Will 3.7 million teachers in the US return to work this fall no longer knowing what their job entails?
Curriculum development, classroom management, relationship building, performance data monitoring—over the past hundred years or so, the job duties of a K-12 teacher have gone by different names and have been accomplished in different ways, but the basic necessities of a teacher’s job have stayed largely the same. Picture an early 20th-century one-room schoolhouse with a teacher standing at the front of the room next to a chalkboard, or picture a classroom today with a teacher standing at the front of the room next to a smartboard. In 1919 or 2019, learning happens within those walls, within those minutes of the day. Given all that’s stayed the same over so long, Fall 2020 may mark the largest and most sudden shift to the responsibilities of a teacher in the U.S. in modern history.
What will we be asking teachers to do that they’ve never done before?
What will teacher job descriptions look like this fall, as schools re-open during a global pandemic? Will the new job description include requirements like “learning management system (LMS) acuity” or “digital curriculum specialist?” What about “online collaboration software expert?” The image of a teacher standing in front of a classroom was suddenly and unceremoniously replaced in March 2020 with a much different image—one that seemed ubiquitous overnight—of the Brady-Bunch-style-faces-in-boxes image of a Zoom/Google Meet/Teams online meeting. Faced with literally no alternative as a pandemic swept the country, teachers did all that they could to move their physical classroom into a computer. The situation was unforeseeable; as a result, resources were scarce and training was absent. The experiences of many teachers, students, and parents during Spring 2020 were poor. With a century of cultural and practical teaching experience standing in front of classrooms ingrained in our cultural understanding of what teaching is, and roughly 8 weeks of experience with emergency remote learning offered as an alternative, it’s very easy to see why so many districts, teachers, parents, and students balked at what was being called digital learning.
What will teachers’ job duties be this fall?
Begin by thinking about what teachers will be asked to do. States and districts are focused this summer on creating re-opening plans and contingency plans based on health, safety, and of course continuity of learning. In all that planning, are we giving serious thought to what we’re asking teachers to do on a day-to-day basis? Many plans have some variation on digital learning included, either for those students who will not/cannot attend in person this fall, or as a backup plan in case another wave of school closures become necessary, or both. With so many logistical quagmires to try to plan for—bussing, band class, lunchroom procedures, mask requirements—the actual operational details of what digital learning will look like this fall tend to get hand-waved away: “Oh, we’ll just have teachers do what they did in the spring.” Which brings us back to the central questions for school leaders to ask as we head into fall with the certainty that distance/remote/online/virtual digital learning will once again be necessary, which were highlighted earlier: Are the teachers you support experts in creating online curriculum? Are they adept at progress monitoring, motivating, encouraging, and communicating within an LMS? What will you be asking them to do that was never part of the job they were hired for, and what skills are they going to suddenly need that were never listed on their job description?
How will we support teachers while asking them to do more than ever before?
Based on the headlines already in July, the new school year is going to be ushered in by politicized controversy. Teachers will be the face of their school in managing classroom mask procedures, physical distancing guidelines, and desk sanitization processes. One way to support the teachers in your building who will also be responsible for digital education is to leverage the options available in the form of K-12 online courseware. For every age and every learner, there are full courses—from 3rd grade Social Studies to Pre-Algebra to Robotics, and everything in between—already written and already aligned to state and national standards. Teachers have the security of knowing the curriculum is already taken care of, allowing them to focus on their students’ progress, mastery, and well-being. Teachers also have the agency to edit the curriculum to the full extent desired; they don’t have to sacrifice their perennial favorite unit or lesson in the interest of serving the course as it’s written.
Along with providing resources for teachers in the form of research-based, professionally designed digital courseware, support can come in the form of targeted professional learning. While digital learning is brand new to many in the field of K-12 education, there are institutions that have been fully online for decades—hiring, training, and coaching teachers to be virtual classroom experts. Allow that expertise to serve the teachers and schools you support by providing a suite of professional learning delivered by credible, fully digital teachers and trainers who have the lived experience to be real mentors and provide real help.
Teachers have the wherewithal to adapt to the series of challenges COVID-19 will pose this fall; the question is not whether teachers can figure out ways to serve all their students in the face of all the possible scenarios this fall will bring, the question is whether they should have to figure it out on their own. The resources and training exist to support teachers in creating high-quality digital classrooms to provide learning continuity via flexible, safe options for students. A hundred years of inertia guides our cultural thinking about what a teacher’s job looks like. In the span of just a couple months, we as educators and leaders are going to re-shape that image. Through the use of engaging and rigorous digital courses coupled with relevant professional learning, teachers can start the school year equipped to meet the needs of a new kind of classroom, by being prepared to handle any expectation that will be included on a teacher’s job description in 2020.
Teresa King is Director of National Partnerships at ASU Prep Digital, which is a fully online K-12 school operating as part of Arizona State University’s mission to serve all learners through inclusive networks of opportunity. ASU Prep Digital offers over 175 courses to license, as well as digital teaching professional learning, to partner schools and districts around the country and around the world.