Appreciating Teachers’ Instructional Vision

By: Karen Hunter Quartz, Marisa Saunders, Clémence Darriet, Becky French & Cicely Bingener

This past week has been “Teacher Appreciation Week.” But after a pandemic year in which many teachers worked relentlessly to adapt and embrace online teaching, many educators don’t feel very appreciated. News articles like the March 31st story in the Los Angeles Times with the headline declaring students have suffered ‘alarming’ academic harm during the pandemic do not help. Based on a report by Great Public Schools Now, the news is based largely on narrow test-based outcomes–data gathered online, in atypical conditions. The report also laments that “we haven’t really heard a lot about what the instructional plan or vision is this school year and moving forward as we head into recovery.” Perhaps that’s because they didn’t ask a teacher.

As a group of researchers, we have worked closely with teachers from two LAUSD community schools since the pandemic struck last March. We know firsthand that they have approached their work this year with a strong vision that has engaged students in meaningful learning. This vision is guided by the recognition that powerful learning doesn’t just happen in schools; it happens all the time and everywhere. It acknowledges the valuable knowledge possessed by families and regards communities as rich spaces of learning. While no one has minimized the enormous challenges and tragedies experienced in these schools and their surrounding neighborhoods—neighborhoods that have experienced some of the highest COVID-19 case and death rates in Los Angeles County–foregrounding learning loss based on test scores is not helpful. Yes, students have experienced academic setbacks, but a myopic focus on what’s been lost disregards the hard work and dedication of teachers, students and families and the deep transformations in teaching and learning that have occurred. 

Based on our interviews, observations, and collaborations with educators, we are sharing three lessons–tied to an anti-racist, social justice vision–that have informed teaching and learning during the pandemic and can guide the recovery process.    

First, we have learned that technology can help teachers (re)create connections with students, families, and colleagues. Reports of disengagement and school absence have largely been based on metrics that measure time on the district’s online platform or time in synchronous learning. In contrast, the teachers we work with have engaged students in ways not easily captured by these metrics–conscientious of the shared spaces, and poor internet connections or devices that have made it difficult for students to maintain synchronous learning at pre-pandemic levels. Teachers dismantled and re-created school schedules with built-in check-in times. They flipped classrooms so that work could be done outside of class time and used shared documents to submit and peer-review their work. Teachers opened up college-style office hour sessions so students who were working asynchronously could meet with teachers to get help. Working with counselors and administrators, teachers shared spreadsheets to keep track of students’ well-being. Middle school teachers intensified cross-disciplinary units and shared the responsibility of planning advisory lessons to an extent never before seen. They used Google voice, Zoom and chat to stay in touch with parents and found that many parents were more likely to text and interact using these methods. As one teacher shared, “Distance learning has helped me feel more connected to my students’ families.” Another teacher shared how the Zoom private chat feature allowed her quiet students to actively participate in new ways. Creative uses of  technology have enabled teachers, students, and families to demonstrate a new level of appreciation and empathy which will be critical as the school moves towards recovery. 

Second, the pandemic and racial justice struggles have provided a curriculum for introspection and focus on the lived experiences of students. Many educators created units and projects that encouraged reflection of their experiences, both during and before the pandemic. Established community-based teaching practices provided opportunities during school building closures to bring the community into the classroom and the classroom into the community.  

For example, Darlene Tieu at Mann UCLA Community School takes her students on science adventures despite the limitations imposed by distance learning. According to Tieu, the pandemic has only intensified the need for adventure. Tieu’s student-centered, culturally relevant Chemistry class is focused on learning from and about the surrounding community, and aligns with the tenets of social justice education. Instead of focusing on abstract concepts that students can’t see—like molecules, atoms, electrons—Tieu designs lesson storylines with multiple entry points for students to engage in the content. Students learn about combustion through topics such as alternative fuel options, and apply climate change science concepts (e.g., urban heat island, albedo effect, and the greenhouse gas effect) to their South Los Angeles community. Lessons center on local projects led by people of color who are working towards equitable climate change solutions, providing the critical hope that is at the heart of climate change teaching. 

Finally, we learned that teachers are using technology to empower students to choose, create, and share their work in new ways. Teachers identified a shift in use of technology that allowed students to create and disseminate work via online platforms and demonstrate their knowledge and growth in new ways. 

For example, Pedro de Leon at RFK UCLA Community School designed a cross-curricular project in which his students are planning a COVID-safe school reopening that focuses on the assets and needs of their community. The project encourages students to employ both engineering and chemistry concepts including gas law knowledge to design a classroom environment that could reduce the spread of COVID-19. De Leon commented that the project fostered the co-creation of knowledge and the power of collaborative problem-solving: “You cannot do this by yourself…and that’s what’s beautiful about a community school–we grow together.” The project also empowers students to make decisions about how best to present their learning as a digital project that includes guidelines for a safe return to school using at least one online application to present their findings and recommendations. With access to a range of virtual tools, students can be creative. Mr. DeLeon is also preparing students to present their projects in multiple languages–to an audience of teachers, peers and/or community members. Thanks to the efforts of community teachers like Pedro DeLeon and Darlene Tieu, we are confident that the meaningful learning this year has been guided by a strong instructional vision that will inform the recovery.

A number of practitioners and educational researchers are pushing back on the learning loss narrative. A recent article in the Washington Post made clear that “if school is not a time for creativity, choice, empowerment, and engagement, it is not likely to be a time of growth either.” Our students have grown. As we move towards recovery, getting our priorities right has never been so critical. We must begin, as highlighted in an article in Edutopia, by rebuilding our learning communities, which “study after study indicates is foundational to true learning.” 

Among the many helpful recommendations provided for a comprehensive educational recovery, the report by Great Public Schools Now suggests forging new and deeper relationships with families, and leveraging the strengths and assets of the community through partnership. Missing, however, is the need to build on the tremendous efforts teachers have made during these challenging times, in partnership with families, to understand and value the learning, growth and progress experienced by their students. Appreciating the work of teachers this “Teacher Appreciation Week” has never been as important.