The Year The Classroom Norms Died
“Everything I did was wrong,” a colleague recently said about her teaching last year. That sentiment probably summarizes a lot of our teaching experience during the 2020–2021 school year.
In the before times, teaching was already difficult. But there was at least we knew what our jobs were — even if they did include a lot of add-on “can’t you justs” and “by the ways.” There was some sort of shared understanding about what teachers could expect of their students and what students could expect of their teachers. Students were expected to physically be at school, and there were even administrators who cared enough about ADA funding, truancy laws, and even truancy officers to support that expectation. Schools had dress codes that helped ensure that students didn’t attend in their pajamas. Teachers had effective classroom procedures that taught students what to do in class and how to engage with each other. There were clear schedules around when to work on each subject, when to eat lunch, and when to take breaks.
Not that these schedules and systems were perfect — they did not work for all students and some people have been pointing out that some policies can be classist, racist or sexist. Nevertheless, the shared understandings around behavioral and performance norms often helped teachers teach and helped students learn.
Then COVID hit and all of that go thrown into the air.
As the spring emergency measures lasted into summer and then into a contentious school re-opening in Fall 2020, students had to negotiate what it meant to be a student in 2020:
- What does it mean to be “at” school when “school” is happening online?
- What should one wear for a Zoom meeting?
- What is “on time” when you are turning things in on Google Classroom?
- What are appropriate ways to engage with classmates you have never met and who you can only see as a thumbnail — or black box — on a tiny screen?
- What are appropriate times and ways to engage with teachers when you are communicating with them via Zoom, email, text, and phone calls?
- What does “school” mean anyway? And why is it important?
Teachers also confronted new challenges and questions:
- What are the most important topics for students to learn in a year when covering everything was often impossible?
- How do you provide consistency when you have to keep “pivoting” between different forms of instruction?
- How do you provide consistency and engage everyone when you have to teach in two or three formats at once? For example in “hybrid” formats such as in-person and online, or classes that are simultaneously synchronous and asynchronous, how do we equitably engage and support all students? How can all students equitably be accountable for their learning?
- What is reasonable to expect during a national health crisis? Our our students? Of ourselves? What kinds of support are reasonable to expect of our administrators and school staff?
- How do we enforce expectations and behavioral norms when the students are at home?
- How do we have delicate conversations about students or parents who are dressed inappropriately or doing inappropriate things? What does “appropriate” even mean when we are zooming into people’s living rooms?
- How (or should) we ssign homework when the students are already working at home?
- How important are due dates? What do we do with the student who hasn’t turned anything in? How much additional time is reasonable to allow?
In the before times, there was at least maybe some kind of vague semblance of a shared understanding of answers to these questions. But during COVID lack of clarity from the state or local governments often meant that everyone was flying blind. There was a culture of “everything goes” for students, but where nothing teachers did was enough or was right.
2020–2021 was the year when teachers, who had already been getting hit from all sides in the endless culture wars, got hit from even more sides.
At the college level, people who taught in person had to do so under demanding circumstances, such as being fitted with a microphone and teaching from a stage to an auditorium of masked students. As I predicted last year, even “in-person” classes became hybrid classes, and instructors had to divide their attention between students attending in person and the students who were represented by black boxes on a screen. And then they had to deal with students who were frustrated with all the time the instructor was spending juggling the technology requirements of teaching online classes. Conversely, they also had to deal with students who complained when they were zooming in and felt disengaged. Then instructors had to “pivot” to online instruction when our school’s luck finally stopped holding out and we had to (predictably) end the term with online instruction. These changes had significant time costs for instructors and were often frustrating and confusing for students — who sometimes took out their frustration on their instructors.
I had opted to protect my own students’ health and to simplify by teaching a class that was entirely online (an option I was fortunate to have and that many teachers did not). But then I had students who were mad at me because the class was online and they didn’t like online classes. Perhaps part of the reason why some students resented me for teaching an online course is because there were so many options of course formats, combined with so much pressure for us all to risk our lives by continuing to have in-person classes.
I had been told that I could not require attendance, which meant I couldn’t grade on work completed during class (unless I created a separate, make-up version for each small, in-class assignment, which would have doubled my course planning time). This left me to grade strictly on homework and written assignments. Then I got blamed by both students and administrators when some students in my junior/senior level college class had trouble with independently doing written work. I was told I couldn’t make students turn on their cameras, but then some students complained on my course evaluations that they just turned off their cameras and didn’t pay attention, and that their lack of engagement was my fault. Again, most of these issues went back to a lack of clear norms and expectations around what levels of engagement and independence were appropriate to expect from students.
