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“A Whole Different Ball Game”: 5 Ways Education Is Changing
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“A Whole
Different Ball Game”

5 Ways Education is Changing

From remote learning to parent-teacher relationships, the pandemic has required educators to rethink and reimagine how best to serve students. Here’s how they’re building on what they’ve learned.

Illustrations by Oriana Fenwick

Before the coronavirus pandemic, Osley Cook would ignore the emails for various digital teaching tools that appeared in his inbox. He didn’t see the point. A music teacher and band director at Roosevelt High School in Dallas, Texas, who has worked in education for 27 years, Cook already knew how to help his students learn: put instruments in their hands, hear them play songs, and go from there.

“We want to play those instruments,” says Cook. “We want to jam.”

Everything changed in the spring of 2020, when COVID-19 forced schools across the country to switch to remote and hybrid learning. Cook’s classroom was closed. Its instruments went unused. Unable to practice indoors and restricted to sporadic outdoor rehearsals, the school’s band performed at two football games instead of 10—and instead of having as many as 80 students participating, it had around 20.

“Normally, I would have students learn 15 to 20 songs for a football game,” Cook says. “Because of our limited practices, we played about five.”

Limits led Cook to adapt. He tweaked his curriculum, incorporating more musical theory into his lessons. He adopted some of the online programs he once ignored, including one that allows students to submit recordings of themselves playing pieces at home.

As his school returns to in-person instruction this fall, Cook is looking forward to once again jamming with his pupils. But he’s also embracing new technology, including a smart camera system that can track him around the classroom as it broadcasts to students still at home.

“If I’m teaching a mixed class of brass, woodwind, and percussion, when I’m working with the woodwind, the camera is over here with them,” Cook says. “If I walk over to percussion, then the camera follows me. Whoever I have watching on the digital side, they see the entire lesson.

“I’m a really good teacher. But I’m going to utilize some of this digital stuff.”

When it comes to change, Cook isn’t alone. From remote learning to parent-teacher relationships, the pandemic is creating and accelerating transformation across American education. And as the nation slowly begins to move forward from a once-in-a-lifetime disruption, many educators see an opportunity to rethink and reimagine the way they teach, work, and ultimately serve students.

“It could create, from a teacher’s perspective, a creative atmosphere,” says Patrick Cady, a high school history teacher in San Fernando, California. “Like, ‘what are the [new] things that we could do now?’”

Here are five ways education is changing:

Remote Learning Is
Here To Stay
Parents Are Becoming
“Co-Teachers”
Securing the Future
Has Never Been More
Important
Education Is Becoming
More Agile
Educators Face Unique Challenges—And
Opportunities

Remote Learning Is
Here To Stay

Between March and May of 2020, closures affected at least 55.1 million students in 124,000 U.S. public and private schools. Almost overnight, a system centered around physical classrooms—students and teachers together, participating in lessons and activities—became virtual.

Like many educators, Latonia Johnson saw some of her students struggle to find their bearings. An elementary school reading teacher in Lancaster, Texas, she found herself reminding children to keep their computer cameras on, and to not play with their toys or pets during lessons.

“They had a hard time making the separation” between school and home, Johnson says. “We tried to normalize it as best we could.” That included requiring students to ask to use the restroom, the same as they would in their regular classrooms. “In the beginning,” Johnson says, students would disappear unannounced, leaving her to remind them that no, you’re in school. You still have to get permission.

“They were like, ‘in my own house?’” Johnson says with a laugh.

Remote learning has downsides. Most students learn better in person. Lack of social interaction can take a toll on children’s mental health and emotional well-being. Screen fatigue is real. The ongoing digital divide between wealthy and low-income school districts and households can compound the learning barriers already facing disadvantaged children.

“My friends who teach at a private school, they had students taking their classes from a vacation in Mexico,” says Patrick Cady, a high school history teacher in San Fernando, California. “That wasn’t our kids. I had some really good students who just shut off [during remote learning], and what I found with quite a few of them is that you don’t really know what their in-home [situation] looks like.

“There’s a lot of stuff going on in the background. One student I had, she was responsible for taking care of her younger brothers and sisters. Sometimes, I was shocked that there was any learning going on at all.”

