Teacher Survey Project

Challenge & Opportunity: Teachers weigh in on heartbreaks, breakthroughs of distance learning

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Introduction

At the end of January 2021, we surveyed our California Teacher Consultant Response Network members to ask them about their experiences as they adapt to serve their students during the pandemic. One hundred twenty-one teachers completed the initial survey of 25 questions, providing a rich data set of survey responses and thoughtful comments.

We selected the members from lists of teachers who have participated in education leadership programs and school improvement and curriculum networks. Those chosen closely match the diversity of the state’s teaching force by ethnicity, gender and geography. Two-thirds teach at the middle and high school levels. Most have more than 10 years of classroom experience.

In this Spotlight we shine the light on those questions, ratings and comments that illuminate how the teachers are facing the challenges of the pandemic — how they have changed their practice, the challenges they face and the supports they receive. As much as possible, we present the teachers’ ratings and select their comments so that they speak for themselves. We add our own reflections at the end.

 

The Data: Survey Results About the Teachers’ Experiences

Section I: Teachers’ work during the pandemic

Question 1: What is your current teaching arrangement?

Of the 121 teachers who responded to this question:

    1. Almost all teachers (97%) are engaged in distance learning with their students.
    2. About one in ten (9%) of the teachers are engaged in some sort of hybrid model.
    3. Almost none of the teachers are teaching in-person in open schools.

Illustrative comments on teaching arrangements:
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We have been in full distance learning mode since the start of the school year.

— A teacher in an elementary school with 37% low-income students in the North Coast region

I zoom for twice a day. One hour each for math and ELA. Office hours are held after each class for 30 minutes.

— A teacher in an elementary school with 47% low-income students in the San Jose-Monterey Region

We did have a cohort of at-risk students on campus in the cafeteria (14 kids out of hundreds) for a while this fall, but as our numbers rose in December, they decided this was no longer safe.

— A teacher in a middle school in the Central Valley

Monday/Thursday I teach period 1, 2, and 3 for 55 minutes per period via Zoom. Tuesday/Friday I teach period 4, 5, and 6 for 55 minutes per period via Zoom. Wednesdays we have “Office Hours” all day.

— A teacher in a high school with 81% low-income students in the Northern Delta-Sierra Foothills

Some of my students are meeting in person, but I am still teaching 100% from home. They assemble in a “learning center” and are grouped so that they can work together if needed. We only ever have a portion of our classes in person at any given time – we are a true hybrid – but I am at home.

— A teacher in a middle school with 24% low-income students in the San Francisco Bay Area

Question 2: On average, how many hours do you spend each week working as a teacher ? 

Of the 121 teachers who responded to this question:

  1. On average teachers report working 8 more hours per week than they were before the pandemic.
  2. 15% of respondents are working fewer average hours per week, 10% are working the same, 75% are working more. And, significantly, 31% are working over ten hours more per week.

 

Question 3: To what extent do you agree with the statements below?

Question 4: What proportion of your colleagues do you think would agree with these same statements?

Of the 120 teachers who responded to questions 3 and 4 above:

  1. A large proportion (77%) find the current conditions of teaching to be very challenging.
  2. An even larger group of these teachers (82%) feel that the public does not understand their challenges and how hard they are working to meet them.
  3. A large majority of the teachers (94%) said that their colleagues also find the current conditions of teaching to be very challenging, and almost all of them would agree.
  4. Almost all of our teachers (93%) also said that their colleagues would agree that the public does not understand or appreciate what they are doing.

Section II: Teachers’ Experiences With Distance Learning

Question 5: As a teacher, how would you characterize your own experience with distance learning?

Of the 121 teachers who responded:

  1. Almost one-half of the teachers (48%) say that with lots of effort they have found out how to make distance learning work.
  2. Another fifth (22%) say that they are still trying to figure out how to make distance learning work.
  3. About one in ten (10%) say that they are struggling or that distance learning has been a disaster.
  4. Almost one fifth (17%) say that the transition to distance learning has not been too hard.

