From the Magazine

4 Things the Pandemic Did to Change Teaching Forever

The COVID-19 pandemic reshaped the world and how we go about living our lives. One of the hardest hit sectors was education, which pivoted to a largely virtual model that caused teachers and students alike to rethink the best strategies for learning, communication, and socialization.

Throughout the crisis, nearly 93% of households with school-aged children reported utilizing some form of distance (or online) learning from home. This meant teachers across the country had to reshape their lesson plans to accommodate an online learning model. They also had to develop new ways for students to socialize and for parents to connect with educators.

While the sudden and necessary changes may have been difficult to navigate, particularly in the early months, the COVID-19 pandemic also brought about surprising silver linings for teachers. Here are four things the pandemic did to change teaching forever and what this new era of education means for students, parents, and educators alike.

Increased focus on mental health

With students nationwide quarantining for weeks, mental health became an utmost priority. In the months that followed the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, 25% of high school students reported worsened emotional and cognitive health. Between social isolation, remote learning, fear of getting sick, and even financial issues caused by the crisis, youth were hit hard.

“We learned the importance of mental health and socialization,” says California-based licensed psychologist and school principal Melaura A.E. Tomaino. Throughout the crisis, she saw more students receive mental health services at school and in turn, thrive both personally and in their studies. This has led teachers to prioritize mental health in their classrooms. “State-adopted curriculum is important, but if we don’t understand and acknowledge every aspect of our students’ development, we will fall short every time.”

Yet it’s not only students who are receiving an increased focus on mental health. Many teachers are also taking steps to protect their own mental health, which was significantly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic as well. A nationwide poll of K-12 employees found that 63% reported feeling stressed during the crisis, while 54% reported high levels of burnout or fatigue.

Improved parent-teacher communication

While it may sound counterintuitive, a pivot to online learning and remote education models actually improved parent-teacher communication for some educators. It gave parents more accessible and convenient communication options while also increasing the speed of that communication.

“For years, parent-teacher communication has relied on paper newsletters or announcements that teachers send home with important information,” explains California-based teacher Lauren Tingley. This system, she says, was antiquated and problematic in increasingly digital times. “Paper gets lost. Whether your student is in kindergarten or high school, there is a high likelihood that the paperwork will never make it into the hands of a parent.”

For students who split time between two households, online communication tools have also made it possible for both parents to receive copies of paperwork and other important updates. “The pandemic forced teachers to communicate with parents using technology like Remind or Class Dojo,” Tingley says. “These systems allow for frequent and relevant communication between the school and any adult involved in the child’s education.”

New flexible and personalized learning approaches

Online learning models, though stressful for some students, allows others to excel. This has shown educators the importance of providing flexible and personalized learning approaches tailored to the individual needs of students. “Students learn in different ways,” says Betty Norton, teacher and president of education for Xceed Preparatory Academy. “Many students actually excelled in the virtual environment because they were able to focus on school, get the one-on-one help they needed, and complete their work on their own time, at their own pace.”

For other students, remote learning doesn’t necessarily have to mean sitting in front of a computer watching a Zoom lecture. “There are so many ways to involve students in their education from a hands-on, student-led approach,” explains Carolyn Reeves, STEM teacher at virtual-based Sora Schools. This can include educational games (both in-person and online), student-led presentations, and group research projects, the latter of which have become increasingly easier through online access, which allows students to participate in the classroom or at home.

More access to education

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that life happens and things can change on a whim. In the event of a crisis or simple, unexpected everyday occurrences like having a car break down or being stuck inside due to bad weather, students don’t have to lose access to learning. “Snow days and emergency days are going to quickly become a thing of the past,” suggests Illinois-based teacher Nicole Evert. “Students and teachers can easily log in from home.”

For parents or guardians who work remotely, Evert also believes that more and more families will have the opportunity to utilize online learning without the need to homeschool. For example, this can give families a chance to travel if needed and still access school materials and lessons. Teachers can continue to engage with their students and be available at a distance if needed.

Despite the difficulties created by the COVID-19 pandemic, many changes that positively impact teaching are likely here to stay for good. With increased learning capabilities, improved parent-teacher communication, better access to education and a focus on wellness, teachers and students alike can set themselves up for success in an ever-changing world.

Ashley Zlatopolsky is a Detroit-based writer and editor. Her work can be found in Rolling Stone, National Geographic, SELF, the Guardian, USA TODAY, and more. You can visit her website at www.ashleyzlatopolsky.com or follow her on Twitter at @ashley_detroit.