A recent McREL white paper co-authored by high school students highlighted student voice and perspectives during the COVID-19 pandemic. One of the students’ most compelling observations was that teachers who were engaging before COVID continued to be engaging during online and hybrid instruction, and vice-versa. The difference between the two kinds of teacher, the students observed, wasn’t content mastery, but adaptability. Those who made a consistent effort to find their feet, identify strategies that worked, and adapt to students’ needs had the greatest impact:
Ultimately, teachers who supported students through the global pandemic rather than focusing exclusively on class lessons during virtual learning were viewed as more engaging by students.
As I look forward to the return to school this fall, I can’t help but wonder how these highly effective teachers will continue to impact students. What did they learn during the pandemic? What new instructional practices did they try, and which ones will they continue? Are there things that they did pre-pandemic that they will modify or remove from their practice altogether?
In talking with teachers over the last year, it became clear to me that the most effective ones were able to transition their instruction to a virtual or hybrid format by being flexible and open-minded. Here are some of the things they learned, that all teachers might consider as school resumes.
1. Use technology to individualize instruction and track progress.
Teachers who transitioned to remote learning most successfully did so by moving beyond the apps, games, and writing tools that the tech ostensibly was provided for, to find their own ways of using it to promote engagement and self-directed learning, and to track student progress.
For example, early-childhood teachers taught students how to take and share pictures of their work and use the recording feature to self-reflect. These submissions then were used as formative assessment to individualize instruction the next day, plan breakout rooms, and track progress. Eventually, these were also used as pieces of a student portfolio to share with parents.
At the secondary level, rather than calling on a few students to check for understanding, teachers asked the class to record and send a reflection, think aloud while solving a math problem, or answer an exit-poll question, thus getting a sense of how every student had learned the material and what each student needed. The point was not to learn to use the tool, but to learn to use it to demonstrate learning and plan next steps.
2. Encourage active listening.
In a virtual environment, students had to learn to be patient and listen to each other. They had to listen for cues to know what’s an appropriate amount of wait time and avoid talking over one another. Most importantly, they had to listen to what other people said to know when their idea was new or adding onto someone else’s.
These are all desirable behaviors in the classroom, but it took a little struggle with cameras, mute buttons, and virtual backgrounds to remind many of us just how important they are. When school resumes in the fall, effective teachers will continue to foster the skill of active listening.
3. Teach to the one.
Along with supporting active listening, virtual learning environments helped effective teachers engage every student. In the classroom, it’s often too easy for some students to get “lost.” These are usually the students who do what they must without drawing attention to themselves; however, that doesn’t always mean these students understand the concepts being taught.
Being online, in a grid format, effective teachers noticed that they could see everyone without other distractions. This allowed them to keep track of student participation so they could be sure to call on every student, engage them differently, or circle back to them later. These teachers used a variety of strategies, both virtual and physical, to identify and engage the one.
When effective teachers return to the classroom, they now have a new understanding of what students can and can’t do when it comes to listening and attending to other students. They will set expectations and teach skills early, so they can continue to engage each student. They will continue using a variety of strategies, both virtual and physical, to engage the one student who may have slipped under the radar otherwise.
4. Try new instructional methods.
Prior to COVID-19, many teachers started using pre-made videos or flipcharts to teach. Although these are incredible resources, they were starting to be overused and, in some cases, became boring, repetitive, and unengaging. When students first started virtual learning in March of 2020, many teachers fell back on these resources as a means of survival, which was understandable.
However, effective teachers spent the summer of 2020 planning new approaches to virtual instruction. Some worked on their ability to better use virtual tools such as the whiteboard, poll, response icons, and breakout rooms. Others collaborated and found ways for students to use resources from home to do hands-on learning—for example, using toy cars and kitchen tools to demonstrate the laws of physics. Still others planned ways to differentiate what students could turn in as a final evaluation based on their interests and resources. And others used flipped classrooms or project-based learning as completely new methods of instruction.
When effective teachers return to school in the fall, they will have spent this summer reflecting on the new strategies they tried and assessing their effectiveness. They will find ways to use technology as a tool, when it’s the best tool for the job. And they will take their old instructional methods and modify them with the new ones to meet the needs of students.
5. Forget the “should haves” and look for growth.
Many teachers are anxious that they won’t know where students are in their arc of learning when they return. However, effective teachers know that every school year begins with this unknown.
Struggling teachers may fret about students being behind in their learning. They may complain that students “should have been” or “should have learned.” Effective teachers won’t be worrying about the “should haves.” They’ll instead be focused on growth. They’ll ask where a student is now and set goals for their learning during the year. They’ll use formal and informal assessments to track progress and decide what a student needs next. They will focus on that fact that no matter where a student is with their learning at the start of each school day, they should aim for growth by the last bell.
These effective teachers will have also realized that to support their students’ growth, they need to understand the instructional standards for grades or subjects other than their own. They’ll have spent time reading and learning so they know the prerequisite concepts, skills, and strategies that students may be missing, while also looking ahead for those students who may be ready for that. These teachers are ready to take students from where they are to where they want to be.
6. Rethink small group learning.
Most teachers were using small group instruction before the pandemic impacted schools, but were they getting as much out of this tactic as they could have? Small group instruction is one of the best ways I know to offer targeted support to students, but too often the groups are based on homogeneous ability, they stay the same all year, and students have difficulty learning not to interrupt the teacher.
During virtual instruction, many teachers had to use breakout rooms to meet with small groups of students, shedding light on the hurdles mentioned above. Students wanted to work with new classmates and teachers wanted to move beyond simple, immediate feedback so students would learn to listen carefully to instructions and use their own resources to solve problems.
