Jennifer Underwood 2021 Louisiana State Teacher of the Year Semi-Finalist
Thoughts on Teaching During the COVID-19 Pandemic
“Great innovation only happens when people aren’t afraid to do things differently”- George Cantor.
As a high school science teacher getting ready to welcome students to my classroom, I find myself thinking about that quote by Cantor. It has always been a favorite quote, but it seems especially relevant to teachers now as the COVID-19 pandemic has created an environment for great innovation. Necessary changes to school operations have required everyone to move away from habits and toward new solution-based thinking. When considering how to teach through a pandemic, I find myself pondering how I might continue to effectively teach students while also keeping them safe. They will be physically distanced, masked, and possibly learning from home at times. As educators across the state welcome students back to school, I want to share some thoughts about what I have seen in my classes before the spring school closures, how I’m planning for change, and the work ahead as teachers continue to serve students and communities.
Before the stay-at-home order in March and since my school system’s implementation of Louisiana Student Standards in Science, I have seen students engaged in learning like I never have as a teacher or even as a former student. Three-dimensional teaching and learning have transformed classrooms into collaborative, discussion-rich spaces where students lead instruction and have some autonomy in their learning. Students are actively learning how to learn, a skill that they will carry with them through any college and career path of the future. For example, last year, in my chemistry classes, students investigated how rust causes problems for Louisiana’s bridges and other structures after hearing about the need to replace one of our local bridges. They asked questions about how chemistry links to a social, political, and economic problem. They investigated rust formation and factors influencing the rate of that formation like temperature, moisture, material, and presence of acids. They then proposed methods and materials for new bridge construction while considering the impacts that this kind of work might have on our community. In doing so, they were challenged and used skills like communication, observation, analysis, and creativity to produce successful group products. It’s clear to me that this kind of content-rich, problem-based learning must be prioritized. These are the skills that professionals around the globe, including school leaders and teachers, are employing as we identify and solve some of the challenges of teaching amid a pandemic.
Educators are planning for schools to operate differently this year. At my school, administrators have been planning safety procedures to protect all staff and students. The leadership team has been working to ensure students and families are aware of these new procedures, and everyone is safe and ready for school when they arrive on the first day. Our teachers are networking on campus, throughout the parish, and even with other teachers across the state to make sure they are prepared to reach and teach students that are both in the classroom and at home. We are developing our websites so students have access to materials and each other as they complete work and stay caught up if they need to be absent. Since desks cannot be close together or facing each other, we are preparing devices and live documents to discuss and manage student group assignments. We are developing office hours to use as we facilitate group work, reach out to struggling or absent students, and make ourselves available for parents that might need support.
There are still many unanswered questions as we go into this school year, but I know that teachers are masters of their craft. They are experts when it comes to building relationships with students and families. They do this while teaching rigorous standards that truly challenge their students to think. They care about their students and do everything in their power to support them. As we move through the first few months of the school year, teachers will continue to guide students and families to success. As scary as teaching and learning in a virtual, hybrid, or even face-to-face setting might seem, teachers will make it happen. Not because they are superheroes, but because they are professionals. It will be hard to navigate unknown scenarios, but we are all in it together. I know the work of this year will require teamwork, flexibility, and creativity as we overcome the mountain of changes and challenges brought on by the pandemic. Now is the time for innovation, and part of the process is rethinking how we once did things. In education, we will see GREAT innovation as teachers aren’t afraid to think and do things differently.