How Can Educators Honor Their Expertise While Using COVID-19’s Opportunity to Transform Their Practice?

Teacher helps student working on a laptop.

By Rebecca Bates and Alicia Espinoza

September 9, 2020

For educators, COVID-19 is simultaneously a simple and complex time filled with contradictions. Leaders rise to the occasion, but efforts are still top down. Community members are scared and fearless. The economy opens and closes. Parents feel appreciation and disappointment. Instruction is innovative and antiquated. Students have opportunities and experience inequities. School districts have plans and need to plan.

Despite all the complexities and competing perspectives during this era of COVID-19, you as educators know what quality instruction looks like for your students. Even though this pandemic has pushed education to new modalities of face-to-face, hybrid, and remote learning, many effective tenets of teaching and learning should remain. This year, “classrooms” will be a place of both change and preservation. Educators should pause and consider which parts of your practice are worth preserving in this new era, as well as how you can use COVID-19 as an opportunity to grow and transform.

Preserve your existing high-leverage instructional practices

Highly effective teaching is multidimensional and can often feel like a moving target as you grapple with different requirements, evolving instructional strategies, and ever-changing learning needs. Now more than ever, educators must tap into their experience and expertise, despite the challenges and uncertainty you face amid COVID-19.

Educators by nature are problem-solvers and care deeply about student learning. Although information is coming from all directions—ranging from governors to local health agencies—don’t forget to capitalize on your own stores of knowledge. Continue to integrate into your virtual or in-person classrooms high-leverage instructional practices such as the following:

  • Relationship building: Many students may feel a sense of isolation or disconnection from their peers and other adult mentors they are accustomed to seeing daily. Continue the practices that have worked for you in building strong teacher-to-student and peer-to-peer relationships. This is most likely one of your greatest strengths!
  • Student-centered instruction: Students need to feel like active and important participants in their learning. The physical distance they may feel from virtual instruction can be mitigated by creating opportunities and structures for incorporating their interests, aspirations, and unique personal experiences into the classroom. So much is occurring in real life; how can you leverage those experiences to make learning relevant and applicable to their daily lives? You’ve done this many times over, and you now have an additional COVID-19 canvas to work from!
  • Safe and supportive learning environments: As mentioned in a previous Region 9 Comprehensive Center blog, students may be experiencing varying degrees of trauma during this time, and it’s possible that their learning environments, even if virtual, may be the only places they feel safe and welcome to express their feelings and develop healthy ways of reacting to them. COVID-19 has fostered unorthodox ways of connecting with students; leverage those innovative channels to provide the individual support some students may need in extremely extenuating circumstances.
  • High expectations for all students: As students find themselves locked out of extracurriculars like sports, speech, robotics, cheer, fine arts, and so on, their opportunities to experience a sense of achievement or success have been significantly reduced. The learning environment may be one of the few spaces where students can feel a sense of accomplishment as they persist through challenging grade-level tasks and activities. Planning rigorous instruction for a diverse set of learners was never easy before COVID-19. Ensuring students achieved grade-level standards was equally challenging—but not new. Yes, focusing on essential standards and planning for accelerated learning may feel implausible considering the interrupted instruction this spring. However, this is precisely why it’s even more critical that teachers continue to engage students in rich and rigorous learning experiences unapologetically—with care, perseverance, and appropriate supports to ensure academic success for all.

Although physically distant settings require new and innovative ways of carrying out effective practices and routines, trust your instincts and experience to help you reimagine how you will continue to integrate them into your practice.

Transform your teaching by striving toward equitable instructional practices

This back-to-school season, students are more academically diverse than ever before. In addition, culturally, linguistically, and racially diverse students need to feel as though their identities, backgrounds, or unique circumstances do not automatically put them at a disadvantage. They need to be empowered to work as partners with their teachers and peers to achieve high levels of learning. Instill the belief that all students can learn with the required supports from their teachers, peers, and family.

There are multiple paths to meet students where they are and support them in learning. It may be necessary to modify the curriculum or instruction or adjust expectations, but in doing so, students may not easily access the material or engage in the critical thinking required at their grade level. Scaffolding instruction allows us to support students’ engagement with grade-level content.

As the name implies, scaffolding provides temporary, adjustable support for students to reach higher levels of learning. Scaffolding provides what some students need to access grade-level material and instruction and creates opportunities for students to meet grade-level expectations. Scaffolding asks teachers to take on more of the academic load and then gradually release the responsibility to the students. It is a “just in time” support that may not be necessary for all students but can be built into lessons so that it is available to the students who need it.

Teachers can learn to strategically scaffold content, tasks, and materials:

  • Scaffolding content: Identify content demands and make connections to topics of interest to reduce students’ cognitive load. To scaffold content, you may choose to:
    • Use high-interest content.
    • Preteach unfamiliar content (such as proper nouns, vocabulary, concepts) to build background knowledge.
    • Break the content into smaller achievable chunks.
    • Use easier content to teach a skill or strategy and gradually introduce new content as the student builds confidence or demonstrates mastery.
  • Scaffolding tasks: Think through the discrete steps it will take to complete a task. Model or think aloud the step-by-step process prior to having students complete the task with peers or independently. To scaffold a task, you may choose to:
    • Break a task into discernible steps.
    • Model how to complete the task multiple times.
    • Provide multiple opportunities to practice and receive feedback.
  • Scaffolding materials: Offer written or verbal cues to help students complete a task. To scaffold materials, you may choose to:
    • Provide prompts or cues to remind students of the steps.
    • Provide graphic organizers to support students as they approach new content.
    • Provide visual cues such as examples, pictures, charts, and posters.
    • Provide sentence stems, outlines, or frameworks for written responses.

The goal of scaffolding instruction is to develop independent learners who can fully engage in grade-level work. Remember—scaffolds are temporary supports and possibly even more important in a hybrid and remote learning world!

Build on your expertise with new ways to support student achievement

This new reality is a challenge, but it is also an opportunity to try new ways to support student achievement. Educators, remember that you have the knowledge, skills, and experience to keep your “classrooms” a place where students feel safe, healthy, and connected and a place where learning is personalized, on grade level, and supported with appropriate scaffolds.

Meanwhile, if you need more ideas on how to build scaffolding into your practice, here are some resources to check out:

In the COVID-19 era, everyone has an opinion about education. Few are experts. As a country, we need to believe in and support the real education experts—our educators, our national treasures. Thank you for teaching and nurturing our future this year.

Rebecca Bates is the deputy director of the Region 9 Comprehensive Center and a senior technical assistance consultant at the American Institutes for Research. Bates has more than 20 years of experience supporting literacy instruction and student growth as a teacher, coach, and consultant.

Alicia Espinoza leads the Region 9 Comprehensive Center’s equitable instruction project with the Iowa Department of Education and is a senior technical assistance consultant at the American Institutes for Research. Espinoza has more than 20 years of experience as an educator and coach, providing professional learning and support to state, district, school, and teacher leaders in the implementation of evidence-based practices in curriculum, instruction, and assessment to equitably serve all students.

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action.