After an unprecedented 18 months, however, educators have come to understand that remote learning also has advantages. It can make assigning and grading homework faster and more efficient. It can help teachers connect with pupils who need additional help outside of the classroom. It can help schools meet students where they are—whether they are home sick, working jobs, or otherwise dealing with life circumstances that make traditional instruction impractical.

Some students also prefer virtual classrooms. In a national poll taken in March, nearly 30 percent of parents said they were likely to stick with remote learning indefinitely. “We saw some students thrive [remotely],” says Cherish Pipkins, an elementary school principal in Lancaster, Texas. “I really feel like it depends on their responsibility level, their maturity, and then what type of support that they had at home.”

Going forward, Pipkins expects remote learning to play a larger role at her school and others, primarily through blended models in which online resources supplement in person classes. A national survey of public school leaders conducted last October found that one in five have already adopted, plan to adopt, or are considering adopting virtual school as a permanent offering. By one expert estimate, the number of school districts nationwide that provide all of their students with computers or tablets has increased from 30 to 80 percent.

“These [digital] platforms reach a broader audience,” says Amy Almany, an elementary and middle school counselor in Los Angeles, California. “I’ve been able to connect with families that I may not have been able to do in-person. So I would like to continue with them, and I think a lot of them are here to stay and will be incorporated in schools all across the country.”

Parents Are Becoming “Co-Teachers”
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Parents Are Becoming
“Co-Teachers”

Prior to the pandemic, parents and educators operated in two distinct spheres. Beyond helping with homework and attending occasional parent-teacher conferences, parents typically didn’t take an active part in the day-to-day work of teaching their children. Similarly, educators primarily were focused on what was happening inside of their classrooms.

School and office closures scrambled those traditional boundaries. Parents were working from their bedrooms. Children were learning from their kitchen tables. Educators were teaching from their living room sofas. Strict schedules were suddenly fluid; separate spaces were suddenly shared.

Cherish Pipkins, an elementary school principal in Lancaster, Texas, and a mother of three school-aged daughters, found herself switching roles multiple times a day. “It was hard because there were so many blurred lines,” she says. “I’m having a [work] meeting and my daughter would come into the space where I was working. All three of my girls would be in different places in the house, working, and you could hear their classrooms. It was just lots of chaos.”

In many cases, educators were forced to collaborate with parents like never before, creating what some call a “co-teacher dynamic.” Parents became technology troubleshooters, ensuring that children could log in to remote classes and assignments. They became teaching assistants, helping children practice reading and grasp math lessons. They became classroom monitors, preventing children from goofing off on social media or watching streaming videos instead of paying attention to their instructors.

Melissa Wendorf, an elementary school teacher in Los Angeles, California, noticed a change in her relationships with parents. “In the classroom, it’s, ‘oh, you’re the teacher, that’s your job. And I’m the parent, this is my job,’” she says. “But this year, I felt more like a team. Parents were more willing to listen to what you have to say. And several were much more vocal with helping me to help their child. That’s how it should always be.”

Several decades of research in the U.S. show that parents can have a positive influence on academic achievement by supporting learning at home, a finding that holds especially true for low-income students. Amy Almany, an elementary and middle school counselor in Los Angeles, believes that the digital tools used during the pandemic will continue to facilitate better communication between parents and educators in the future—and that an increase in parents working from home also may allow for closer connections.

“I think one of the positives that has come out, a silver lining of this pandemic in terms of education, is that lots of parents can be more involved,” she says. “Especially working parents that couldn’t participate before. Now they have opportunities. They can log on. That’s a good thing.”

Securing the Future Has Never Been More Important
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Securing the Future Has
Never Been More Important

Osley Cook doesn’t like to miss work. He loves his job too much. A music teacher and band director in Dallas, Texas, he has worked in education for 27 years—and along the way, has accrued nearly five months’ worth of sick leave.

“I always said, ‘if I’m going to use a day, I’m going to take a vacation day or something,’” he says. “But I never took those days.”

