Credit: Allison Shelley for American Education

Over the last year the pandemic has laid bare the colossal inequities in our education system as teachers made a rapid shift to emergency teaching and found new ways to support both their students and parents.

Recently, the nation’s top teachers described the devastating impact of the pandemic on the profession itself. EdSource, with the Inverness Institute, has published a treasure trove of insights from Golden State teachers as they have “reflected on a year of learning under Covid.” For most of them the reopening of schools has been “exhausting and unproductive.”

Much has been documented on what has been lost. In listening to 30 highly accomplished teachers from the United States (as well as those from Australia, British Columbia and England) we also have learned what has been gained, including how to incorporate social-emotional learning into the core academic instruction.

As schools begin to reopen with the specter of the delta variant spiking, lessons from these leading teachers point to how schools need to be reinvented in the face of disruptions in teaching and learning. Here are three specific innovations they have discovered and/or used this past year, representing what these leading teachers hope to see in the future of education.

Creating more space for personalized learning. More than any other issue, leading teachers talked about the opportunities to spur innovations in personalized learning for their students. They spoke of how disruptions in the use of district-mandated curriculum and strict pacing guides freed many of them to experiment. Some were able to create more customized learning modules and better ways to assess academic progress.

Noah Zeichner, a National Board Certified Teacher who teaches high school social studies in Seattle, talked about how he developed ways to track the well-being of his students by using new tools to document details of their home contexts that affected their learning. Haydee Rodriguez, a board-certified teacher and high school social studies and journalism teacher from El Centro, California, said, “I think we now have a real chance to move away from our standard grading practices and develop and use learning profiles so we can assemble artifacts of a child’s growth beyond the percentile score.”

For students, the disruptions in traditional schooling opened the door to fewer assignments and greater opportunities to explore their passions through DIY learning. For some of them, online learning was more personalized and empowering. Ariel Sacks, a middle school teacher from New York City, said, “For my introverts, virtual learning really gave them a chance to express themselves and even lead the conversations about the books we were studying.”

Rethinking the school schedule. Teachers pointed to how the breakup of lock-step teaching schedules created space for them to be more creative in building stronger adult-child relationships — which has become essential given the trauma so many students are experiencing. Elizabeth Brown-Davis, a board-certified teacher who teaches special education in Hillsborough County, Florida, talked about how her school’s hybrid learning model afforded new flexibility in time and relationship building.

Abby French, a social studies teacher from Woodstock, Virginia, said, “We went to a four-day teaching week, with one day for teacher collaboration that led to more time for outreach to parents.” Sacks asked an important question, “Private companies use flex schedules and teaming all the time; why can’t schools?”

Capitalizing on teacher networks.  During the pandemic, these leading teachers shared that more than ever they turned to Facebook groups and Twitter in droves. Tal SebellShavit, a physics and astronomy teacher in Cambridge, Massachusetts, schools said, “The pandemic allowed me to see that we have many more teacher leaders than anyone thought.” Teachers talked about how they created and expanded their networks to design curriculum, solve problems, build their online pedagogical capacity and support each other’s well-being.

Steven Kolber, a secondary school teacher from Australia, found new ways for teachers to support one another through online networks such as his  TeachMeet Melbourne — a virtual research reading room. Peter Robson of Australia talked about how teachers can lead from anywhere and anytime now, and school systems could capitalize on expertise across various jurisdictions and time zones. During one Zoom conversation, Robson began to recruit some of the U.S. teachers to work on an international curriculum project he was developing with his Australian colleagues.

Across the globe, the pandemic revealed the deep inequities in opportunities for young people to achieve. Calls are growing for community schools, where cross-sector partnerships are leveraged to accelerate students’ academic growth and out-of-school allies help educators support children’s healthy mental and physical development as well.

As we were closing out one of our online conversations, Sarah McGlynn, a board-certified teacher from Davenport, Iowa, (who recently created a food pantry for her community) began to detail what a system of teacher leadership for public education must look like in the aftermath of the pandemic.

Covid-19 has been wreaking much havoc and uncertainty. However, we are sure about one thing: It is time to learn more from the many leading teachers across the globe about what the future of education can and must be. Our students deserve no less.

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Barnett Berry is a research professor at the University of South Carolina, where he continues to study and advance teacher leadership in order to create a more equitable system of public education. Emily Liebtag is a school innovation consultant based in Hillsborough, North Carolina, who has focused for two decades on learner-centered practices in communities across the country​.

The opinions in this commentary are those of the authors. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.

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