What good can come from a global pandemic? Maybe one thing is the opportunity for teachers to rethink how to best engage with and teach their students.

For most people, what comes to mind when they hear the word “teacher” is a woman standing at a chalkboard in front of the classroom. In front of her are rows of desks. At those desks are kids, and on them is a notebook, a textbook, and a pencil or a pen.

This vision has never been further from reality than now.

Within crisis often hides opportunity, and what’s emerging when it comes to the role of teachers is the potential to try different ways of staffing.

It is already August and many teachers don’t yet know if they will be returning to a physical classroom to teach for the upcoming school year. Others have already started teaching but don’t know if their role will continue to be in person or online. For teachers, this is an unbelievably difficult situation where they might feel like they have to choose between their jobs teaching students whom they love and their health or the health of their loved ones. 

This has put the education system, from states to districts to schools, in a position of having to answer questions with no great answers: open with in-person instruction, start completely remotely or choose a hybrid model with some students at home and others in school?  And one of the biggest questions: how to staff schools to meet the needs of their students in all of these scenarios? 

But within crisis often hides opportunity, and what’s emerging when it comes to the role of teachers is the potential to try different ways of staffing. 

Redefining teacher roles

Some creative ideas that have emerged nationally focus on ensuring that teachers are playing to their strengths, that students are getting the best teachers for the best (or best of the options) format, and that teachers are able to get the support and professional development that they continue to need and deserve, even more so than usual. What this looks like in practice is going to look very different by school or system, but it’s worth considering the benefits of learning from this unique time to see whether some of the innovations in teacher staffing should stay beyond the pandemic.

“The Return: How Should Education Leaders Prepare for Reentry and Beyond?,” a report by Chiefs for Change.

“The Return: How Should Education Leaders Prepare for Reentry and Beyond?,” a report by Chiefs for Change.

In their report The Return: How Should Education Leaders Prepare for Reentry and Beyond?,” Chiefs for Change, a grantee of ours, recommends, “Reconfiguring teacher and paraprofessional roles to maximize high-quality instruction and connections with individual students….” In practice, this could look like a strong 3rd grade math teacher planning all of the math instruction for 3rd grade–using a high-quality curriculum and creating master lesson plans for all teachers in the grade level /course regardless of whether the lessons will be delivered in-person or remotely. Other teachers could then follow this plan and, alongside direct instruction, a paraprofessional or teaching resident can then facilitate small group instruction for those same 3rd grade students. In this scenario, a full-time certified teacher would not be necessary to be able to offer instructional support for the small group of remote students, which would allow for an expanded workforce. And an expanded workforce would help students more fully engage in the remote lesson since it would be led by a “teacher” and not a computer.

ERS, another grantee, has been collecting data for years, examining the talent and resource usage in schools and systems. As early as May, they have been publicly sharing key teaching role recommendations such as: 

  • Reorganizing teacher time for collaboration and learning to deliver great instruction—rather than one-off professional development workshops and isolated work; and
  • Revisiting school staffing and funding models to increase flexibility and match students’ and teachers’ needs.

And CCSSO’s guidance on restarting school includes a section on Educator Roles that includes descriptions of possible roles for educators—some of which could be done for all kids remotely, some of which focus on student emotional and learning needs, and some of which address learning needs and loss across grades or subjects.

In other words, ideas and recommendations abound. But what does rethinking the role of the teacher look like in practice?

Innovation in practice

Within the Exceptional Educators portfolio, we have two grantee partners who have embarked on this journey pre-pandemic. They’re finding that doing so has positioned them well to respond to student needs during COVID-19.

Public Impact’s Opportunity Culture has been using a teacher-leadership model with Multi-Classroom Leaders (MCLs) for seven years. Now, it is getting even more attention. In this model, a teacher with a strong track record of student growth is trained as a “multi-classroom leader.” The MCLs work with their teams, composed of five to eight teachers, to help design instruction, co-teach, and coach along the way. They also help their teams analyze and respond to data on student learning and are evaluated in part on the learning growth of the team’s (not just their own) students. On average (pre-pandemic), when placed on teams led by MCLs, teachers who previously performed at the 50th percentile produced student learning gains equivalent to those of teachers in the top quartile in math and nearly that in reading.

The multi-classroom leaders play many roles. In an elementary school, one MCL could work across all subjects, while others specialize. For example, one of the current MCLs supports 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade teachers in math, while another works in reading, helping teachers learn a new reading curriculum. MCLs also support teachers in remote learning, since they were trained as experts last spring. They work with teachers to define the next steps in instruction and brainstorm about how to reconnect with students who aren’t logging in. And they provide daily or weekly observations and feedback to teachers to help them improve their instruction. MCLs were doing most of this work pre-pandemic in an in-school setting; now it, like instruction itself, has moved online.

Co-teaching is another way to shift staffing for virtual or in-school learning. It enables small-group learning experiences and better positions teachers to understand and meet the academic and social- emotional needs of their students. This concept is not new; Blue Engine, another grantee in the Exceptional Educators portfolio, has been working on helping schools understand how to best use their teacher talent for ten years. In a recent article, Blue Engine’s CEO says that,

Effective co-teaching—the way that it maximizes the individual and collaborative capacities of expert educators for the benefit of every student—can pave a broad path of possibilities...

Just before the pandemic, Blue Engine received results from an impact evaluation of their co-teaching pilot that demonstrated seven points of growth on Algebra across all students. 

To bring co-teaching to life in more virtual classrooms, Blue Engine is working directly with school leaders on staffing plans for their schools. They are also working directly with teachers to coach them on how to use data and relationships to inform their remote or in-person instruction. An important component of co-teaching is collaboration among teachers that allows them to plan together for how to provide the kind of differentiated content that students need at this time; this planning is now mostly happening online. 

Looking ahead

Imagine a 5th grade student who sees her primary teacher Monday morning in-person. This teacher is great at introducing new math concepts. The student then logs in from home on Tuesday to take “class” with the other 5th grade co-teacher who has been trained for remote learning best practices. If the student has questions after that lesson, she might then chat online with a resident training to become a teacher. Each of these adults have strengths and each of them can support the student’s education in different ways. In the student’s eyes, they form a network of supporting adults; in ours, school and educators are reconceptualized to each person’s strengths. 

The coming school year is certain to be challenging for educators and families alike, but the innovation reflected above may be one bright light to come out of a dark year. An aspirational outcome of the flexibility and uncertainty of this school year would be a move towards considering what teachers teach best and how best to use their strengths to help students learn even after the pandemic is over. 

We’re encouraged by the student-centered innovation the organizations above have exhibited and are excited to support them as they think through how to best empower teachers to unlock students’ excitement for learning. Perhaps rethinking the very role of teacher could be the key.