When my 5-year-old granddaughter, Lola, learned that she'd be attending school at home several months ago, she put on her best party dress and appeared downstairs with her "dollies and stuffies," eager to begin. For her-as for students and teachers nationwide-school is a social experience, and learning is a social process. But as teachers moved from their schools to their kitchen tables this spring, they felt a keen sense of loss. Most were cut off not only from their carefully stocked classrooms but also from their students' engaging energy and their colleagues' supportive give-and-take. Their instructional world had shrunk to fit a computer screen where virtual learning felt anything but real.
Research shows that teachers are attracted to the profession for social reasons: They want to work with young people, hope to instill understanding of a subject they love, and seek to give back to their community. However, as the shutdown persisted, teachers widely reported being disappointed, depressed, and filled with loss. They no longer had ready access to the intrinsic rewards that attracted them to teaching.
During online instruction, teachers can't rely on social interaction to generate curiosity, excitement, and understanding. They can't look for cues in students' eyes to know what confuses or enlightens them. They can't take time to discuss questions of right and wrong that surface in class or in the world outside school. They have to forgo many of their most powerful instructional strategies (learning centers, small-group projects, facilitated discussions, simulations, formal debates, and hands-on experiments). Instead, they've been forced to settle for the static remnants of their craft-worksheets, assigned readings, and comprehension questions-which can never substitute for the vibrant, motivating experiences that students need and their parents expect.
Online learning is not what teachers signed up for when they chose their career.
The "distance" in distance learning became starkly apparent, following the brutal death of George Floyd last month. While the nation's streets erupted with expressions of outrage and resolve in response to this and other fatal police shootings of Black men and women, its classrooms remained empty and silent. How could teachers support their students in sharing perspectives, exploring differences, and discovering ways to do better? No online program was up to that task.
As this school year ends-not with a celebratory bang but a disappointing whimper-teachers wonder what next year will bring. When schools abruptly closed in March, teachers could rely on relationships developed with and among students during months of in-person learning. But if the new year starts and continues online, teachers cannot count on familiarity, established norms, or earned trust to support their instruction. They and their students will meet as strangers online, making the challenge of providing a robust, interactive learning experience even more daunting.
When school buildings eventually open, instructional practices will necessarily comply with guidelines for social distancing. Primary school students will not sit together on the rug and share predictions about what will happen next in a read-aloud story. Middle school students will not huddle in small groups to compare how they solved the same math problem. Teams of high school students will not meet to plan debates or design science experiments.
Some schools may create double sessions, in which students in a single "class" attend in person during half the day and remotely during the other half. Meanwhile, teachers will be expected to rapidly switch from in-person to online instruction or to manage both simultaneously. The compromises teachers made this spring during remote teaching are likely to resurface in "real" classrooms, where students remain six feet apart.
Will students learn with and from their peers, expanding their perspectives and sense of possibilities, or will they simply acquire information and demonstrate what they've retained in recitations, assignments, and tests? Will the medium-whether it's the computer screen or the restructured classroom-become the message or will the medium enhance and elaborate the message? The answer will depend on the role that teachers play in deciding whether and how to adapt the tools of distance learning to meet their educational goals.
This summer, as teachers explore resources and instructional models, they can learn from the relatively small number of schools that successfully engaged students this spring in a rich mix of online options-live and recorded instruction, group projects using platforms tailored for interaction, tutoring for individuals and small groups, fitness classes, music lessons, and counseling supports. These schools, which serve students in high-income and low-income communities, were poised to pivot quickly to online learning because teachers already met regularly in teams to create coherent and productive learning experiences for all their students. They simply moved their deliberations online and continued collaborating. We need to understand much more about how those schools managed to enact the kind of shared investment and social growth that most schools seek to inspire in their students-and how they intend to deepen it in the year ahead.
Will teachers be leaders and true partners in that process or will they be obliged to comply with external experts' plans to efficiently use space and time? The late education reformer Ted Sizer sagely warned in 1984 that when teachers are told what to do, they not only are treated like "hired hands" but often "act like hired hands." However, when teachers and administrators address these problems together, they all have a stake in finding creative solutions. Unfortunately, too many teachers will be expected to downsize their instructional aspirations to fit the constraints of the "new normal" classroom and the technology platforms they have available. If that happens, students' opportunities for learning will continue to contract, and our society will pay the price.
Right now, the public widely agrees that the stakes for education are high and that teachers are essential agents in students' learning. But if teaching doesn't return to being the social, collegial field teachers initially chose, many will lose interest. Those who keep their jobs out of economic necessity may lose heart. Others will leave teaching reluctantly and sadly, but they will leave. And it remains to be seen who will be attracted to fill the jobs that are left or what kind of teaching they will provide.
Susan Moore Johnson is the director of the Project on the Next Generation of Teachers and the Jerome T. Murphy Research Professor of Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where she served as academic dean from 1993 to 1999. She is the author of Where Teachers Thrive: Organizing Schools for Success (Harvard Education Press, 2019).