From Wuhan to Brooklyn, educators are rethinking what students really need

Doing the work, but are they ok?
Doing the work, but are they ok?
Image: REUTERS/Tyrone Siu
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As principal of Brooklyn Technical High School, New York City’s largest specialized high school, David Newman is used to a busy environment, with 6,000 students, 300 teachers, and constant buzz and bustle in hallways and classrooms.

Newman is now leading the school alone, from his basement.

Like educators everywhere, the road to moving his school online, virtually overnight, has been bumpy, from trying to get devices to students, to suddenly needing frequent meetings with his 15 assistant principals and with teachers, which would have been inconceivable when everyone was in the building and had significant autonomy.

Amid the massive collective effort to make sure kids continue learning, Newman has been struck by how hard it is to do the thing that teachers do naturally when in a building together: connect.

“I feel really disconnected,” he lamented during an online panel discussion last week for LearnIt, a global education conference. “I tap into students through the student government, but it’s not enough.  We’re doing a poor job of replicating the dynamism that exists in our schools.”

His concerns were echoed by school principals from Wuhan and Milan, the epicenters of Covid-19, who said that while their initial focus was on getting content online quickly for students to learn, they quickly saw a need to find new ways to check and see if kids are ok.

When Wuhan went into lockdown, students at the Wuhan Yangtze International School dispersed to four continents; only 24% of the student body stayed in the region. Principal Erika Carlson said teachers faced multiple challenges: balancing teaching in four times zones, serving kids with no quiet space, no technology, or devices that had to be shared with other family members. Then there was the task of helping students whose family members were sick with Covid-19, as well as those who had lost relatives or friends to the virus.

“The big issue was the socio-emotional part,” Carlson said. “How do you get the sense of connection that you get across the table at lunch or in the hallways?”

More than learning

Coronavirus has been a stark reminder that schools have never been just about learning. Teachers of course know this. They may have to teach a curriculum that changes at the whims of political leaders, and prepare kids for state tests they see as outdated, but every day they also see who is out of synch, who is hungry, who is hurting, and who needs help.

Beyond the details of history or biology, they are expected to teach kids everything from sex education to the dangers of drugs, the benefits of reading, the pitfalls of screen time, how to respond in a live-shooter situation, how to manage peer conflict, and how to manage money, all the while helping to obtain the necessary supplies and social services for kids and families in need. “Teachers are first and foremost psychologists without the training,” said one school leader.

If lockdowns have made more visible to parents and government leaders all the things teachers do, they have also highlighted the mundane but very human aspects of good teaching: managing discouragement, catering to multiple ability levels, helping kids who lack self-control. As parents struggle to do this with the children they have at home, they can start to imagine what a classroom of 25 to 30 kids might be like.

Schools have tried to find ways to connect with students in creative ways. At the International School of Monza outside Milan,  one teacher suggested the school create a digital space where the students could come and speak to someone anytime about how they were doing. It set that up while moving quickly to regularly polling students to see how things were going—something teachers normally would do in classrooms just by looking around, and by feel. “You can’t see expressions or how they are waking up in the morning,” said the school’s principal, Iain Sachdev. “The quiet ones are more quiet in a virtual classroom, so this constant checking-in becomes really really important.” 

Carlson said some of her teachers at her school in Wuhan are experimenting  with gaming, allowing students to log in from their various timezones and play games that use English, social studies, and science. Students enjoy accumulating points, building up their powers, and connecting to peers in a competition. But it gets tricky when students don’t show up, or disappear for a few days. “The school community piece is really difficult and the hardest to replicate,” she said.

Newman said about 97% of Brooklyn Tech students are attending class and engaging with the work, and the staff is seeking out those who “fall off the grid.” But he also said he worries “about the students who are doing the work, but for whom things are still not ok.”

Forced to innovate

While the pandemic has taken its toll on learning, particularly for the most disadvantaged students, it also has allowed teachers and administrators to become out-of-the-box thinkers overnight, asking what school might look like with more technology, or less content, or fewer high-stakes assessments. The sudden need for remote education also forced many teachers to embrace technology whether they wanted to or not—a feat which would have been impossible in normal times. Now some are asking what comes next?

Ju-Ho Lee, a former South Korean minister of education and chair of a global task force on retraining the education workforce, said the whole experiment—parents having to be teachers, learning having to move online, everyone realizing the power of peer interactions as well as the impact of student-teacher relationships on kids’ wellbeing—presents a unique opportunity to let technology do more content delivery and teachers do more high-level, human-touch work. “This pandemic will make parents, students, and teachers realize that we should be more aggressive in dividing the roles,” he said. (He calls this “high-tech, high touch” teaching).

Brooklyn Tech’s Newman said that when alumni come back, it’s not the content they remember but a teacher, or a set of skills they learned. “The minutiae that we hold dearly to, that we find so important in our subjects, these are the things that dissipate,” he said. Lockdown has prompted him to think what students really need to thrive as adults. 

“I don’t want to belittle content, I’m a content tiger myself,” he said. “But weighing this all up, it makes us put it in perspective.”