Who was prepared for the unexpected?

Who was prepared for a pandemic that would close schools for up to two months or even more? No one, for sure. We were all caught by surprise in a situation that we would never have predicted even in January or February of 2020. However, when we look at it more closely, maybe some educational institutions were better equipped than others – not for this pandemic, specifically, but for unpredictable situations in general, or, perhaps, for dealing with something that is intrinsically messy and complex: education in this new era.

In a matter of two or three weeks, K-12 schools and language programs, among others, had to move their classes online in some way or another. Some adopted video classes followed by exercises for students to do at home. Others adopted synchronous online solutions for the teachers to continue working with their same groups, but remotely. A few schools decided to bring forward their mid-year recess and give students and teachers a break during the isolation period, with plans to return when schools reopen or, if it takes longer, probably to go online, too. A small proportion decided from the beginning that they would change their calendar and make up for the lost days face-to-face and, in the meantime, engage students in extra practice activities

Of course, the solutions above depend on teachers’ and students’ access to technology, equipment, wi-fi or data plans, and the like. It is indeed much more challenging for schools or districts with low-income students to simply move their classes online. Even so, allow me to be perhaps optimistic when I mean that every type of school, in every context, has the potential to have been prepared.

What being prepared for this shift requires is not just having the equipment and access to the technology. One can have all that and not be prepared at all. Conversely, one may not have the equipment or the technology and be better prepared. Why? Because, essentially, being prepared, as teachers, means having created in our classrooms the conditions for students to be autonomous, to be inquisitive, to be creative and versatile. Being prepared, as institutions, means providing the means for teachers to engage students in active learning, in projects, in inquiry, in developing social emotional skills such as grit and adaptability. It also means helping teachers themselves accept and handle the unpredictable, the unknown, and to take risks.

If a school is used to distilling content into students’ heads (the “banking model” of education, according to Paulo Freire) by way of lectures that students passively listen to, followed by mostly rote learning exercises, it is indeed very difficult to move to a home-based scenario that requires more than just watching video lessons. The same goes for still prevalent teaching approaches in which teachers spend most of the class writing on the board and students, copying. On the other hand, if the methodology adopted is a discovery-based and interactive one, which also develops students’ autonomy and metacognitive skills, these students will be much better equipped for more autonomous and independent learning at home, with or without technology. And this has nothing to do with income.

In the cases in which there is ample access to technology, besides the pedagogical aspects stated above, being prepared, as institutions, means having dedicated time, energy, and resources to developing teachers’ digital skills and to teaching students how to use productivity tools and learning platforms, whether they are Moodle, Blackboard, Google Classroom, Canvas, Class Dojo, See-saw or any other resources. Also, being prepared means to already have put in place an effective system of communication between the school and families and engaging the parents in the students’ learning. And this is even before a pandemic. This is something that every institution should already be working on.

Likewise, being prepared, for teachers that also have access to technology, means having dedicated time and energy to developing essential digital skills for teaching digital learners. I have long said to teachers that this is not an option. It is a skill required of teachers today and they must work on it if they want to remain relevant. Teachers who “don’t do” WhatsApp, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, etc. cannot work with students who spend most of their time using these tools. They don’t need to be avid users, but they need to understand how these tools work and use them to their favor.  Also, well-prepared teachers will have necessarily already taken at least one online course and used a learning management system. Well-prepared teachers may have found the shift to teaching using Zoom, Meet, Teams, or another video-conferencing tool challenging, but also possible and even stimulating. In fact, I heard from two very experienced teachers that this was the challenge that they needed at this point in their careers.

In the cases in which there is little or no access to technology, being prepared, as institutions, means having worked with teachers on the development of creative solutions to their shortcomings, such as using cell phones for learning (even in very low income areas, at least some students have cell phones), or establishing partnerships with technology companies, as seen in some public school systems. It also means having started working towards more parent engagement long ago. For teachers, it means, for example, having taught students how to make better use of the resources they already have. For example, students can be taught how to select books and texts for reading and how to take the greatest advantage of what they read, by working on metacognitive skills. It also means having taught students how to write reflective pieces based on the readings, as well as having worked on creativity and thinking outside-the-box so that students can engage in learning at home using the resources they already have, creating artwork, assembling objects, trying to understand how something works.

In this very atypical and sad moment we are living, what matters the most is not keeping up with the content through videos or keeping students busy by way of endless exercises. It is keeping students minds and hearts engaged in meaningful learning and connected to their schools, their teachers, and their classmates in one way or another. If you have the technology to do this, great! Not having the technology, though, did not keep a teacher in a poor rural area from “posting” personalized activities for her students on a clothesline, or her students from having the drive to go and pick up the plastic bags with their activities and perform them. Being prepared is much more about a state of mind than about the state of the art.

Isabela Villas Boas

Isabela Villas Boas holds a Master's Degree in Teaching English as a Second Language from Arizona State University and a Ph.D. in Education from Universidade de Brasília. She has been at Casa Thomas Jefferson for 33 years, where she is currently the Corporate Academic Manager . Her main academic interests are second language writing, teacher development, ELT methodology, and assessment. She also supervises MA dissertations for the University of Birmingham. She has recently published the book “Teaching EFL Writing - A Practical Approach for Skills-Integrated Contexts.

  • Eliane de Lima
    Posted at 21:55h, 15 abril Responder

    I guess nobody was prepared for such a sudden shift. I totally agree with you when you say that teachers who were already in their path to use technology and other tools in order to make learners more independent were definitely the ones who were one step ahead and may be able to manage this challenge more smoothly. Most teachers embrace the new era and try hard to adapt to new tools and make the most out of them. After all, teaching is also about adapting and continuously learning. I just feel for the more disprivileged students who may lack the technological tools or haven’t been guided to learn how to work autonomously. This will certainly be of paramount importance in this moment.

  • Ghulam Mohyudin
    Posted at 07:08h, 18 abril Responder

    Good to know that works too! I learn so much from you as well! Keep it up great post.

  • Ana Scandiuzzi
    Posted at 10:04h, 18 abril Responder

    What an inspiring article, Isabela! You said it all, attitude is what really matters now. Teachers are, more than ever, connected, sharing and collaborating to meet their students’ needs during a time for which no one was prepared. Many lessons will be learned and we will be more confident in our capacity to innovate.

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