Differentiated learning and discipline are two of the most challenging aspects of providing quality instruction in today’s classroom. The variety of learning styles and achievement levels make traditional teacher and learning techniques obsolete. When you add the trials of behavior management and the complexities surrounding virtual learning, you have an academic tsunami heading for the shores of education and quite frankly, teachers and leaders are struggling to find ways to save themselves as well as their students. In the meantime, students are gearing up for whatever is becoming their new way of work. Kids and teachers both understand this year will require more than ever before.
The condition schools find themselves in, just months before reopening, calls for more innovative ways to engage learners. The assumption that kids are digital natives and will naturally gravitate to online platforms, somehow hoisted by intrinsic motivation, is one debunked by the way in which many students embraced home-learning scenarios created by Covid 19.
In a social media poll posed last week, I posed the question to educators across the country, “what is your biggest fear related to the reopening of school?” Overwhelmingly, teachers were concerned about, what I have termed, “Covid slide” and their ability to meet performance targets with varying levels of academic engagement over the past three months. They spoke of an inability to reach students, concerns with discipline, and anxiety associated with actively planning lessons on multiple levels M. Quarten of Miami, Florida asked, “what are we going to do when kids show up online, in-class, or not at all and they all need something different, at the same time?” These apprehensions were followed closely by fear for their safety and the safety of their students. J. Thomas of Dallas, Texas shared “teachers and administrators couldn’t get kids to tuck in shirts and wear their ID badges so how are we supposed to make them wear masks and stay away from their friends? I am looking for another job and may not return after 13 years as an educator.”
Educators in schools where discipline and differentiation have been problematic, voiced a true concern around support from leadership, unrest related to the lack of a concrete plan for re-entry, and fear of unrealistic expectations as they try to build the bicycle while riding it. In many cases, summer-slide coupled with COVID slide will result in five or six months of home learning or little to no learning experiences at all. That alone is enough to cost students tremendously. School and district leaders who do not understand the importance of supporting teachers who struggle with true data-informed instruction, differentiation, and discipline or those who plan to employ a blanket, one-size-fits-all, strategy will fail miserably.
Leaders must ensure systems are in place to deliver targeted professional development immediately if they want to retain teachers, improve teacher efficacy, and meet the needs of their students in the fall. Teachers need these skills now, more than ever, as kids return to the classroom either virtually or on-site. There is no denying students have received varying levels of instruction, support, and resources based on many factors including access, home structure, and their parent or guardian’s ability to engage in the learning process. Because of this, many kids will be much worse academically and socially when they return than they have been after a traditional summer. Preparation will require much more than hand sanitizer and tape on the floors to ensure social distancing and now is the time to do it.
Data-based curriculum options, masterfully planned lessons and instruction, targeted student work, ongoing assessments, consistent feedback cycles, flexible grouping, and student focused engagement strategies will all be just as important to student success as will the a caring culture where high expectations are not compromised. The need for clear rubrics, explicit examples, critical vocabulary (in context), small group instruction, and one-to-one intervention must be matched with time management structures, conversations around work ethic, the implementation of equitable integrity systems, and a myriad of reteaching tools and resources for kids and parents alike.
Accommodations and modifications will need to become the norm as work is scaffolded to support every learner. Those students with documented, or undocumented, learning disabilities must not be forgotten as their mandated services will look differently and teachers must plan for this as well. Intervention services, meetings with parents, staffing students into or out of programs, and more must remain a priority to ensure all students have an opportunity to excel. Redefining learning targets without compromising the fidelity and rigor of instructional programs is also a consideration that requires attention.
Teachers and staff will need clear implementation plans that demonstrate care and understanding of the new family dynamic and the role families will now play in the teaching and learning process. For years educators have asked for parental engagement. Now it must be determined how engagement will be defined and how expectations will be communicated to parents, so they all have an opportunity to support their children. Support systems must ensure kids are not penalized for adult behaviors or their parent’s inability to meet the school’s expectations. Leaders must also ensure, without compromise, teachers know how to engage every parent in ways which are culturally responsive and respectful of their ability to be active in meaningful ways.
In short, there is a lot of work to do and everyone will need support. As everything rolls downhill, educators must remain focused on the reason they are in business and that is simply, to educate children. The days of traditional learning are gone. Embrace it! This offers a tremendous opportunity to revamp antiquated systems and meet kids’ needs in very different ways. It is important to remember everyone is doing this for the first time and it is not easy. There is nothing from the past even similar to what will been seen in the future and the future is now! The beauty is, kids still need the same things from their teachers and leaders as they did last year. They need a safe, caring environment where learning is happening for every child, every single day. They need to know they matter, and they can trust you to give them the very best, despite their socio-economic status, race, gender, identity choices, or their parent’s ability to expand their access or learning opportunities at home.
Although there are challenges ahead, there is no profession more able to meet and exceed expectations than that of the professional educator. This time of unrest, uncertainty, and unexplored territory is unfamiliar but exciting. There is not another group charged of professionals charged with a task as impactful as the journey you will take. No matter how different it may look, or how scary it may feel, your children are counting on you to make them better than they could ever be without you. You may be the only thing standing between them and their destiny. You got this!
Dr. Catherine Barnes is a Jacksonville, Florida-based educator with over 25 years of experience. A graduate of the University of Florida, Dr. Barnes forms her educational philosophy around the belief that “kids deserve a fighting chance—even if you have to fight to give it to them.” She understands that, by adapting to modern students’ needs, today’s teachers can change the trajectory of a child’s life, and has allowed her to continuously embody success and vision in her field.