching/learning dynamic.
- The purposes and forms of assessment and grades.
- The spaces (real and virtual) for teaching and learning.
- The funding for and costs of schooling.
- The professional autonomy of teachers and professors.
- The academic calendar.
- The value and problems associated with technology.
- The significance of privacy and personal agency for teachers/professors and students.
With almost four decades of experience teaching and a doctorate in curriculum and instruction, I must emphasize that these have always been the issues we should have been critically unpacking and reimagining.
The universe has given us a terrible pause in normal, but the pandemic has not taken away our possibilities to create a new normal that will be a better realization of the ideals we often express about the importance of education.
As I have often argued, education in the U.S. is not a failure; however, we have mostly failed the promise of education.
Ideally, I want to sit in the same room with my students and see their uncovered faces. I want to watch and listen as they construct their own meaning and knowledge for themselves.
I do very much miss some of the pre-pandemic world of teaching and learning that was only five or six months ago.
But I am also waiting on a sense of hope for what comes next, a new normal post-pandemic; as Maggie Smith imagines, “This place could be beautiful,/right? You could make this place beautiful.”