This past year brought incredible challenges; and yet, we know that there are lessons we can learn from those who experienced teaching and learning during COVID-19. And perhaps more than ever before, we know we need to listen and learn from our educators so that we take these lessons and move forward in ways that will best serve our children and communities in a post-pandemic world.

In the first of a series of town hall virtual events, the Public School Forum of NC convened educators, students, lawmakers and community members this week to hear about what worked this past school year, and what we might do differently in the future when it comes to teaching and supporting our students.

Building Relationships and Supporting Students’ Social and Emotional Learning

The key to successfully navigating a school year that was heavily impacted by COVID-19 — and largely took place virtually —  was by finding new ways to build solid relationships with students and families.

“I knew I was in a competition with whatever was going on at home,” said Eugenia Floyd, a fourth grade teacher and the 2021 Burroughs Wellcome Fund NC Teacher of the Year. Teaching virtually meant that Floyd had to compete with so many distractions and challenges that were taking place in students’ homes and communities, ranging from students’ temptation to play video games while she taught a lesson online to helping students navigate a world that had fundamentally changed around them. Forging strong connections with her students by identifying shared interests and doing daily “temperature checks” were critical to keeping her students engaged throughout the year.

Jennie Bryan, a history teacher at South Brunswick High School and the 2021 Burroughs Wellcome Fund North Carolina Southeast Regional Teacher of the Year, found that she was able to connect with her students by surveying their interests and tapping into those to forge connections. One of her students shared that he loved Marvel Comics, and she made a point to talk with him about WandaVision frequently. “At the end of the semester, he shared with me that my classroom was his safe space,” said Bryan.

While these types of relationship building activities have been long utilized by teachers to make connections with their students, this past year required greater intentionality and consistency, said Bryan. She took advantage of remote learning Wednesdays to have one-on-ones with each of her students, something she says she plans to continue once the world has shifted into a post-pandemic place. Virtual platforms have also been an excellent way to reach more families. “Virtual open houses, virtual curriculum fairs, virtual IEP meetings — let’s keep those going,” said Bryan.

Additionally, Bryan observed, this year taught us anything, it’s that the role of public schools is about so much more than academics — it’s also about meeting the social and emotional needs of students and families.

“We have to acknowledge that we have had students in really fragile emotional states this year due to this pandemic,” said Bryan. The way to honor this reality and provide the support students need to heal and become ready to learn, she said, is to step up our investment in school psychologists, nurses, counselors and social workers. 

In North Carolina, the numbers of School Instructional Support Staff are well below recommended ratios; learn more by reading our 2021 Top Education Issues

“We’re not just here for their academic well-being — we’re here for their social and emotional well-being, too.”

Maintaining the Flexibility of Learning While Supporting Teachers

The world has quickly come to realize that so much can be accomplished utilizing virtual platforms. The key to moving forward and harnessing this technology in positive ways in the context of teaching and learning, however, is complex — and it’s important to get it right.

“What is the role of virtual learning from here forward?” said Rep. Jeffrey Elmore, an elementary art teacher who represents Alexander and Wilkes counties participating in the listening and learning session. 

For some students, the virtual environment enables them to thrive, and that option should be accessible for those who need it, said Bryan. But teachers are concerned about future scenarios in which they are expected to teach both in-person and virtually at the same time. 

“Teachers struggle with that,” said Bryan. “Blended learning is here to stay, but we need to ensure that the resources are in place to support those efforts. Dedicated virtual teachers are critical.”

Deborah Hoffman, the 2019-2020 Onslow County Schools Wells Fargo Principal of the Year, agreed that remote learning options are the key to keeping students and families engaged — especially when life throws curve balls that may require school districts to offer technology-based learning options. But well-supported teachers who can execute strong remote instruction and have the classroom supports they need are just as critical as ensuring a student has a device in their hands.

“There are so many opportunities for us to incorporate technology differently now,” said Hoffman, who leads an elementary school. “Teachers are willing to work hard, but they also need to be supported.” Weak skills around technology can be improved through strong investments in professional development and teacher assistants in early grade classrooms are important supports that will go a long way to ensure that moving forward, we harness the power of technology in productive and equitable ways. 

Looking Ahead

Rep. Ashton Clemmons, a former teacher and principal who represents Guilford County, asked educators how their view of the role of public education may have shifted during COVID-19. The answer? Public schools hold a space in communities that goes well beyond academics.

“Schools play a much higher role in our society than they are given credit for,” said Eugenia Floyd. “As we taught virtually, our schools also made sure buses were rolling out to our students’ homes to provide them with both breakfast and lunch so that they could be ready to learn.” The pandemic both reminded Floyd of the vital role educators and schools play in students and families lives, and also that when school buildings closed, the gaps and concerns around equity were only amplified.

Sedrick, a high school student from Cumberland County, said that while the pandemic forced us all to stay home, we were collectively compelled to more deeply examine the inequities and gaps that were already pervasive in our society. COVID, said Sedrick, has opened the door for a new wave of young activists to take action.

“We’ve had to take notice of the things we need to change,” said Sedrick. “Pre-pandemic, we were preoccupied with our own busy lives. Lockdown offered us a unique chance to reflect on these issues, and acknowledge the many injustices that many of our minority communities were facing, including our children.”

As far as moving forward in our classrooms with the lessons we’ve learned this past year, Floyd reflected on the fact that the new tools she’s used this past year have been able to provide students with new ways to express to her what they know. 

“There is an opening of the door for students to show their understanding of concepts and standards in different ways,” said Floyd. “What a child couldn’t explain in writing, they had no problem showing their knowledge through a flip grid or video recording. The pandemic made me think and reflect on the tools we are asking students to use in order to show their thinking, and allowing the flexibility for students to be able to share their understanding of a concept and giving them various ways to explore their thinking is something that really stood out for me this school year.” 

Public schools must also envision new ways to meet the needs of their whole communities, said Deborah Hoffman. And that starts with communicating differently and reaching more families through different communication styles and platforms. It also means understanding the diverse needs of the families you are working with.

“You have to know your community. We talk about differentiating for students, but we also have to talk about differentiating for families. Some just need more than others. If you want to support your school community, you have to think more broadly than about just what’s happening in the building,” said Hoffman.

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