Illustrative comments about the transition to distance learning:
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During the summer, when it became obvious that we wouldn’t be coming back face to face, I made it a point to research distance learning resources and to teach myself how to use them. This was done on my own since my district never offered any type of training.

— A teacher in a middle school with 95% low-income students in the Los Angeles area.

With lots of effort, I have found out to make some aspects of distance learning work, but other aspects are still extremely challenging or impossible.

— A teacher in a high school with 90% low-income students in the Los Angeles area.

I did not enter the teaching field to interact with a screen. I am feeling the loss of interpersonal interaction.

— A teacher in a high school with less than 1% low-income students in the San Francisco Bay Area.

I would say that with lots of effort, I have found out how to make distance learning work SOMEWHAT. It is not a complete and total waste of time, but it is true that this format is less engaging for students, and I think engagement goes a long way in making learning happen. I don’t think my teaching is stellar right now, by any means. But I’m not actively damaging kids, and they are practicing some skills, so it’s not a total loss.

— A teacher in a high school with 41% low-income students in the Central Coast region.

Prior to the pandemic, I had been using technology regularly in the classroom. When we switched to distance learning, I was well versed in creating screencasts and digital copies of assignments…so that transition was fairly smooth.

— A teacher in a middle school with 39% low-income students in the Central Coast region.

I think since I am young and tech-savvy, the transition hasn’t been so hard. I know this is not the case for other teachers.

— A teacher in a high school with 98% low-income students in the Los Angeles area.

I feel like I am doing comparatively okay compared to others around me. I just don’t think I’m doing half as well as when I was in the class full time.

— A teacher in an elementary school with 93% low-income students in the San Diego area.

I have made great strides, but I am not happy with the lack of student participation and quality of work produced. Not blaming the students: I see this as lack of skill on my part.

— A teacher in an elementary school with 96% low-income students in the North Coast region.

I am working harder than ever before — some things are working, some are not. Truly engaging students in their own learning is very challenging; I am still trying to figure out how to do that.

— A teacher in an elementary school with 40% low-income students in the San Diego area.

I am trying really hard to take it one day at a time… I have gotten better at this mentality, but at the start of all this, there were many nights of crying, and many sleepless nights.

— A teacher in an elementary school with 61% low-income students in the San Jose-Monterey region.

I do not know how to motivate students to work through distance learning. I spend a tremendous amount of time researching, planning, creating and delivering lessons both synchronously and asynchronously. My students’ families say they want to help. But only about a quarter of my students turn in work. Those who do turn in work are the students who would do well in any situation. That leaves three-quarters of my students who are learning little. The assessments I’ve given show students declining in all areas. I don’t really know what to do. I don’t know where to turn to find help.

— A teacher in an elementary school with 76% low-income students in Northeast California.

For the large majority of my students, I have figured out how to make distance learning work, but for students who need extra support (academically or emotionally) distance learning has felt like a disaster because there is no way to really reach them or build a relationship with them if they choose not to engage.

— A teacher in a high school with 22% low-income students in the San Francisco Bay Area.

It is a lot of work, but I feel like the students are learning and doing well. I’m willing to do the work to keep everyone safe… I think distance learning is working.

— A teacher in a middle school with 33% low-income students in the Central Coast region.

If I had been provided…Any support…and Any training/professional development, along with more prep and collaboration time, then transitioning to distance learning would not have been nearly as difficult or time-consuming…

— A teacher in a high school with 72% low-income students in the Sacramento area.

It is a daily struggle to make lessons engaging and valid for the students.

— A teacher in an elementary school with 88% low-income students in the Los Angeles area.

I have a very supportive district. We spent a whole week in August (paid) to prepare. I have a working collaborative team that helped share best practices. I am in a wealthy district that was able to get computers and internet to all students. And I am part-time this year, so I have fewer classes. I am STILL very tired, so I can’t imagine how full-time teachers with children at home are coping.

— A teacher in a high school with 22% low-income students in the San Francisco Bay Area.