From this experience, effective teachers will start this fall preparing for small group instruction in new ways. They may consider new ways to group students; perhaps they will use both skills-based grouping (where students are grouped to learn the same skill no matter their achievement level) and ability-based grouping (where students are grouped by achievement level). Or perhaps they will mix students diversely for certain activities. These teachers will start the year trusting that students can be independent learners and find their own solutions.
7. Keep involving parents.
When school shifted to virtual and hybrid formats, parents and caregivers took on a greater role in their children’s education. In many ways, they became true partners with classroom teachers. Parents were asked to do everything from creating quiet learning environments to correcting papers, providing school supplies, and reteaching concepts. After the last 16 months it’s fair to say that parents now know their children in a whole new way. Many understand them as learners for the first time. And many will probably have questions and opinions about the things that will support their student this fall.
Although this news may seem daunting, effective teachers are ready to maintain the partnership with parents. They may start the year with parent conferences (or a parent survey) earlier than usual, in hopes of learning what and how their students have been learning at home. They will ask parents to share what they learned about their student and get their opinion about the best ways to support learning. Effective teachers may also open their classrooms to parents on a consistent basis so parents can continue to participate in their child’s learning. Additionally, these teachers may start the year sending home weekly newsletters that include both what students are learning and how parents can support them at home. This newsletter may include academic strategies (start at the top and work left to right), parenting strategies (let your kids try—it’s OK if it’s not perfect), and social-emotional strategies (give your child a 15-minute brain break after school) to ensure that parents can continue to be strong partners in their child’s education.
8. Find ways to say yes.
Schools have their rules and can sometimes be unyielding when students or parents seek exceptions. However, during the pandemic, the most effective teachers found ways to say yes more often to support students. Perhaps it was to a student who needed to take a test at a time when their house was quiet. Or perhaps it was to band students who wanted to play their instruments during class. Or perhaps it was to a first-grade student who simply wanted to show the class their new pet bunny. These “yesses” didn’t mean teachers were pushovers; they were often accompanied by expectations. But the point is, they found a way to say yes: Yes, you can take the test later tonight (and you will have to log into Canvas so I can be sure you’re working independently). Yes, we can rearrange the room and get bell covers so we can play instruments during class. Yes, if your dad can help you, you can show us your new bunny at the end of class today.
When effective teachers return to school, they will know that rules and expectations are important and necessary. However, they will also remember how often they were able to find ways to say yes. They will remember to see students beyond just learners but as people who need to hear “yes” sometimes.
9. Pay attention to soft skills.
One of the saddest (and least true) things I’ve heard is, “Students haven’t learned anything during COVID.” They may have some unfinished learning, but that hardly means they’ve learned nothing! In fact, although COVID-19 took many things away from us, it did some of the work for us in teaching soft skills to students. For years, teachers have tried to create situations that help students develop and nurture skills like resilience, initiative, and problem-solving; then the pandemic forced everyone to learn those exact skills. For example, because more learning was done asynchronously, students had to become self-directed, independent learners (or gain the insight to know that this isn’t their strength).
As students return to school, effective teachers will find ways to determine which soft skills students have developed and which they still need to work on. These skills won’t show up on a standardized test, yet they will help students be more successful learners now and in the future. Therefore, although there is no simple assessment or quiz to gather this data, effective teachers will create opportunities for students to show how they have developed skills like innovation, curiosity, flexibility, multitasking, creativity, collaboration, adaptability, the ability to overcome obstacles, and productive persistence. These skills don’t come without practice, so effective teachers will also commit to cultivating opportunities for students to fail forward, learning from their mistakes in order to develop stronger skills for next time.
10. Foster curiosity.
In Out of Curiosity, author Bryan Goodwin notes, “Not only does curiosity prompt our exploration of the world around us, but also our willingness to connect with others and appreciate their perspectives. … Imagine for a moment what it might look like if we shifted our conversations in schools, workplaces, news feeds, and backyard barbecues from preconceived notions of what’s wrong to open-minded shared exploration of what ifs.”
2020 opened conversations about people’s backgrounds, science, and health. It surfaced concerns about equity. It made disparities between income and education more obvious. And unlike past generations, students were at the center of it. They heard reports, or experienced firsthand, loss from COVID-19, riots in the streets, and inequity in educational resources. As school begins this fall, ignoring this reality may be difficult.
Effective teachers know that although these can be heavy topics, curiosity in them is natural. Effective teachers also know that some ways are better than others to address these topics. Consistent class meetings that support student social-emotional learning is one way to do this. Goodwin suggests that conversations about compassionate curiosity and respectfully agreeing to disagree could be taught during these meetings. Additionally, teaching curiosity thinking by asking simple “why” questions is something a teacher can do to support students. Teachers can also plan project-based learning opportunities that support the unique learning path of each student. No matter what the specifics, effective teachers will find a way to foster students’ curiosity.
No matter how much experience or skill a teacher has, this upcoming school year will be like no other. It will undoubtedly ask more of teachers as they try to pinpoint the progress, needs, and abilities of students. However, effective teachers are preparing to take this new year on by doing what they have always done: identifying new instructional strategies that meet the needs of each student. Although this list of ideas and strategies has not been exhaustive, I hope that they’ll help teachers effectively engage with and nurture learning and growth in every student.
Meagan W. Taylor is a managing consultant at McREL International, where she supports educator effectiveness and early learning for the REL Pacific program. Previously she was an elementary school teacher and an educational consultant in professional development and instructional coaching.