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For School Leaders, Five Broad Goals for the Fall

To guide fall planning, a new report gives a close-up view of the challenges teachers faced in the spring
Magnifying glass and question marks

As schools across the country shifted to remote learning, teachers expressed concern about how to ensure that students were supported and empowered. According to one survey, 83% of teachers felt the transition made it harder for them to do their jobs.

"Re-opening schools is not merely a technical problem; it's a human problem and a community problem," explains Justin Reich, MIT instructor and director of the Teaching Systems Lab. "The teaching profession is fueled by the warm feelings of camaraderie that come from classroom learning, and those feelings are often diminished online."

To understand, what, exactly the job of a teacher looks like during a global pandemic and what problems they shared, Reich and a team of researchers conducted interviews with 40 teachers across the country, across subject areas, grade levels, and school settings.

Three common challenges emerged from their report:

  1. Student motivation: Teaching students through a screen often removed the immediacy and direct connection that happens with in-person instruction, leaving students feeling disengaged and unmotivated.  
  2. Loss and burnout: Many teachers reported feelings of loss, disorientation, and isolation as they worked from home, away from colleagues and students.
  3. Exacerbating inequity: Teachers reported that the access students had to basic resources and supports at home varied greatly so some students could continue learning while others worried about getting a meal.

>> Read the full report, “What's Lost, What's Left, What's Next: Lessons Learned from the Lived Experiences of Teachers during the 2020 Novel Coronavirus Pandemic.”

Five Considerations for the Fall

As schools make their plans for the fall, leaders need to understand how best to support their teachers and, if continuing with remote instruction, how to address these challenges. Policymakers and school leaders should keep in mind these five design considerations, according to the report:

  1. Center equity in your reopening plan. Schools have rallied to build support networks for students and families. As life returns to “normal,” schools need to continue to build out this support — addressing housing and food insecurity and physical and mental health as an integral part of learning. “As educators, we must do our part by building into our reopening plans a fundamental commitment to our least well-served students,” writes the team.
  2. Focus on building relationships. While it may be tempting to dive into content to make up for lost time, a sense of community must be in place for learning to happen, whether remotely or in-person. For schools planning remote instruction, allow teachers to experiment with different platforms and tools to identify the best practices around developing online learning communities.
  3. Address student motivation. Some schools may be able to use this time to evaluate the role of extrinsic motivators like grades. “They may be able to use the pandemic to emphasize pedagogical models that engage students more through deep relationships, learner agency, and compelling instruction and learning rather than the typical toolkit of compliance,” the team explains. However, not all schools will be in such a position. Consider as well putting emphasis on and reorienting grades around the learning process rather than compliance.
  4. Address staff motivation and burnout. Administrators need to make sure teachers take care of themselves. Acknowledge what may be lost in remote or part-time instruction. Set clear boundaries around time expectations. Build in time for teachers to socialize and collaborate.
  5. Mitigate uncertainty. Both students and teachers need stable routines and clear expectations, however uncertainty around school reopening requires flexibility. Start a conversation with all stakeholders about this. “Schools will not get all of their reopening decisions right, and effective leaders need to work with faculty and other stakeholders to experiment and make iterative improvement without driving teachers, students, and families to frustration with constant change,” write the researchers.


Building a High-Quality Remote or Hybrid Learning Experience this Fall

Watch our 30-minute Education Now webinar with MIT's Justin Reich, HGSE's Jal Mehta, and Boston Public Schools teacher Neema Avashia — a useful discussion of how schools can navigate complexity, shape their priorities, and define their core values. Among the takeaways:

  • To lead with equity, make sure the needs of your most disadvantaged community members are primary. 
  • Host stakeholder design meetings, where students, parents, educators, and leaders can explore challenges, define goals, and find news ways of working.
  • Avoid trying to squeeze in all the topics that weren't covered last spring. Zero in on the most critical things. Focus on the parts of school that students love — to build relationships and engagement.

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