K-12 Education: Is the Forced Change During the Pandemic Sustainable?

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As we have become increasingly aware, the challenges currently facing educators to effectively serve students during the COVID-19 pandemic are numerous.

As we have become increasingly aware, the challenges currently facing educators to effectively serve students during the COVID-19 pandemic are numerous. From transitioning instruction to a purely virtual modality to finding effective online resources, teachers have struggled to recruit and maintain student investment. As students have continued to try and adjust to a complete online way to attend school and learn, basic principles of traditional independent study have on the most part, been averted.

I have observed this paradox unfold throughout these eight months that seat-based schools have been tasked with dismantling the way they’ve always helped students learn. On the most part, teachers have adjusted their daily practice by transitioning their courses to daily live sessions where they impart the valuable lessons of the day within that subject area. Students sit complacent in their virtual seat to obtain the critical material and usually homework assigned that day on the content covered.

Two primary challenges have emerged from this approach to distance learning. Firstly, the teachers are under constant pressure to develop lessons on a daily basis to deliver which actually contributes to the second persistent challenge of engaging students each day during a time and within a setting that is tremendously tedious. I have spoken to many different students who have expressed feelings of complete boredom and disengagement and find little point in sitting through the daily live lessons required by their teachers.

I can empathize with both the teacher and student on each of these challenges as either are trying to do what they think is right during a time where new modalities have been harshly imposed upon them. They are also both motivated to accomplish what they are in place to do and that is either help the student learn and stay invested in order to learn. But that motivation seems to be wearing thin. Fatigue and complacency have set in and many are hoping for relief from this new peculiar normal.

As I’ve observed these challenges and frustrations, I’ve contemplated why there’s an apparent commitment to this single approach of teaching and learning in an online environment. Many schools and programs have been serving students primarily online for years and have uncovered some key fundamentals and benefits of distance learning that empowers students individually in their learning. Hence the name “independent study”, these fundamentals include:

  • Students independently using dynamic, standard aligned tools that serve to provide students with the course content otherwise directly communicated to them by a teacher
  • Students working in these online tools at the times of day that work best for them and within a personalized pace
  • Features within the tools to take notes and bookmark places students need further help or clarification from a teacher when they meet

It is important to note that because the standard aligned content is already developed and delivered for the teacher, the instructional sessions are devoted to targeted needs identified from course performance all trackable in the online platform

Though all of these practices have proven to be effective in an online learning environment, the traditional seat-based schools I have observed are not utilizing any of them. Teachers are instead spread thin, working to not only deliver daily online instruction modeled after the live, in-person classroom, but also scurrying to plan lessons each day to deliver to students that have become increasingly disengaged.

The question that looms large for me is why? Why would some very dedicated, competent and effective teachers choose to use an approach that creates more work, stress and less student engagement rather than utilize tools and practices that could ease the strain they are experiencing and empower their students? I believe it is due to a firm resistance to change that can play out in all of us in varying degrees during times of change.

From NCLB to the Common Core to the never-ending evolution of technology, the world of education continues to withstand continuous change, but none as swift and impactful as the change the pandemic has generated. Teachers have had to abandon their customary practices nearly overnight and shift to new ways to try and reach students. The closure of schools caused the most dramatic shift in education in history and though most have remained diligently supportive of their students, a deep resistance to make any further changes appears to be unrealistic.

According to the Track-Shift stages developed for participants and leaders who are experiencing and navigating change, the first phase of Deconstructing the Norm is often where forced or attempted change halts. This phase is comprised of the two stages of Turmoil and Regret that involves dismantling the old norm. Per the example of teachers navigating a completely new teaching modality, they have experienced all stages of this phase as outlined below, including apprehension, fear of the unknown, loss of control, grief, disorientation, and confusion.

Though these first two stages are identified as expected and necessary throughout any change process, it is critical that progression to the next three stages takes place for the change to actualize. The seat-based schools appear to be stuck in these first two stages, creating an inability to transition to the next phase of Constructing the New Norm, where an openness to new practices takes place. In order for teachers to transcend the first phase of deconstruction during this change, effective leadership is critical in developing and communicating a vision for what effective online teaching can look like during this time. The current minor modifications that merely imitate seat-based practices and have proven less than effective, demonstrate an unwillingness to truly change practices to accommodate the current distant learning set up. Integrating tools and practices reflective of independent study standards could be part of that communicated vision that comes from leadership, but that seems to be halted in the stage of Regret where disorientation and confusion persists.

The progression through the phases and stages of change can be arduous and filled with resistance. As part of SHIFT’s stages of change from a leader’s perspective, action steps are provided and outlined below that a leader can take in order to properly address and treat the emotions that emerge during change. 

As part of the effort to advance to Stage 3 of Adjustment, a leader needs to employ the action steps of Imitating the New Norm through guiding, connecting, and persisting with the vision of the new norm in order to assist the actualization of the change. Leaders of the seat-based schools have the opportunity now to create and implement a vision of how teaching online can be modified to better serve both students and teachers. This vision can be effectively administered with ample guidance and persistence in order to support the teachers who may struggle with the change within an overall resistant industry, ripe for innovative ways to reach students and achieve outcomes.

It is important to note that these changes may be temporary and once the pandemic is behind us, seat-based schools will likely revert to their traditional practices. In reflecting on that likelihood, I believe this time has revealed a deep resistance to change within the overall field  of education. Online learning has been an established modality in education for nearly twenty years and yet, seat-based schools were scrambling to implement any version of it, once the pandemic and school closures hit. This tumultuous time has been a hard lesson on change for many. If we were all able to recognize resistance to change we each may possess, we might be able to let go of it as individuals and overall industries in order to better serve those who rely on us. It’d be quite revolutionary to learn from this temporary force of change and humbly acknowledge the need to be more flexible and limber in order to accommodate students and teachers in any situation. Just maybe TRACK/SHIFT can help in that revolution.


This article was originally published at www.jessicaspallino.com. Her latest book, Change, can be found on Amazon.com or on her website.

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