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What Really Matters? Teaching English During a Pandemic

By Stephanie Wilson

High school English is an eclectic subject. Those of us who teach it find ourselves packing grammar and punctuation in with literature studies, persuasive speaking, creative writing, reading for fun, and deep conversations about morality. We strive to help our students succeed in all speaking and writing endeavors while fostering a safe environment for them to explore difficult areas of the human experience. It is truly a balancing act that I revel, but what do we do when a pandemic strikes?

A few long weeks ago students, teachers, and families alike were forced to face a frightening new scenario. Those of us lucky enough to keep our livelihoods have been asked to either risk our health to work each day or find a way to work from home. Students all over the globe have been faced with the monumental task of sifting through hours of coursework, interpreting instructions and lessons, and managing deadlines all on their own (comparatively). That is the best-case scenario. Many have been asked to look after siblings and assist with their schoolwork or find jobs to help support their families financially. Many more have no internet or devices to work on and some unfortunate few live with little food and home-security. This all comes on top of losing many hallmarks of school: social interactions, clubs, sports, proms, and even graduation. We, as teachers, have been asked to provide students with a valuable education in the midst of this chaos.

No pressure, right?

What do you teach when students barely have the time, energy, or resources to participate? What about those few who haven’t made contact in weeks? What do you do when you are asked to teach with one-third the time you would normally have?

Before any online education began, the teachers in my district spent many hours working together in various online conferencing sites to decide what to do. We began by discussing our initial plans and interrupted units. Most of us then scrapped existing plans in favor of creating something new: something simplified and tailored to the unique situation. Yes, standards were discussed, but they weren’t the focus. It didn’t take long to agree on a couple of key standards for each course. We instead spent a great deal of time deciding how to incorporate them while looking-after some of the students’ basic needs: connections, normality, encouragement, and a sense of belonging during uncertain times.

When it came right down to it, we all agreed in a heartbeat: grammar, punctuation, complex formats, memorization, and other commonly-tested skills weigh far less than the other, often overlooked components of our field. Final exams were dropped and our focus shifted. We chose instead to give them conversation spaces, creative-writing opportunities, and the chance to delve into each other’s and characters’ worlds. We have instead asked them to reflect on complicated scenarios, practice empathy, and reassess their values and morals by looking through alternate lenses. We opted to ask for virtual discussions and creative demonstrations instead of fifty-question memorization tests.

In the heart of chaos we have rediscovered an educational truth: the students matter most.

Yes, traditional assessments are useful. I agree that we do need some way of determining whether students have obtained certain skills and retained essential information. We do need a way to determine if students are academically and intellectually prepared to take that next step. The question is, how much time should we dedicate to it? According to a 2016 study conducted by the Center on Education Policy, “An estimated 37% of public school teachers whose students take district-or state – mandated tests reported spending one week or less per year preparing students to take district-mandated tests, and about 30% of teachers spent one week or less per year preparing student for state-mandated tests” (Rentner, Kober, & Frizzell, p. 53). This equates to a little under two weeks per year just preparing to take mandated tests. Those numbers do not include time spent actually taking the tests, nor do they include time to prepare for and take tests required by individual schools or administered as part of regular classroom curriculum.

Though the numbers reflect teacher estimates and are not exact, they are startling. Imagine spending two weeks of your year memorizing equations and complex rules in order to then spend hours or even days taking tests that are either detrimental or have little to no effect upon your future. How do those tests affect students’ health and what messages are we sending by spending so much time on them? Is that really what is best for students? As Weiner (2016) stated so eloquently, “What matters today in our withering public-school culture are the things that can be easily and inexpensively measured and assigned some empirical value, and these are not necessarily the most important things our schools should be attending to” (p. 4). The kind of teaching that focuses on easily-tested knowledge doesn’t necessarily meet all student needs (social, emotional), encourage creativity, or empower students.

Fortunately, most educators seem to recognize that test scores are not the sole point of school. We acknowledge that student well-being and moral development matter more than our content. That is why, if other departments are reacting like my own, course content has adapted to more than just technology restrictions.

So, teachers: please do not be hard on yourselves if you are not able to cover all of the content that you had initially intended to. If you are in contact with students and see them trying, that is a success all on its own. Be there for them and encourage them. Contact with you may mean the world to a student.

Parents: thank you so much for working with us through this. I see the effort you put into helping your students and want to acknowledge that it must be difficult, especially on top of work. Environment and routine matter and changing both of those things can make it incredibly difficult for students to focus. You put in so many hours helping your students and we really do appreciate it.

It is in trying times like these that our primary role becomes clear. You can bet that teachers and parents alike are doing what they can to care for students however they can. Together, we really can make a difference.

Stephanie Wilson is an English teacher and speech and debate coach at Sheyenne High School in West Fargo, North Dakota.