Informed and Supported Educational Reform Choices During a Pandemic

The new normal during this pandemic is a reality we are all trying to adapt to. The education realm is being asked to make impossible decisions in a very short time. This post is meant to give alternative choices when making those decisions, and helping teachers discover their hidden talents. I will discuss two alternative solutions to the following problems: how can we leverage talents and give choice during a pandemic, and how do we keep teachers from fleeing the field.

As I peruse the Internet feeds, view the posts of my friends, and see the parody videos posted for some relief, I see one common message… Teachers are concerned! They are concerned for the well-being of their students and how they will guide them through this time of uncertainty. They are concerned about having the equipment necessary to safely teach their students. They are concerned about the guidelines and protocols that are being put on their shoulders. They are concerned about their health of their own families and the risks of exposing them to this virus. And lastly they are concerned about their own health both physically and mentally.

While opening schools completely would be ideal for the education of our students, during this time there are more things to consider in this decision. In this post, I would like to offer some alternatives that may help us safely navigate through these waters, and allow freedom of choice for teachers and students and their families.

I have heard repeatedly from teachers currently in the field, that they are on the edge of leaving. Those that are close to retirement are seriously considering taking early retirement after the Governor makes his announcement. Younger teachers are considering a different field as they are forced into molds that do not fit their vision of teaching. Educational leaders would be remiss to ignore these warnings. We could be facing a teacher shortage this fall. That could have real ramifications as we know there will be cases of COVID-19 among teachers when we open. If we are in a shortage, who will replace those that get sick?

I have always been a big believer in choice for education. Students should have choices in how they learn and the methods in which they show what they have learned. I believe this should be extended to the teaching staff. A good leader will evaluate her/his staff’s talents and utilize those talents in the most effective way to complete a task. Having the right people in the right places gets the job done more efficiently. This pandemic gives us opportunity to revolutionize the education system and capitalize on the benefits of allowing teachers choices. The rest of this post presents high level ideas that are meant to be flushed out in cmERDC’s working group proposed below.

To start, I would suggest surveying your staff, let them tell you where their strengths lie. Let them tell you how they teach best. Meet with your department leads, they can tell you who in their department has talents that may lend to alternative learning environments. Then divide your staff into 3 categories:

  • Those that need to teach in a physical classroom to utilized their talent in the most effective way.
  • Those that are willing to stretch themselves and learn how to teach in a blended or online environment. This might be a good avenue for those later in their careers. See the second solution for more details.
  • And those that are already comfortable or even experts in this teaching style. They are your mentors and can help those in the category above hone their craft of online instructor.

Then, and here is the really tricky part, allow students and their families a choice in how they return to school. We all know there are different learning styles and learning needs. Some students need the physical classroom to stay focused or to cultivate social relationships, while other students flourish in the online environment as social distractions are minimized, and they feel free to voice their opinions. Divide students into groups from completely on campus, to hybrid, to completely online. And with your staff divided into those groups stated above, assign students among the different types of teaching/learning groups.

This approach is not perfect, and has many details to work out, such as transportation, access to technology and food, but it is a way to effectively utilize your staff’s talents and allow freedom of choice for your students and their families.

To help support school districts in alternative planning approaches such as the one proposed above, cmERDC would like to offer support both for school leadership and for teacher mentorship and professional development. We are offering to host or organize two groups: school leadership planning, and online teaching professional development training and curriculum development.

I have had the pleasure to work with Julie Nelson, a retired teacher and administrator in the Richfield School District. She was a teacher that chose to make the transition from in-classroom teacher to fully online teacher late in her career. She worked closely with her district’s technology leader, Dean Breuer (now at MDE), to create and revise a fully online Physical Education course and fully online Health course. She taught these courses over a number of years and refined them into a well-oiled machine. She has a passion for online teaching I have rarely seen, and feels called to make a difference using her talents during this difficult time.

Julie would like help organize and run a Transition to Online Teaching workshop for interested teachers for the 20-21 school year. This workshop would focus on helping teachers understand the differences between in-classroom teaching and teaching in an online environment. Julie and I would also be available to help teacher streamline their current curriculum into one that is engaging and interactive and meets all the aligned standards. This workshop would bring together all teachers to work on strategies that are working during the pandemic, and collectively brainstorm areas that need additional resources.

In addition to the above teacher workshop, cmERDC would like to offer our services to help school leadership connect with each other to explore alternative forms of scheduling and resource use. We would organize and help those interested to connect to other education professionals including MDE staff, vendors, and other resource providers. The purpose of this group is to collectively find ways to implement alternative plans to keep both students and staff safe and productively engaged in teaching and learning.

If you are interested in learning more about this opportunity, or if you would like to join one of our groups, please sign up on our information list to be included in upcoming announcements and further information passed along.

Thank you for your tireless efforts in this extraordinary time!

-Sheilla Rindahl
Directory of Learning Solutions / Digital Learning Product Manager

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