Former Teacher of the Year: Crisis forced us out of our classrooms and maybe our comfort zones

Casey Bethel: COVID-19 tore down barriers that hindered schools from trying new things

Georgia's 2017 Teacher of the Year, Casey Bethel says the COVID-19 pandemic has "torn down the barriers that hindered schools from trying new things and threw open the window allowing them to observe the effects of changes in real time."

After 14 years of teaching high school science, Bethel is now the 6-12 science coordinator for Douglas County Schools, coordinating resources, curriculum and teacher professional development for 14 middle and high schools.

In this guest column, he urges schools and educators to use this forced and unwanted experiment to look at the innovations that resulted and how they might change education going forward.

By Casey M. Bethel 

I took a course recently called “Innovation in Education” and the first thing we all acknowledged was that education is the one industry where change is often stifled by fear. The risk of getting it wrong has prohibited many from tinkering with it too much. At the time, we all wondered “What could free us from this fear?”

At that time, none of us even considered a global pandemic.

The COVID-19 crisis is a terrible situation. Yet, for us in education, this pandemic is both a gift and a curse.

Hear me out. As troubling as these current circumstances are, there is a silver lining —if we take advantage of it. None of us asked for it but we are living through the newest “Great Experiment” in education.

“Flattening the curve” has taken priority and many aspects of daily life have seemingly screeched to a halt. Just this week, Gov.Brian Kemp confirmed that Georgia schools will remain closed until next school year. Playgrounds and lunchrooms will remain empty while schools have pivoted to “distance learning”— teachers planning from home and hosting virtual class meetings.

Meanwhile, parents stuck at home with their kids have been upgraded from homework helpers to temporary homeschool teachers. It turns out that teaching is not as easy as many suspected, but I digress…

Schools and teachers deserve respect and praise for developing and implementing new plans at the rapid pace necessary to keep up with the needs of their communities. At the same time, we are learning more than we have in a long time about a myriad of education topics. COVID-19 has torn down the barriers that hindered schools from trying new things and threw open the window allowing them to observe the effects of changes in real time.

Teachers are experimenting with and perfecting new models of blended instruction—effectively combining digital resources with face-to-face time (even if by Zoom) to keep students engaged and learning. A teacher friend of mine recently celebrated that a timid and unsure sixth-grader in her class has “really found his way and come alive” in this new model. He is now leading the class.

Across America, struggling schools have begged for increased parental involvement. I witnessed it myself for decades in the schools I’ve taught at. And yet, right now both sides are learning. It is clearer than ever to parents how important consistent involvement is to their child’s learning, while teachers are testing out every available means to draw families in. My kids and I look forward to their principal’s morning YouTube announcements and evening clips of teachers reading bed-time stories. Previously sluggish risers, my whole house wakes early now, eager to complete the daily lessons.

Even in my neighborhood, where we’ve gotten distance teaching down to an efficient system, the conversation has switched to grading. It is daunting to consider everything from how much work is enough and how much is too much, to how should teachers grade it and how much should it count.

All the while, everyone can hear the whisper of the old adage that “not grades, but understanding the world and continuous personal improvement make learning worthwhile.” Sure, grades provide accountability, but many of us are embracing the realization we have avoided -- that grades are no longer a serious motivating factor for many students.

Instead, school systems across the country are devising creative plans to reward students for performance -- and everything is on the table. One elementary school has shifted all the attention from grades to a huge end-of-year celebration honoring students who show the most progress. We will never replace grades entirely, nor should we, but it will be exciting to see how this all influences our thinking when traditional school resumes.

Most important by far, this pandemic has turned an 800-watt light on to the challenges of equity in education. Schools cannot blindly push digital learning while some families have absolutely no access to technology. School buses delivering food during the pandemic remind us that while kids look forward to school for learning, some depend on it for their only meals. Without school, some students turn into care takers for younger siblings, robbing their attention from any type of schoolwork. COVID-19 has brought these and other issues to the forefront.

Hopefully, everyone has come to grips with the different home experiences of students in America, and that, even for students in the same class at the same school, how widely those situations may diverge. The test for us is to use this lens to make policy decisions with enough awareness and compassion to consider all students and all families.

Indeed, it is a tense time to be an educator. But it is also an exciting time. Taken with the right perspective, the pressure we all feel might be the growing pains of an industry that is changing for the better. I don’t know the answers to any of these complex topics in education, but I believe we are learning them as I type this.

None of us saw COVID-19 coming, nor did we ask for it. However, if we bring forward the lessons we are learning through this difficult experience, we can come out of this better than we went in.

I hope all of your families are safe and healthy. I promise you that I feel the pressure you feel. But I am proud of the way we are all responding and I encourage you to take many deep breaths, try new things, learn and grow with the rest of us.