Can the Lockdown Push Schools in a Positive Direction?

baby and mom during a coronavirus pandemic

Here are five ways that COVID-19 could change education for the better.

The COVID-2019 crisis has closed over 124 thousand schools in America. Many will be closed until next year, with most likely experiencing roving black outs throughout the year. Since the rise of mandatory education in America a century ago there has never been this high level of school shutdown.Not during the Spanish flu of 1918, World War II, or 9/11.

Teachers and schools are trying to adapt to this strange new world. Zoom classes, asynchronous online learning, and Facebook lessons have been implemented with varying degrees of effectiveness.

But what happens when you go back to school? Are these closures merely “long snow days,” as one teacher put it? Or will this experience radically alter the way we think about “doing school”?

Most large-scale social changes occur during and after crises. Think of the rise in the social welfare state in post–World War II Europe and the Social Safety Net developed during the Great Depression

Post–Civil War America saw an increase in the number of people attending school after elementary school. After World War II, the implementation of the GI Bill made higher education available to new classes of Americans, transforming our higher education landscape. COVID-19 has been described as a “large-scale” crisis, hence the opportunity to transform society through education.

There are five ways that I think COVID will change the future of education—for the better.

More social-emotional learning (SEL) for students

The pandemic has seen a surge of articles with titles like “How to help students navigate this Social-Emotional Rollercoaster” and “Leaning into SEL amid the COVID-19 crisis.”

While normal classes are being disrupted by COVID, Self-Empowerment Learning (SEL) is becoming the primary work of many educators. During this time, social- emotional learning (SEL) work isn’t just another thing to add onto an educator’s plate. It’s the plate.

It’s widely acknowledged that we need to pay greater attention to the emotional needs of our students because their emotional well-being is suffering. When we return to school, teachers and pupils will have to deal with their parents’ lost jobs, their difficult times with their families at homes, and how this crisis impacts their future when they come to college. If school resumes and the work isn’t given priority, students will feel like school really doesn’t understand their needs and are out of touch.

Project Wayfinder, an organization I founded and currently lead, focuses on social emotional learning (SEL) with curricula designed to support young people develop a sense of purpose. As schools prepare to go back into session next year in the wake COVID, there has been an increase in demand for our services. School administrators are already thinking about ways to ensure their staff are prepared for students’ emotional and psychological needs after the pandemic.

This is on the mind of school leaders across the nation, including Michael Gayles who founded IGNITE Middle School in Texas. IGNITE is a high-quality school that prioritizes students’ social emotional needs. He wrote, “I mean.” Belong Connected Mental Health. COVID has increased our awareness of the need for our students’ mental health. “The crisis will pass, but I hope that all school leaders will prioritize these issues.”

baby and mom during a coronavirus pandemic

It would be nice if this work turned out to be something more than just a checkbox or short-term crisis management, but instead a more transformative integration of self-directed learning into our education system.

Higher priority on teacher well-being

It’s not just teachers who are suffering from this crisis. A Yale Center for Education survey of 5,000 educators found that the three most common emotions they felt each day were anger, sadness, and frustration. Anxious, fearful (or afraid), worried, overwhelmed, and upset were the top five. Anxiety, by far was the most commonly mentioned emotion, according to a recent survey.

Unfortunately, these findings are very consistent with those from a 2017 study by the Yale Center for emotional intelligence before COVID. The study showed that teachers were struggling with nearly identical issues. The top five emotions identified by that study were frustrated, overwhelmed, stressed, tired, and happy. The main sources of teacher frustration and anxiety were feeling unsupported by their administrators regarding challenges related to meeting the diverse learning needs of their students, high-stakes testing and an ever-changing curriculum.

As we shelter in-place, parents now need to step in to fill the roles that teachers used to play for school-aged children who were stuck at home during the coronavirus pandemic. And there are daily news reports about the challenges teachers are facing when teaching remotely. With this new awareness about teaching, we’re seeing a blossoming respect among teachers for their previously underapprecited work.

American teachers work longer hours than in any other OECD member country. But they’re not widely respected in our culture; well paid; or given the autonomy they really need to do their jobs well. This crisis may prompt a cultural shift in the acknowledgement of the burden that teachers bear and the credit they’re due.

More of a coaching and mentoring role for teachers

Most teachers I know agree on one thing: Their jobs are increasingly about connecting with students. Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re seeing an increase in one-on-ones between teachers and students via text, Facebook Messenger, and Zoom. We’re seeing more of this in wealthy schools than in poor schools. But it points to the importance for one-on-one interactions, which are often difficult to foster within the constraints imposed by our normal blocked school schedules.

For years, I’ve argued that educators need to be taught more like mentors and coaches, and less like knowledge dispensing and disciplinary authorities. How are these two jobs different?

Mentors are more likely to share more of themselves and their roles, and understand their role of providing support and encouragement, instead of just keeping students disciplined or progressing through the curriculum. Many teachers I know have been sharing more with their students how they’re personally dealing with COVID and the resulting increased sense of connection and mutual understand­ing.

The mentoring relationship begins with human connection; it’s a two-way street. This differs from the traditional teacher-student relationship, where the teacher is always in control. Most thoughtful teachers I’ve known enter teaching because they want to help students, but the truth of the matter is that the structure of schools (particularly high school) squeeze the opportunities for helping students out, or relegate them to extra-curricular activities.


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