Similarly, Cook hasn’t given retirement much thought. He has been too busy teaching, helping students earn music scholarships to schools such as Grambling State University and the University of Texas.

“Seven years in a row, every single one of my band students received a scholarship to go to college,” he says. “As long as I’m still being productive, as long as my students are still reaching their goals and getting opportunities, then I’m going to keep right on doing this.”

During the pandemic, Cook’s desire to keep working hasn’t changed. But his perspective on the future has. The recipient of a heart transplant in 2017, Cook considered retiring in 2020 because of the health risks of COVID-19. While he has since been vaccinated, that experience made him realize that life after work is “really closer around that corner now”—and that preparing for tomorrow was no longer something he could largely ignore.

“It’s on my mind,” Cook says. “[My wife and I] have had several talks with our financial advisors. We’re looking at trying to clear away the extra money to put towards retirement.”

For many, the pandemic has created short-term financial strain, causing them to contribute less to their savings or deplete the savings they already have: according to the Federal Reserve, one in 10 Americans used money from their retirement savings account for non-retirement expenses in 2020.

And that stress on retirement readiness hasn’t been confined to individuals. For example, roughly 90 percent of U.S. public school teachers are enrolled in defined benefit pension plans. Prior to the pandemic, those plans already were underfunded in most states. In some states, revenue shortfalls driven by the economic shock of COVID-19 have led to short-term cuts to payments into pension funds; over time, those funds are projected to have more difficulty meeting their return targets in changed market.

“There was a lot of fear going around in terms of educators and teachers and what would happen,” says Evan Press, a partner at Pacific Coast Wealth Strategies and an Equitable advisor. “People had to think about what they needed to do, [about] having money for a rainy day, whether that’s in a savings account or it’s saving for retirement. I think the pandemic really caught people off-guard with, ‘Wow, anything can happen, and I need to take action and be prepared.’”

Pandemic uncertainty has highlighted the importance of setting financial goals for the future, creating a plan to reach them, and revising both as needed to stay on track along the way. Educators, for instance, often have the opportunity to explore tools such such as 403(b) and 457(b) plans, which allow people to save for retirement by making tax-advantaged contributions to certain investment products.

Latonia Johnson is among the people reevaluating her financial future because of the pandemic. An elementary school reading teacher in Lancaster, Texas, she says that she has “begun to save more than ever before, and in the event that something happens, secure my assets.”

And not only for herself. Recently, Johnson paid off a car loan held by her adult daughter, who is a high school teacher. In return, she asked her daughter to put the money she was saving each month into a retirement account.

“I want to make sure that she’s able to take care of herself,” Johnson says. “We’re not looking for right now. We’re looking at long-term goals.”

Education Is Becoming More Agile
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Education Is Becoming
More Agile

Consisting of more than 14,000 districts and 120,000 public and private schools across 50 states, the American primary education system is sprawling, diverse, and decentralized. In normal times, all of that works against rapid change.

“It’s the Titanic on steroids,” says Patrick Cady, a high school history teacher in San Fernando, California. “It moves at not even a snail’s pace. We do not pivot well.”

Of course, nothing was normal about COVID-19. And to the surprise of many, the system quickly pivoted to cope with the pandemic, as educators came up with creative ways to keep students safe, healthy, and engaged.

Schools in Michigan retrofitted buses with thermal coolers in order to deliver meals to students’ homes. In Massachusetts, volunteers staffed a call center to support families, connecting parents and caregivers to counseling, nurses, and other services.

At Rolling Hills Elementary School in Lancaster, Texas, principal Cherish Pipkins organized an event in which roughly 120 students and their families drove through the school’s parking lot to collect books and take-home activities.

“We called it ’The Greatest Books on Earth,’” Pipkins says. “Our high school band came to play. We had our mascot there. It was just this full-blown, drive-through carnival.

“We found ways to still make school engaging for our students. We just tried to get rid of any obstacles and barriers. No excuses. We’re still going to teach and learn.”

Emboldened and empowered, educators now see an opportunity to unleash what a 2020 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development report calls the “enormous potential for innovation that is dormant in many education systems.” That means addressing the segregation and socioeconomic inequalities that negatively impact children’s academic and social outcomes; repairing aging buildings and facilities; creating deeper partnerships with community mental health providers in order to offer more services to students in need; and even reconsidering the standardized testing that has been the bedrock of student assessment for nearly two decades.

