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Covid-19 Is Testing Our Core Teacher Values

Covid-19 Is Testing Our Core Teacher Values 

There is nothing like a global pandemic to help one understand what really matters.

As I enter my fifth (fifth?!) week of online teaching, I have begun to develop a rhythm. It is, however, a rhythm reminiscent of my first years of teaching.

It’s a rhythm that goes: “Okay, I figured out tomorrow’s lesson, and I know what topic I’m doing the next day, but I have no idea how I’m going to teach it. And next week I am wrapping up the unit so then I have to face the next unit.”

I find myself working more hours, reaching fewer students, and teaching less content.

As I relive memories of those first couple of teaching years, I find that the same questions that plagued me at the beginning of my career are resurfacing. They are the questions about teaching and learning which have always lurked under the surface but have now taken on a new urgency:

► How do I keep students entertained and interested and wanting to come back for more now that attendance is more difficult to enforce?

► If students are not being graded, how can I motivate them to do any work or to learn? Why does this topic matter? Should I leave out X to focus on Y?

► Or is X actually necessary if I’m going to teach Z next week? And should topic Z be assessed using method A? Or would that be busy work, and instead should I try method B?

► Should I focus on content or skills (a question that mistakenly assumes there is an either/or answer)?

I’ve been wondering about questions like this for my entire 20-plus-year career. And the most important question of all? The one that every student has in mind – in every class at every level?

Why do we have to know this?

And so I fall back to my most basic belief – to what I have learned over a long career, with many successes and failures: The only thing I can truly offer students is to teach what I believe matters.

I teach U.S. history. I strive to teach it in a way that reveals the darkness and light, that shares good stories and connections to the present and that raises questions about the future. I have always tried to follow this model of teaching, and it seems even wiser advice today.

What Is Your Why?

1936 Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum / Public domain

1936, Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum / Public domain

One of the biggest hurdles history teachers face is the “coverage” problem: how to “cover” the many topics. The ins and outs of every New Deal program? Not necessary. Comparisons of the New Deal to the previous era of reform, the Progressive Era, and a jump to today and what our government is doing now? Much more relevant.

Other disciplines have their challenges and specific burdens unique to those disciplines. But now is the time, no matter what you teach, to ask yourself the question the students have in their minds: why do we need to know this?

What is your “why”? What drew you to teach this subject years ago? Why do you love it?

Helping Students Care

Last week, Curtis Chandler wrote on his MiddleWeb blog that we should “focus on teaching first…and technology last.” Yes, of course you need technology, and perhaps it is a good time to learn new tech tools. But remember to focus on what you are going to teach and why it matters before you go down the rabbit hole of fiddling around with glitzy new (or new to you) tech tools.

If you’ve never given much thought to why you teach what it is you teach, let me gently suggest that there is no time like the present. You must be able to explain to a middle schooler why they need to know the formula for an area of a triangle or the properties of liquids or the differences between the Spanish verbs ser and estar or why good vocabulary matters.

In his conclusion to last week’s post, Curtis Chandler wrote, “Our task isn’t merely to improve our ability to teach remotely, but is for each of us to maintain calmness, clarity, consistency, and high standards for learning.” While I agree with every one of those points, I know it is not easy during this moment to be calm, or consistent, or to maintain high standards.

So I focus on clarity; what matters and why? Because if it matters, my students will care. And if they care, they will learn.

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