In the Spring Term, a colleague tried to create a more engaging and interactive class by requiring students to turn on their cameras. Then a student threatened that “someone should write her up.” But when she didn’t require students to turn on their cameras, students complained that her class was not engaging. The lack of clear norms created a situation where we were damned if we did and damned if we didn’t.
These types of issues were even worse for my colleagues who taught K-12 classes, and who were often left to provide online or — worse — “hybid” instruction with less training, less technical or pedagogical support, students who were less proficient with (or had less access to) technology, and often with outdated computers and internet connections that were glitchy and that often crashed. As the 2020–2021 school year wore on, the same parents who had lauded teachers as heroes back in March 2020 blamed the teachers for all of these issues — and more.
Much of this confusion and negativity went back to the collapse of norms. In a learning environment where everything was ad hoc and constantly shifting and evolving, it was virtually impossible to do everything well — or even to know what doing something “well” was supposed to look like. We were all flying blind and there were no models. It was difficult to hold students accountable when there was no longer any consensus about what were reasonable expectations or what — if anything — students and their parents should be held accountable for. In an environment where we were all working so hard to barely continue holding on, teachers wanted to have “grace” for students and families. But any discussion of having “grace” for teachers was often nonexistent. This flexibility was necessary, but it also meant that expectations that had previously been clear were now muddied — for everyone.
As other people have commented, COVID amplified and sped up trends that were already happening. Students and families were already demanding more personalized services — even though no one wanted to pay higher taxes for the staff and smaller class sizes that would allow teachers to meet these demands. Every year, every level of administration from the district, to the state and federal governments were adding new administrative demands and unfunded mandates teachers needed to fulfill. Social justice movements were already demanding — rightly — that schools and teachers re-think and reform policies that made it harder for diverse students and students from less privileged backgrounds to be successful in schools. But while COVID amplified these existing trends, it simultaneously made the pathway for meeting these demands less clear.
We can expect these trends to continue if and when COVID wanes and schools go back to “normal.” Now that Zooming into class is an option on days when getting to school feels inconvenient, people will want to continue to have that option — even if that creates more work for the teacher and even if they later complain that the format wasn’t engaging or didn’t allow them to be successful in the course. More people will want to know why due dates matter, and will argue that they should be able to turn things in at the time that works best for them — perhaps only to later complain that instruction wasn’t clear when the real issue is that they had forgotten the instructions the teacher gave a month or more before. Or more people will prefer getting information online over coming to class, only to find that watching recorded class sessions is not interesting or to have difficulty budgeting the time to do that.
Perhaps increased flexibility is useful. But it also creates more spaces for confusion or inconsistency, and more opens more cracks that students (and families and teachers) can fall into. A colleague has told me that classes that help our most at-risk learners the most are often the classes that are the MOST structured. If so, will less structure increase access or will it just provide more space for at-risk students to flounder? How will students know how to be successful when the pathway to success is variable and inconsistent? How will teachers know whether they’re doing a good job when that is not even clearly or consistently defined? What will “learning” look like and how will we know when that is (or is not) happening for our students?
Proponents of standards-based learning will answer these questions by saying that we will know by how well students meet the standards. But my experience with trying that with my own classes in Fall 2020 was that standards-based assessment is fine for people who know how to meet the standards, but is not always motivating or helpful for people who are not yet able to do that, who don’t work well independently, or for whom the standards are outside of their zones of proximal development (i.e. where the standards are too far past their current ability). Learning is process based and socially-situated, so only measuring how well a student has met the standards isn’t always an adequate way to promote or encourage the learning and growth that need to happen before a student can meet the standards.
Proponents of testing will answer these questions by saying we can use tests to measure students’ success. But tests, like standards-based instruction, measure what students already know rather than helping students learn and grow. Moreover, tests are even more subject to bias than school policies.
Effective teachers don’t simply lecture and dump content into students’ heads the way one would pour liquid into an empty vase. It’s true that computers can do that as well as most teachers, and that online instruction is sufficient for that kind of learning model. But that is not what real teachers do. Effective teachers create classroom cultures that encourage processes, engagement, interaction, questioning, experimentation, and even failure. They help students learn to be learners — rather than simply measuring what students already knew or learned independently, which usually perpetuates existing biases and inequities. Doing all of that requires students and teachers to be there — in person. It requires everyone to be fully present and engaged, not watching a lecture at 2X speed while shopping or texting or playing a game on another screen. While we have all been doing what we have to do during COVID, returning to normal may require reviewing, re-negotiating, and returning to the kinds of shared instructional norms that allow actual learning to happen.