“I think more teachers are willing to do something different,” says Melissa Wendorf, an elementary school teacher in Los Angeles, California.

Ron Grosinger, a high school STEM teacher in West New York, New Jersey, believes the time is right for more experimentation within individual classrooms, too. When public health measures left his students stuck at home, he had them build working battery testers using common household items and collaborate online on other engineering and design projects.

In the future, Grosinger says, he wants to extend collaborative learning to “crowd grading.” Rather than grade his students’ assignments in a traditional one-way, one-on-one fashion, he wants them to evaluate each other’s work.

“The kids should be presenting [their work] to other kids,” Grosinger says. “Me as the only judge? This is not great! That works for a few kids who want to impress the teacher. I don’t want to be the judge. I want to be your coach.

“Think about sports. Kids are super motivated. Why? Because they’re trying to beat their friends or the other town or whatever. It doesn’t matter if you impress the coach, it matters if you score points.”

Educators Face Unique Challenges—And Opportunities
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Educators Face Unique
Challenges—And Opportunities

Every summer, Cherish Pipkins has two weeks off from her job as an elementary school principal in Lancaster, Texas—and this year, she spent the first week of that time in an unusual way.

“It was nap, after nap, after nap,” Pipkins says. “I didn’t realize how emotionally drained I was, just from how different and difficult the school year had been.

“We had some amazing high points—but you’re also hearing that people are sick. You’re having to have COVID plans. You may have to quarantine staff members, or quarantine a class. That’s a lot to deal with just on top of wanting to have a great lesson. The burnout is real.”

Tasked with teaching and caring for children, educators are accustomed to dealing with a lot. They are math instructors and basketball coaches, cheerleaders and disciplinarians, role models and mentors. They feed students when they are hungry, nurse them when they are sick, and create safe spaces to laugh, cry, and grow.

The pandemic has created a new—and sometimes overwhelming—set of challenges. Educators have become technology experts, audiovisual producers, and online entertainers. They’ve worked even longer hours. They’ve worried about their own health and safety, and the physical and emotional well-being of their students. Young teachers have been thrust into leadership roles—please show your colleagues how to use this app—while experienced teachers have felt like novices.

Out of ongoing disruption, however, has come an unexpected opportunity for professional growth. Decades of research in the United States and abroad have shown that effective teaching is not an innate skill, but rather a complex craft that requires a great deal of on-the-job training. Peer coaching and networks are key to improvement—and during the pandemic, educators have been communicating, collaborating, and helping each other out.

“Last year, you’re talking about a whole different ball game,” says Latonia Johnson, an elementary school reading teacher in Lancaster, Texas. “Everybody was a first year teacher.”

Melissa Wendorf, an elementary school teacher in Los Angeles, California, has been an educator for five years. During the pandemic, she has found herself showing her more experienced colleagues how to make and upload assignments and engage fidgety children through computer screens—an experience, she says, that has given her more confidence.

“I was constantly [video conferencing] with these teachers and showing them the ropes of what to do, whereas traditionally, it was them giving me the guidance,” Wendorf says. “So the tables definitely turned this year.”

Johnson has been an educator for 21 years. For most of that time, she says, she used her computer to “pay my bills, and do my lesson plans.” That was then. Today, she knows how to find, create, and share digital assignments with her students—and even help other teachers having issues with technology.

“[The pandemic] made me more tech savvy,” Johnson says. “Around my campus, they all knew if you had a question, don’t ask Ms. Johnson. But now, I can assist a bit more and even say, ‘oh, let me tell you what’s wrong.’”

As educators and students return to campus, Johnson says, she plans to keep learning. “We have to be prepared,” she says. “We have to get online, take those courses, what do you see has been beneficial—because again, if not, what do we do? We can’t regress. That’s just not an option. We’re self-teaching, we’re teaching each other, and we’re preparing ourselves to ensure that these kids have the best education they can.”

Remote Learning Is Here To Stay
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