In a year of remote learning, who learned what?

School is out, to the extent that it was ever in this year. Most kids are free – free of the classroom and free of the screens at home providing their education. Some kids loved it; some kids hated it. For parents it was the same. Whether or not anyone liked how they were getting their schooling this year, did they learn anything?

Let us begin with the premise that virtually every teacher and administrator in every Maine school did their level best to make it work for the kids. Unprecedented in scope and duration, the pandemic presented unimagined challenges to the principals and superintendents who had to make decisions about where and how to administer an education based on constantly changing information, and the teachers who had to deliver lessons to kids in masks, kids exhausted, kids scared, or kids on a screen with a house full of distractions.

Administrators felt the weight of decisions that could literally mean life or death for students and their families. Many parents put their trust in school administrators and did their best to support them. Others were quick to second-guess decisions about how school should happen and where to educate their kids. It is unlikely any of us came up with a better idea than our local superintendent.

Teachers had a whole different set of problems. Though there have been many educational innovations involving electronic technology in the past decades, few teachers in the K-12 world ever thought they might be asked to teach students entirely online for an extended period.

The first challenge was the wide range of computer skills with which teachers were equipped when the pandemic began. Some were adept, others shuddered at the very thought of a computer. Even a school with good tech support did not have nearly enough of it to get every teacher through every day.

And it’s not like you can take the same lesson plan you prepared for the classroom and deliver it in front of a computer screen instead. What might be engaging at school is bo-o-o-ring at home. Anything hands on? Imagine the chaos of 20 kids who may or may not have assembled the necessary supplies, who might or might not have sufficient space to work.

Perhaps most important is that teachers have an uncanny sense of the temperature of a classroom collectively and of each student individually, at least when they are all in the same room. Reduce those students to little pictures in boxes and “reading the room” is a very different proposal. There is very little ability to manage student behavior from a remote location. And as soon as a student finds the magic button, one click turns their picture box dark and then who knows what is going on, or even if the student is still present?

Little people in the first few grades have very different needs from high school kids. Teachers for K-2 need a very different skill set than high school teachers. They have often blossomed into expert instructors of a particular age group because their personality and training are well suited to the needs of one group or the other. What works beautifully with one age group would be a fatal misstep with another. There are also students with major physical, social or developmental needs. How do you meet those needs when the students are not even physically present?

Take a massive learning curve, the loss of one-on-one interaction, a constituency that ranged from unengaged to over-engaged (looking at you, parents) and teachers’ own fears for their health and safety and you have a crucible that has tested even the toughest teacher. Add to that the life challenges teachers experience, just like everyone else – divorce, inadequate income, housing, pre-school kids at home – and it is extraordinary that they made it through, always keeping our kids’ best interests foremost, and have lived to teach another day.

The possibility of a return to normal school life in the fall is tantalizing. We may have learned that remote work, remote meetings and even remote education have their upsides, but students benefit enormously from being in the classroom with live teachers there for them. We can also see that kids from families with food, housing or income instability are going to struggle no matter the learning environment.

Teachers and school administrators deserve our gratitude for helping to get our kids through the last year and a half. Yes, as parents we have an active role to play in our children’s educations, but unless you are a teacher yourself, go easy on the criticism, especially when our educational system is confronted with a challenge the likes of which it has never seen before. The best way to keep this from happening again? Get vaccinated.

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait worked for 25 years as a registered nurse at Mount Desert Island Hospital. She has served as a Bar Harbor town councilor and as an independent state senator from Hancock County.

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