Lessons from COVID

“A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor.” It’s one of those sayings of indeterminate origin. Is it an old African proverb? Or was it spoken by American president Franklin D. Roosevelt? Or maybe it was discovered and translated from Greek on a stone in the Aegean Sea? Regardless, it’s an apt saying for the last three semesters of teaching: we’ve all been challenged, and we hope we’ve come to the end of this thing stronger than we were before.

That is the optimist’s version, of course. There’s no denying the millions of lives lost to COVID-19, the furloughs and missed mortgage payments, the cancelled reunions and performances, the parents sick in hospital beds and the students who can’t bring themselves to get out of their own. As teachers, we had front row seats to so much of this struggle, and we faced multiple challenges of our own. And this is certainly not over. Though it looked for a while that the 2021–2022 school year might be back to “normal,” COVID variants and vaccine hesitancy continue to make our seas look choppy. Who knows what this school year will bring?

And yet, there is hope. A safe and effective vaccine is readily available in much of the developed world, and there are organizations working to bring it worldwide. Restaurants and concerts and travel and all the other things that fill our non-work hours are feeling more and more comfortable. We’re still enjoying that new hobby we picked up during the slightly slower pace of the last year and a half. In June, teachers and students around the continent breathed a sigh of relief, donned their swimsuits, and jumped into the pool. The God who neither slumbers nor sleeps, who sees our coming and our going, has sustained us through a difficult year, granted us summer respite, and brought us back to our classrooms—our callings (Psalm 121).

We hope that rather than sound flippant or out of touch, this issue—Lessons from COVID—celebrates the resilience and agility and positivity that so many teachers brought to their craft over the last few semesters. We found new ways to do old things and reasons to scrap the old things altogether. Some of us discovered practices we had that were unintentionally inaccessible or unnecessarily complicated. Educators of all generations ventured into using technology in ways they had never imagined. We brought the theater production online, and it went well. We held the enrollment interest meeting on Zoom, and new families still signed up. As parents, we learned about our children and their teachers. As coworkers, we stepped up, even when our plates were already full. 

In this issue, you’ll hear from principals, chaplains, parents, and teachers about what went well in their COVID school year. Maybe you’ll empathize: I loved Jamboard too! Maybe you’ll pick up a tip: I never considered asking students to record themselves reading scripture for chapel. Maybe you’ll just be exasperated but encouraged: Wow, at least some teachers had success last year! But if we can all come away from the rough seas of this most challenging and untraditional year of teaching with at least a couple of things we’d like to keep (please, no one say masks!), we’ll sail truer courses going forward.

One thing I’d like to keep from these COVID school years is my new procedure for cold calling. In the past, I tended to avoid cold calls because I know it makes students anxious. Sometimes they just aren’t ready to answer, or they might be nervous about getting it “wrong,” or, yes, sometimes they aren’t paying attention—but I don’t want to shame them for that very human tendency. But this year, with students learning simultaneously in the classroom and live in my Zoom room (which I could see on an iPad in front of me), I knew I would have to specifically call on my online learners if I wanted to hear their voices. It turns out the solution was pretty simple: I developed a practice of warning students that I was about to cold call. I would present a question or topic to the class, let both online and in-person learners know that I might be calling on them for an answer, give them about one minute to develop a thought or jot something down, and then I would call on a random student. This easy switch gave me the benefits of cold calling (thus hearing voices that aren’t often heard and improving engagement) while fixing the “gotcha” vibe it can sometimes have.

Abby Zwart

Like Abby, my procedure for calling on students will be improved because of the way I needed to interact with both live and virtual students. (I was totally going to use that one!) But another practice I’ll hold on to is a result of the way we needed to do school at the end of the 2019–2020 school year. When our school held synchronous online classes during those months, I posted my online lessons much more clearly before each class, explaining step-by-step what we’d be doing in class, with all resources (online handouts, slideshows, video segments) linked, then explaining in the same step-by-step fashion what the homework for the following class would be. In 2020–2021, with some students attending class in person and others virtually, I maintained this practice. It made it easier for virtual students to follow along, but it also helped in-person students access materials electronically and made it easy for students who missed class to get caught up.

Steve Tuit