Teaching and Thriving During a Pandemic

by Trevor Muir

Many people are viewing teaching during a pandemic like a car that is trying to drive with the emergency brake on. It’s as if there are teachers and students doing what they normally do, but it is covered in a malaise that keeps it from being fully effective. “Students can’t fully engage virtually, and social distancing keeps in-classroom learning from being entirely effective. Teaching during a pandemic is about preventing an academic slide until we can return to normal.” 

And this attitude makes sense; teaching and learning looks very different for most teachers right now. New technologies are being used, new protocols and processes, and many of the best practices to teach students are having to be revised during this time. However, just because school looks different does not mean it has to be ineffective. Just because this time is challenging, doesn’t mean educators just have to survive it. 

Here are a few ways to thrive during a pandemic. 

Teachers Need to Give Themselves Grace 

Whether they are educating students in-person or from a distance-learning classroom, teachers need to have lots and lots of grace for themselves. So much of teaching looks different and we are traveling through the unknown. So of course there will be mistakes along the way! Why wouldn’t there be? I get the opportunity to connect with thousands of educators all over the world, and I have yet to encounter a single teacher who has this all figured out.

It turns out no one has taught during a global pandemic before. 

And so when a lesson fails, students don’t show up for a virtual meeting, or you’re feeling a lack of connection in the classroom because everyone is hidden behind a mask, don’t beat yourself up about it. Instead, remind yourself that you are teaching during a pandemic, and figure out what you can do to improve the learning experience. 

Reflect, Iterate, and Improve 

I think the two best ways to improve your teaching are to give yourself dedicated time to reflect and to solicit feedback from your students. For reflection, build in intentional time every single day to think about what is going well and what is not. It doesn’t have to be a long, drawn out activity. Just spend 15 minutes not listening to music, not on your phone, but just processing your thoughts and maybe writing them down. This will help bring you calm, and discover new ways to approach your work. 

Another great way to improve is to solicit feedback from your students on their experience in your classroom. Ask them what is working for them and what is not. What would they like to see from you and what do they want to continue to see from you? This isn’t to say that students have all the answers or that all of their feedback will be correct or helpful. But your students have a first person perspective of your teaching, and their feedback is valuable. Also, by asking students for it, you are empowering them, which almost always leads to higher student engagement. This feedback, if used wisely, can help you improve at your craft. 

Make Learning Collaborative 

Collaboration, when done well, is one of the most powerful tools in a teacher’s arsenal. Research shows that when students work with and learn from each other, learning is deeper and more meaningful. This is why collaboration is more important now than ever. Luckily, it can work in a virtual and blended learning environment. Of course, it may look different at times and there are some barriers that have to be traversed to do it well. 

At its core, collaboration is about a group of people who have a shared goal and work together to achieve it. And with the advent of technologies like Zoom and Skype, students are able to do exactly that. Remember, collaboration doesn’t mean everyone is working together at all times. It’s about figuring out who needs to do what, dividing up individual tasks, and then accomplishing them. Only now when working individually, students have others who they can reach out to for support. In having collaborative work for students to accomplish, you are helping them meet their social and academic needs. 

Realize You Can’t Demand Participation 

In a virtual, blended learning, or in-person classroom, it is not the teacher’s job to get 100% participation out of their students. The teacher’s job is to continue to provide opportunities for their students to succeed. Too many teachers feel this burden to get all of their students to show up for every virtual meeting or have perfect assignment submissions in their classrooms right now. Part of this pressure can come from their administration, but also from the pressures teachers often put on themselves. 

However, there are just too many factors that are influencing student performance right now. From students having to care for younger siblings, having sick family members, unemployed parents, or a host of other reasons, not every student is going to be able to participate the way we want them to. And so teachers need to relieve themselves of that pressure and just continue to show up for their students. Keep holding those virtual meetings. Keep designing activities that are personal and engaging to students. Essentially, keep being passionate about your work and hope that many of your students will be positively affected by it. 

Make Learning Authentic 

I view the word authentic as meaning “this actually matters.” So I think the challenge for every school, everywhere, should be to ask if what they are teaching to students and having them do actually matters. “How can this content be used to solve real problems?” “How can I communicate to students that what they are learning and the skills that they are developing will be used in their lives someday?” 

When students work on real problems that actually matter to them and their communities, student engagement dramatically increases. And so instead of schoolwork being centered on grades or simply moving to the next level, it should be about empowering students to solve authentic problems so that they will have the skills and knowledge to solve other problems in their futures. Part of thriving as a teacher is having students who are thriving as well. So using authenticity to promote a class that is excited to learn will have a direct impact on the teacher who is leading that authentic learning.

Trevor MuirTrevor is a keynote speaker at our 2021 Virtual Convening. He is a teacher, author, and international speaker, and the author of the books The Epic Classroom and The Collaborative Classroom. Trevor is a professor at Grand Valley State University, a former faculty member for the Buck Institute for Education, and is one of the Andrew Gomez Dream Foundation educators. At the heart of Trevor’s work is the conviction that every student has the potential for greatness, and every teacher can be equipped to unlock that potential.  Follow Trevor on Twitter and Facebook.