When I say I am making it work, I think it’s as effective as it can be under the circumstances; it’s also been huge heavy-lifting for my grade-level team. I would not have been able to do it on my own and have been blessed to be in a grade-level team that was working at a high level of collaboration and support BEFORE the pandemic so while it was hard — VERY, VERY HARD — I wasn’t having to figure it out on my own.

— A teacher in an elementary school with 88% low-income students in the Inland Empire.

Because much of my classroom included tech integration and content delivery digitally, the transition to online teaching was not overly difficult — students were already trained in how to use their Chromebooks and use specific apps and programs.

— A teacher in an elementary/middle school with 100% low-income students in the North Coast region.

My kids are learning, and we share joyous moments learning and connecting throughout the day.

— A teacher in an elementary school with less than 1% low-income students in the Los Angeles area.

August and September were grueling for teachers, as we learned new digital platforms and rolled out curriculum to (sometimes) recalcitrant families. But now the vast majority of students and parents are on board with distance learning. And the technology is much easier now that I am familiar with it!

— A teacher in an elementary school with 30% low-income students in the North Coast region.

My teaching style has always relied on in-person relationship-building. I’m an older teacher, and many of the technologies are completely new to me. Plus, I struggle with feeling connected to my students when I don’t see them very often in person.

— A teacher in a high school with 58% low-income students in Northeast California.

I have had to re-think a lot of my curriculum choices, cut way back on material and activities, and learn new programs. That being said, those lessons and actions have created good insight and habits that I will continue once I am no longer teaching online.

— A teacher in a high school with 30% low-income students in the Inland Empire.

 

Section III: Supports for teachers as they struggle to adjust to the pandemic era

Question 6: On a scale of 1-5, how well-supported do you feel as you figure out how to best work with your students using online distance learning?

Of the 120 teachers who responded:

  1. One quarter (26%) feel very well-supported.
  2. More than three quarters (81%) feel supported to some degree
  3. About one teacher in five (17%) feels unsupported.

Illustrative comments about teacher support:
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Fortunately, I belong to an elite group of CA educators (The ILC) so I create resources for teachers, and know where/who to go to, when I need support. There is little to no resources/support from my district.

— A teacher in a middle/high school in Southern California.

I honestly think that while the administrators and personnel at District Office have the best intentions, they have no idea how challenging it is to do distance learning. There is no way to know unless you’ve had to try to take your curriculum and completely revamp it for a digital setting. Furthermore, administrators and district office personnel are swamped with their own responsibilities/challenges. It’s just a recipe for teachers feeling more isolated than ever and not feeling supported. It’s extremely challenging.

— A teacher in a high school with 66% low-income students in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The organization I work for is insisting on mandates that do not take the challenges of distance learning into account. This disconnection is maddening.

— A teacher in a high school with 79% low-income students in the San Francisco Bay Area.

I am supported by colleagues that I reach out to. I am a TOSA 50% I support teachers in any way I can. My district has supported us 0% — nothing in terms of support; teachers have fully stepped up and proven that the district office is not a necessary part of a school system.

— A teacher in an elementary school with 67% low-income students in the San Francisco Bay Area.

I am very disappointed in how my school has approached “teacher support”. I never imagined that we would be left to drown in a national emergency …Everything I have discovered I have discovered on my own. ZERO admin or district support.

— A teacher in an elementary school with 65% low-income students in the San Jose-Monterey region.

I feel very supported. We have weekly staff meetings in which we share what is working in our classrooms and what is not. Our coaches share new things, activities, or ideas. I have NEVER felt alone in this journey!

— A teacher in an elementary school with 90% low-income students in the Los Angeles Area.

My school was a one-to-one technology school prior to the pandemic, and so I feel fairly good with the transition to distance learning. My grade-level team worked together to make it work for our students. When we needed any apps, my admin is very supportive in providing them.

— A teacher in an elementary school with 49% low-income students in the Los Angeles Area.

I am the only teacher in my school who is trying to teach remotely. There is no one to ask for help and no one with any experience in distance learning.

— A teacher in an elementary school with 76% low-income students in Northeast California.

