Teacher David Tow collaborates with a colleague to review student work.
During a recent class, my freshmen and I were discussing the best ways to engage with the complex world of high school. We talked about how to juggle multiple deadlines, contact their busy and unavailable teachers and balance appealing extracurricular activities with coursework and the omnipresent complication of Covid-19.
This discussion was part of an ongoing conversation about effective study skills and traits. Most of my 13- and 14-year-old students had not set foot in a physical classroom since sixth grade when the pandemic first drove teaching and learning online. The only classroom they had known for the past two years was their own bedroom, dining room or living room. Even those who had some in-person instruction had only reduced coursework.
Suddenly, my students began tearing up. They were overwhelmed. They were frequently up until 11 p.m., midnight, even 1 a.m., doing work that felt, at best, dimly connected to their learning. Things were moving fast, too fast it seemed. It was hard, they said, and it was hard to develop relationships with their teachers, who were themselves reacclimating to in-person learning and increased class sizes.
It seems that our school may not have learned all the lessons of the pandemic.
I worry that we have returned with a vengeance to the model of schooling that treats students as containers to be filled with knowledge and their free time as a free resource for extending the school day. Most important, we have forgotten the reason why a return to in-person learning was so welcome in the first place: It allowed us to be together, learn and solve problems together and collaborate with and in the best interests of students and their communities.
We now have an opportunity to help our educators, schools and districts to learn and do better. Through the educator effectiveness grants, my district has been allocated more than $512,000 from the state of California to improve the professional learning of teachers and staff and create a schooling experience that is more useful, meaningful and humane for students. I see three ways we can make good use of this money.
First, we should further expand and empower the campus- and districtwide professional collaborative networks. Just as many teachers forgot what it felt like to teach in person and how complicated it is to be a student today, many also forgot how to work together. The pivot from remote to in-person means that our many demands of an on-site school day are added to an already expanded list of duties.
For me, such collaboration would entail conversations about the purpose of school, what kind of objectives we can agree on and how best to articulate those to students. It would also include strategies on how to best manage student trauma, anxiety and stress. Our faculty are doing great work helping restart these conversations, and the district has resumed a sweeping process to redevelop our graduate profile, but more sustained and systemic work is needed.
Our school district should continue to build ongoing communities of practice that focus on strategic assignments, overlapping deadlines and shared assessments. Rather than assign students high-stakes work in all classes, we can work to figure out interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary projects like science-based lab reports that become advocacy letters submitted to our local paper in English or combining firsthand historical sources with available census data in statistics to examine population change in the neighborhoods nearby. Fostering regular, collaboratively taught, and co-led lessons that encourage the mixing of classrooms and teachers could be one way to accomplish this.
Next, we should expand the number of teacher-coaches, who serve as curriculum and pedagogy experts across campus. These educators would help to implement standards-based instruction, ensuring that the work students are doing corresponds with key learning objectives.
We can also grow teacher leadership opportunities in other ways. Our district administration has already taken a promising first step by launching a teacher-leader program consisting of teachers and staff across our elementary, middle, and high schools. The program participants are tasked with emphasizing equity in the district and developing standards-based strategies, among other initiatives. More programs like this would help harness existing expertise among our staff and accelerate positive changes for students.
The muscle memory of collaboration runs deep in the district — it remains one of our strengths — but must be supported and exercised. Through substantial investment in professional development, teacher leadership and learning objectives, school leaders will not just have schools that can address the traumatic times in a way marginally better than distance learning but instead offer a quality of learning that reaches a new plateau for what school teaching and learning can be.
Our teachers are working hard and are ready to do more, and the same can be said for students. The key is collaboration and communication to get us all moving in the same direction with a shared vision for the future.
David Tow teaches AP English, honors philosophy and environmental leadership at Terra Linda High School in San Rafael. He is a 2021-2022 Teach Plus California policy fellow.
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