COVID-19 is taking a toll on everyone, but the pandemic is an especially tense time for teachers who are grappling with a separate list of concerns. You can tell from the questions being posted on teacher-discussion pages: How and when will schools open fully? How prepared will students be to learn when they do? With the way last semester ended, how much did students miss? With no camps this summer, how much did they slide?
Did any of them lose family members? Will students have questions about the protests over George Floyd's killing?
Like you, I am praying that our leaders make the right choices. However, during this time of tremendous uncertainty, I hope that one certainty is as helpful to you as it is to me: Whether in-person or digital, school will open.
I am not trying to distract from the all serious questions that still need answers, but focusing on a few certainties can center us. To teach during this time of uncertainty, we should focus on the goals of teaching that will remain the same:
1. Relationships: Whether they meet you in a classroom or on Zoom, students will be wondering, "Who is this person?" Start planning how you will connect with each student. Remember the wise teaching adage, "No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care." Get hold of your roster early and start calling each home to introduce yourself.
In my traditional classroom, I used to eat lunch with different kids each day. During remote learning, that might look like assigning three or four different students each day to stick around after the Zoom call just to chat. Don't believe that it is impossible to build relationships virtually. (You can't tell me I'm not besties with my favorite television personality whom I've never met.)
2. Reassurance: On every first day of school, kids come to class nervous. Kindergartners are coming to school for the first time while others are coping with a new grade, a new teacher, or a new school. Add in the possibility of face masks or virtual lessons this year, and the need for reassurance will be even greater. Start brainstorming how you will calm students' fears to make them feel comfortable and capable. Good teachers know how to get kids feeling like they can handle it.
Develop your pitch. Mine is, "I'm Mr. Bethel, and I'm going to teach you everything about science. Although it's going to happen differently, I know you are going to excel because I'm going to do everything I can to make sure you succeed."
3. Relevance: Get ready to hear, "Why do I have to know this?" Students will still question the usefulness of what they are learning. Although COVID-19 might steal the chance to make magic in your physical classroom, it presents an opportunity to connect the dots for your students. Start deciding how you will tie your lessons to students' daily experiences.
Teach math to understand daily COVID-19 statistics. Inspire students to use their writing to describe all they have seen and heard since March. Explain how this pandemic has affected geographic regions differently. Art can be a medium for students to express their deepest feelings during this time. Whatever your subject, you don't have to squint hard to connect the dots.
Just remember, the goal of education is to help young people make sense of the world. You cannot teach without first considering the thoughts and experiences that shape students' worldview.
4. Rigor: Now is not the time to take it easy on students academically. It is still a good time to push them. Infuse rigor in your instruction. Remember, instead of just harder tasks, rigor requires students to do something with their learning. Make a list of the ways your students can put their learning into practice. Eleven-year-old Holli Morgan used her sewing skills to make hundreds of masks for essential workers and people without homes in Atlanta this summer. Awe-inspiring! It's your students' turn.
5. Risk-taking: Teachers are creative, and now is not the time to scale back. Whether in-person or digital, it is still the time to try new things. Look outside the box for ideas to reach all of your students, even the struggling ones. Toss out lesson plans that won't fit the new normal and sprinkle extra magic on the ones that will.
6. Resilience: All of us have experienced the failed lesson. The projector bulb died or the website crashed in the middle of your dream lesson. That will still happen this year. We need to do exactly what we have done before—cry for a moment, then dry our eyes, and get back to work.
7. Reaching out: Guess what? You still cannot do this alone. If we end up teaching from home again, you don't have to do it by yourself. Find new ways to create those coffee-pot moments with your colleagues. Call and text your teacher tribe. Schedule a weekly Zoom for your teammates to bounce ideas and motivate one another. No one is an island-at least, you don't have to be.
8. Righteousness: Teachers are getting lots of attention right now, some of it negative. In a month, we went from being celebrated heroes to being blamed for hindering the economy. Don't let that get you down. Remember the students and remember that our cause is still righteous. We have the privilege of molding tomorrow's leaders. We have the best job in history, and it's almost time to put our capes back on and save the world yet again.
I hope that those making the tough decisions land on the right ones. But for us, preparing to teach while watching the world change, focusing on the elements of teaching that won't change can be the rope we grab hold of and use to pull our heads above water.
Casey M. Bethel is the 2017 Georgia teacher of the year and a finalist for the 2017 National Life Changer of the Year award. After teaching high school science for 15 years, he now serves as the K-12 science, STEM, and computer science curriculum coordinator for 35 schools in Douglasville, Ga.