I have a very supportive administration who has provided resources, but has also given us a lot of time to work within our own departments or with content-alike teachers.

— A teacher in a high school with 22% low-income students in the San Francisco Bay Area.

All of my support in distance learning has been independent learning, seeking and self-study. Nothing that my district has provided has met my individual needs.

— A teacher in an elementary school with 31% low-income students in the North Coast region.

It’s all pretty much been on my own and in collaboration with other teachers on our own time, not school-provided time.

— A teacher in a middle school with 33% low-income students in the Central Coast region.

I rarely receive any communication or acknowledgment from my principal… My requests for resources are met with empty promises or no response at all, so the idea that teachers are not spending their own money on their classes since we’re in distance learning is a complete and total falsehood. My superintendent has provided nominal lip service and zero support. Lately, I even feel as though the Governor and the State Department of Education do not support me or the professional educators of the state. To say my morale or teacher morale is low due to the lack of support I or we receive would be a gross understatement.

— A teacher in a high school with 72% low-income students in the Sacramento area.

We need more social-emotional support as teachers, just as the students need it.

— A teacher in an elementary school with 58% low-income students in the Inland Empire.

Our district has provided a lot of professional development. I wish we had more dedicated planning time to work collaboratively with other teachers to figure out what resources and platforms will work best.

— A teacher in an elementary school with 20% low-income students in the Los Angeles Area.

 

Question 7: On a scale of 1–5, please rate the usefulness of each of the following sources of support for addressing any challenges that you have been facing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Things to note in the data above:

  1. Almost all the teachers (95%) report that other teachers are by far the most useful source of support for them.
  2. Online resources are also useful to many teachers (89%).
  3. Professional organizations and resources are the next most useful source of support (84%).
  4. Less useful are district supports (52%), university supports (30%), county supports (28%) and state level supports (18%).

Question 8: On a scale of 1–5, please rate the extent to which your school district

Of the 121 teachers that responded:

  1. Many teachers felt their districts lacked:
    • The expertise needed to help teachers (51%).
    • The resources needed to help teachers (39%).
  2. A minority of teachers report that districts were helpful to them a great or very great extent in the following areas:
    • Professional development (35%).
    • Offering students extra needed supports (32%).

Illustrative comments about district support:
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Unfortunately, when it comes to providing training, our district has been seriously lacking. They have provided us with materials such as computers, document cameras, etc. but not with the best strategies for teaching under these circumstances.

— A teacher in a middle school with 95% low-income students in the Los Angeles area.

Seriously, how do people who have never taught during a pandemic have the expertise to help those have also never taught in a pandemic? Or to evaluate them?

— A teacher in a high school with 20% low-income students in the San Jose-Monterey region.

I think the district has considerable resources — but they are more interested in controlling us and the resources. They want us teaching maximum possible hours online and doing so in a way that continues to focus on their test score-oriented goals.

— A teacher in an elementary school with 88% low-income students in the Inland Empire.

I could not have imagined going through this pandemic working in another district. I love (my school district)!!!!

— A teacher in an elementary school in the Inland Empire

My district has done a great job helping students and families. They have provided each student in the district with a Chromebook and some families received hotspots. They have added counseling services and outreach services to keep parents connected. Conversely, they have done nothing at all to help teachers. They actually seem adversarial to teachers, especially the school board, which has prioritized the voices of parents over teachers. I realize it’s very important to listen to, and consider, the wants and needs of parents and families. However, teachers are professionals with a lot of expertise in the area of children, and we have been totally disregarded. It’s frustrating when your voice is not heard.

— A teacher in a middle school with 33% low-income students in the Central Coast.

They have been great at providing technology for students and teachers, but our professional development is pretending that the pandemic is not happening.

— A teacher in an elementary school with 58% low-income students in the Inland Empire.

My particular school has some supports that others in the district don’t have, but the last place I would go for help or support is the district.

— A teacher in a high school with 85% low-income students in the Sacramento area.

