Teaching during a pandemic: Reflections on a remarkable year

In “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho, Santiago is a shepherd boy who travels in search of extravagant treasures. He journeys to the markets of Tangiers and across the Egyptian desert. The story teaches us about listening to our hearts and learning to read the omens strewn along life’s path. With each passing obstacle and hurdle that the young boy encounters, there is a lesson to learn.

As this school year draws to an end, I reflect on the many false starts and frustrations. Troubleshooting technology glitches was a constant. Months of uncertainty, long hours, and juggling personal and work responsibilities piled up. Many teachers told me they had reached a breaking point. Since last fall, they tried and often failed to motivate students to speak through the tiny windows of Zoom. On the flip side, it was a year of tremendous growth. Teachers became virtual alchemists — people who transform or create things through a seemingly magical process.

Unfortunately, we had little foresight of the many changes the pandemic would bring to the classroom. Do we even know the scale and range of what is to come? The discussion has been driven in wildly different directions. There has been a plethora of ideas about what sort of knowledge, outcomes, and ends we are now supposed to produce.

The worldwide pandemic threw complex curveballs, speed bumps and barriers to teaching and learning. Many traditional methods became temporarily impossible or seriously limited. However, the situation is revealing new and more creative ways of discussion, engagement, assessment and delivery of learning materials. The art of teaching is increasing in power and enthusiasm. Like the alchemists of old, teachers and students have shared hundreds of stories of transformation in this brave new world of distance classrooms.

As students have spent countless hours engaged in online learning, officials at all levels have expressed concerns about the wellbeing of young learners. We debated the path for getting kids back into school buildings. Through all the uncertainty over the best steps for returning to hybrid or in-person learning, students have continued to do their best despite the disruption, isolation, and challenges they face on a daily basis.

In alchemy, there existed power to transform things for the better — real or imagined. Teaching during a pandemic is like working in a parallel universe, another world. Many of us expended excessive amounts of our energy adjusting to this new environment. The lines between what seemed to be happening and what was really going on became blurred. “We became inventors because our survival as teachers depended on our ability to adapt: we didn’t have a choice,” wrote Serena Morales and Dev Bose of Boise State University.

In their essay, “10 Reasons to Look in the Mirror: Reflecting and Learning from Pandemic Teaching,” Morales and Bose continued:

“Circumstances shoved us through a mirror: we overhauled courses, learned technologies, shifted our teaching to unfamiliar settings, rewrote assessments, changed feedback processes, and shifted learning expectations. There are things we did because we had to and which we would not have considered otherwise.”

At the highest level, a shift in mindset was required. Crucial emotional and psychological scaffolds were needed to teach in this new paradigm.

“In the past, we might have been so tied to traditional approaches that it took a pandemic to open our eyes,” said Dieter Uchtdorf. “Perhaps we were still building with sandstone when granite was already available. Of necessity, we are now learning how to use a variety of methods, including technology, to invite people — in normal and natural ways — to come and see, come and help, and come and belong.”

There will be more health emergencies and natural disasters in the future. We are now more aware of how students and teachers need to be prepared for learning continuity. Online synchronous and asynchronous, in-person, and hybrid modalities all came to the forefront during the national health crisis. We figured out how to adapt and adjust, to-and-between all of them, at a moment’s notice.

For some students, virtual school has been a blessing. They feel less anxious, have more quiet time to work and reflect, and are empowered to design their own schedules. Online learning has freed many to contribute their voices in new ways. Teacher efficiency has improved. Some blocks were previously dead time, in-between learning tasks. Now they are free spaces where students exercise enhanced choice, bolstering creativity.

Other students lost family members or friends to COVID-19. Many are experiencing economic instability. Now that they have lived through this, we can’t stop having conversations about those challenges. Loss, grief and societal issues such as inequality, oppression and poverty need to remain at the forefront of the classroom and community discussion. We have an opportunity to use this openness to heal. Build community. Move through adversity and come out the other side, together.

To understand the complexity of the challenges ahead, we need to be acutely conscious of the history. As we ponder the overwhelming reality of what still needs to be done, I’m optimistic that positive change will happen. In “The Alchemist,” Coelho makes clear that people are capable, at any time in their lives, of doing what they dream of. We can create ideal school environments where all students can learn.

Michael Strickland

Michael Strickland

Michael Strickland teaches at Boise State University and studies at Idaho State University.

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