Teaching in a time of crisis

Mark M. Diacopoulos – Ph.D. Curriculum and Instruction. 
Assistant Professor, Dept. of Teaching and Leadership, Pittsburg State University

Mark has been an educator for over 25 years. He has taught in middle and high schools both in the US and UK. An early adopter of educational technology, he has worked as a Technology Specialist and Curriculum Specialist in social studies for a large district in Southeast Virginia. He earned his Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction in 2018 and is now an Assistant Professor in the Department of Teaching and Leadership at Pittsburg State University in rural Kansas. As well as researching and writing about how to best teach future teachers, he also examines issues of professional identity, technology teaching and learning, critical friendship, and communities of practice. Mark is also a devoted parent, a lifetime fan of Arsenal F.C., and a self-described “retired broken aikidoka.”

Teaching in a time of crisis: Deciding what really matters?

One of the positive aspects of being forced to move my instruction to an emergency remote learning model is the opportunity to rethink my practice. The reflective questions I usually ask myself when evaluating my teaching such as: What worked? What didn’t work? Why didn’t it work? Did I meet the needs of my students? How will I improve the course experience next time around? For me, all these questions have been superseded in this time of crisis by one overarching question: Does it really matter? 

What matters: Changing student circumstances

Consider my education students. Over the last five weeks they have lost their field placements, been forced to move, some have lost jobs, some have been given more hours to work as they are now essential employees, they all had their classes shift to a temporary remote model of instruction, (this isn’t online instruction, as that involves a thought out process of instructional design, a luxury none of us has at the moment), some are now supervising their own children’s education, and some are caring for or worried about sick relatives. In the grand scheme of things, my course really doesn’t matter.

Rethinking coursework in a time of crisis

When I think about the coursework my students are required to complete, I must seriously consider what is important to their development as future teachers. How I assess them needs to be considerate of their varied and diverse circumstances. I must think about how I grade a task – does it need substantial feedback, so the student can go on to demonstrate proficiency, or is the task designed for compliance? If it is the latter, and we don’t need it for accreditation purposes, then it truly does not matter, and we can live without it. What coursework I ask students to do must be relevant, achievable, and have meaning to their current circumstances, as well as their development as future teachers. My challenge is to get this balance right because fundamentally, in the grand scheme if things, my coursework doesn’t really matter.

Rethinking student achievement in a time of crisis

Is it important that a student gets an A or a B? What do these grades even mean when we are working through an emergency? Does that even matter right now? In recent weeks my priority has been to make sure firstly that my students are at least safe in their environment and coping as best as they can. After that, I want them to be able to participate in the course requirement to a standard appropriate for someone who will be teaching in a couple of years. Ultimately, I want them to pass my class, but some will be unable to do so, and I understand. Because right now, my course isn’t a top priority. I will have students who won’t pass, for sure, but that is no different to normal. What is different is that students might fail the course not because they lack ability, or the dispositions to be a teacher, but they had to prioritize other things. And you know what, that is ok. I work with them, I don’t worry about deadlines, and penalty deductions, and punitive grading measures because, ultimately, my coursework doesn’t really matter.

Rethinking coursework for the future: Knowing it doesn’t matter

It is easy to assume that things will go back to “normal” sometime, and I can apply the same level of importance to my content as I did before the pandemic struck. But that would show a lack of learning and flexibility on my part. If my course doesn’t really matter in an emergency, it really isn’t that important outside of one either. So, this is an opportunity to consider what I do in the future to make sure I better meet my students’ needs.

For example, I should maintain a student-centered disposition to my course design in the future. Model an expectation of a mastery mindset. Keep giving the students the option to revise and resubmit, improve, collaborate, and produce authentic high-quality assignments. If I expect my students to be of a certain standard, I should change the structure of learning to help get them there. I need to adopt a “less is more” attitude to coursework.


Rethinking student contact: Knowing they matter

I’ve also found that I need to be more accessible to students in the future. One advantage of teaching remotely is the ability for students to reach out by email, or to video conference. I’ve spoken to more students on Zoom than I ever did in my usual office hours. So maybe I should change how I do office hours in the future. For a start, to avoid confusion, let’s call them “student hours” so students know the time is dedicated to them. I should also vary my location. Why do my office hours need to be held in my office? Why not hold a few in the learning commons of the library? Or in the coffee shop downtown? Making myself accessible to students might show them that they not only matter, but they matter to me.

So, what really matters? 

In the K-12 environment, the pandemic response has demonstrated how standardized tests, teacher evaluations, seat hours, and “covering content” doesn’t really matter. What does matter is the health and well-being of students and their families, our ability as a society to fulfill the social contract and make sure Maslow’s hierarchy of needs are met for everyone. We’ve discovered that schools and educators play a role that is far more important than content or coursework.

To a similar extent, I have learned that the higher education world plays a similar role. As a new professor of teacher education, my work is meaningless, whether it be research or teaching, if my students are not at the center of my decision-making. Their health and well-being are directly related to their ability to succeed in my course. If they are to be successful teachers in the future, they need to be happy, confident, successful students. If my practice, my coursework, and my research does not support that, then it really does not matter.


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