Teachers are the ones doing the work finding and discovering best practices in response to problems of practice that arise daily. Districts need to be surfacing these “bright spots” and offering those teachers the TIME or MONEY to make their practice and thinking visible to others.

— A teacher in a high school with 36% low-income students in the San Diego Area.

Too often I have felt that the district personnel are just completely out of touch with the reality of what teachers and students are going through. I’d include our school board, site admin, county admin and state education department leaders. I just wish more of them tried to teach for a week on Zoom to truly understand how challenging this is for all of us, teachers and kids and families. Some get it, but many seem to just want to continue in the same old ways without reflecting on what is really happening.

— A teacher in a middle school with 79% low-income students in the Central Coast.

It has been devastating, demoralizing, and I’ve never felt more alone in (two decades) of teaching.

— A teacher in a high school with 58% low-income students in Northeast California.

They have been learning along the way with us, so it’s been a challenge for them to support us — no fault of their own.

— A teacher in a middle school with 79% low-income students in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Question 9: There is a saying that “necessity is the mother of invention.” To what extent have you:

Of the 120 teachers who responded:

  1. The members of this network have responded to the challenges of the pandemic by:
    • Finding new ways to teach (92%).
    • Inventing new curricula and materials (81%).
    • Inventing new pedagogical strategies (72)%.
    • Using new curricula and materials invented by their teacher colleagues (57)%.
  2. These teacher leaders have also supported their colleagues (81%).

Illuminative comments about responding to challenges:
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I have volunteered to create materials, share lessons/strategies, pilot programs and just jump on Zoom with colleagues to help them “figure out” a new tool.

— A teacher in a middle school with 80% low-income students in the Central Coast region.

It’s actually one of the silver linings. We have all been forced to adapt and grow so much that I will be a much better educator when we are eventually able to return to the classroom.

— A teacher in a middle school with 71% low-income students in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The increase in teachers supporting one another has been a positive, certainly!

— A teacher in an elementary school with 28% low-income students in the Sacramento area

This innovation has been a matter of survival. There was no way that we could teach without radically changing our practices. Also, teaching online is quite isolating, so teachers at my school have been trying hard to connect with each other, even if it is just a two-minute conversation between meetings.

— A teacher in an elementary school with 30% low-income students in the North Coast region.

I have collaborated more than ever with colleagues sharing material, content, teaching strategies, discussing socio-emotional learning tips to engage students, even creating new curricula to address societal issues today.

— A teacher in a high school with 51% low-income students in the Los Angeles.

I had to create curricula to keep students engaged in learning, to adapt to the new way of teaching and learning and to meet the needs of all students.

— A teacher in an elementary school with 95% low-income students in the San Diego Area.

I have truly enjoyed being able to be CREATIVE and try out new things. I have learned new ways to teach and to look at curriculum from a different perspective — (useful) when schools open up again.

— A teacher in an elementary school with 90% low-income students in the Los Angeles Area.

I am fortunate to be a member of a grade-level team that is amazing; we are truly collaborating and supporting each other. I would not have made it without their support. At the risk of not being humble, we have done amazing things this year. We are already talking about how to maintain some of the best things we have done in the next school year and are excited about being one to one on the technology. Our district has resisted it and had so many excuses for so long, and now it is done.

— A teacher in an elementary school with 88% low-income students in the Inland Empire.

I would not say that it is a matter of invention so much as it has been a matter of identifying the strategies and resources that worked in the physical classroom and adapting them to the virtual world. There is a lot more to consider in terms of the logistics of sharing and creating sharing spaces that were not a part of my process before.

— A teacher in a high school with 90% low-income students in the Central Valley.

Working with my colleagues, we have actually created a lot of material that I am excited to continue using post-pandemic. There are some great ways to use technology to support learning, and I can’t wait to try some of this out in a classroom where I can better support students in using the computers to learn.

— A teacher in a high school with 22% low-income students in the San Francisco Bay Area.

This definitely pulled me out of a rut, and I’ve been able to try new things and develop new curriculum and work with a few colleagues.

— A teacher in a high school with 85% low-income students in the Sacramento area.

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