This is the first in a mini-blog series highlighting our Teacher Leader Policy Fellows: Family and student engagement; Student learning during COVID and Future of Education
As we wait for national election results, we wanted to provide you with some other reading material from one of the key groups we listen to when it comes to NJ students.. Today is the first blog of our mini-series from our NJ Teacher Leader Fellows. Back in June, we announced the Teacher Leader Policy Fellowship with JerseyCAN and our 12 fellows who would be engaging in teacher leadership work through deeply understanding policy development, advocacy training and hearing from educational leaders across the state. These 12 educators have also gone back to school during a pandemic. They have prepared, grappled with reopening plans, redesigned virtual classrooms and greeted students each day for the last month. Through this blog mini series, we are going to share what they have learned, observed, and some key takeaways from this experience organized around the following themes : family and student engagement; student learning and the future of education.
Family and student engagement
Every educator and parent knows that clear, consistent and relevant communication between families and teachers is critical to student learning. Our teacher fellows have noticed that this year, those communications are even more important. The pandemic has hit families in disproportionate ways. NJ is one of the top 5 most diverse states in the country and the health and economic emergency brought on by COVID has impacted New Jersey’s Black and Latinx communities more than their White peers. In light of that, according to a poll conducted by Learning Heroes, this summer 76% of all NJ parents were not convinced that schools would be safe and therefore last minute pivots from schools yielded a wide range of reopening plans.
New Jersey schools have reopened either completely remote, completely in-person or a hybrid model. Our teacher leader fellows have been living and breathing these varied versions of school in these new formats this year. They have seen the impact of the pandemic on how their families and students are engaging with school work, continuing to learn or pushing back on the challenges of this fall. Here are some observations from our fellows about family and student engagement during this school year:
It has been hard to provide authentic learning in this environment. I can already see a lack of participation on my Zooms from the first day of school.
One parent in particular expressed the difficulties of navigating work and supporting their scholar as a single parent. It put me in a position to learn more about the home life of this particular student and action plan with the parent on the best way to support both them and the student. Since then, the student has received A’s in all classes with these action steps in place
As we’ve moved virtually, we have had an increase in the frequency of family communication and outreach in both ways. I will call families for good news, grade updates, missing assignments and families will ask about scheduling, grades, assignments and things that pop up (have to go somewhere, appointments, etc). We’ve always had a strong relationship with our families; I firmly believe moving digitally has strengthened those relationships and solidified the idea that we are all in this together.
Our takeaway from the Teacher Leaders is that family engagement is more important now than it has been in the past and technology can be helpful in communicating with families. However technology can also increase challenges in successful communication if there aren’t adequate supports.
We also asked our fellows about the digital divide and its impact on their district or their classrooms. Many students and families were without devices, connectivity or both in the spring. Solid statewide data regarding access to devices and connectivity this fall is unavailable, but we know districts are trying to solve these issues as quickly as procurement and supply chains would allow. According to our fellows, their districts have ensured that each student has a device and internet connectivity is provided by hot spots. However, there have been greater, persistent issues with digital literacy for students and families. It has also stretched the limits to how teachers build rapport with students and families. Here is what we heard:
I have two students who are in foster care. One lives with 8 other children in his group home. He actually asked if he could come to school everyday as it is very difficult to do school because there are too many people trying to access the internet at the same time. The problem in my district is more about the limited bandwidth in a home rather than the inability to access the internet.
I have one student who was consistently not completing work in class. When I spoke to her individually she told me that she is trying to pay attention in class but she is also taking care of her twin brothers who are in online pre-K. We worked out a system where she messages me if she is unable to do the work during class and then I send her what I need her to complete when she is able. I have many students who have responsibilities like this outside of school. I am working on how to acknowledge these responsibilities and work with students without lowering expectations for them.
The good news is that all of our students in the program have access to a Chromebook and Wi-Fi. There have been mixed responses to Remote Learning, in terms of achievement. For students that typically struggle with distractions or that BIPs, ADHD, or ADD, we have seen a better outcome with online learning. For students that have more Specific Learning Disabilities (SLD), we are seeing students struggle with managing with pacing and technology.
I will tell you the best part of my day is when my “live” kids say good morning to my “virtual” kids. The enthusiasm for this 5 minute ritual has really helped build some semblance of normalcy and has created a stronger “family” feel in my classroom.
While virtually all of my students have been provided a device from the district and internet access through a partnership with Xfinity, many of the students (and their parents) do not know how to use the digital tools properly. This, paired with a language barrier has been the most cumbersome obstacle of virtual learning. My district recently held a virtual Parent Academy in an effort to teach parents how to use these tools in order to facilitate better virtual learning. The initial enrollment was very high, however the number of parents that actually attended their sessions was fairly low.
These teachers’ creativity, persistence, dedication and determination to support families — while learning a whole new way to teach is inspiring. As we continue to work with our teacher leaders and listen to their input, we are optimistic that there are many lessons to be learned from this experience and that they can be used to make future improvements to our education system.