Education Technology

Tips for Teachers in the time of COVID-19

Posted 10/30/2020 by Joanie Funderburk (@JoanieFun)

Teaching with Covid

Sometime last March, our lives changed forever. Our specific start dates to the COVID-19 pandemic might be slightly different, but now, nearly eight months later, it’s clear that things will never be the same. Everyone’s lives and many people’s work have been impacted, but educators may be the most impacted of all. As we continue into the new school year, math teachers face a challenge that isn’t new but is certainly exacerbated by the pandemic: teaching students with unfinished learning from previous grades. Some key principles can help make this complicated situation more manageable. But before we think about teaching and learning math, some foundational ideas should come first.

I’ll echo what flight attendants remind us during the review of emergency procedures before a flight: “Secure your own oxygen mask before assisting others.” In other words, take care of yourself first. Many teachers have an innate need to care for others, and this can be challenging to overcome, but now is the time to work on that. As a classroom teacher, I often didn’t even consider my own needs as I was consumed with the needs of my children, my students and their families, but this ultimately leads to frustration, burnout and even resentment. When we make the time for self-care, we refill our own tanks, so we have the energy to give to our students, their families and our colleagues. This allows us to work on my next recommendation: Build the relationships you have with your students and their families.

As educators, we all recognize that relationships are the most important aspect of our work. The global pandemic has heightened the importance of relationships, as our students, like us, are experiencing an increased amount of stress, trauma and uncertainty. Building trust, expressing empathy and connecting on a human level is more important than ever for educators and the students and families they work with — a prerequisite for any semblance of learning in this unusual time. Don’t be afraid to take the time for relationships, even if you feel that you might be sacrificing content. The returns on relationship-building are unsurpassed.

Teaching with Covid

Of course, the role of a math teacher is to ensure that students learn mathematics. So, once you’ve taken care of yourself and have built relationships, consider these guiding principles for teaching and learning:

  • Stay grounded in grade-level content and the most important mathematical ideas of the grade you teach. As much as possible, ensure that the mathematics students engage with this year is content for their grade level. By using resources (such as the Coherence Map and Progressions Documents) that help make connections between previous grades and current grade content, teachers can strategically circle back to previous content and fill gaps while staying anchored in grade-level concepts.
  • Focus and build on students’ strengths, rather than on their deficits. Although it’s natural to think about the gaps and learning losses that are an expected result of the disruptions to learning last spring, we can make more progress by focusing on moving students forward with the skills and knowledge that are already solidified. Instead of using formative assessment to find holes, try using them to identify what students know and understand, and use those math ideas as building blocks for new learning. Select an open-ended task with multiple entry points (such as the free tasks from Illustrative Mathematics or the technology-enhanced activities from Texas Instruments), then demonstrate different student approaches to showcase the learning for all students. By carefully selecting and sequencing student work, teachers can provide a series of stepping stones to the important mathematical idea addressed by the task. Even students whose thinking is very preliminary can contribute, enhancing their mathematical identity and beliefs as learners.
  • Prioritize the most important mathematics. Getting through all the math content of a grade or course has always been a challenge, but with the pandemic, the pressure to teach everything is through the roof. Instead of worrying about everything, commit to teaching fewer concepts more thoroughly. Select the concepts that are most applicable to the next grade or course using Focus Documents to identify Major Work of your grade, or your state’s priority standards, if they have them. If you have the chance to collaborate with teachers of other grades, get their input on the topics that deserve the most attention. You can’t do it all and will only frustrate yourself by trying, so give yourself permission to do a few things well, instead of everything poorly.

Thank you for all you are doing each and every day for students. If no one has told you lately, please know that you are doing a great job, even if you don’t feel like you are. Remember to take care of yourself first, attend to relationships with students and families, and follow some basic principles for math learning this year. We will get through this, and will be better educators for it on the other end.

About the author: Joanie Funderburk has over 30 years of experience as a math educator, including nearly 20 years as a high school math teacher and ten years in math leadership and professional learning positions at the district, state and national level. She lives in Parker, Colorado, and currently serves as the Strategic Alliances and State Policy Director for Texas Instruments and as President of the Colorado Council of Teachers of Mathematics.