How to Improve Teaching After the Pandemic

As best I can tell, plans for post-pandemic schooling are mostly proving to be a stew of ambitious promises and jacked-up business-as-usual outlays. From new counselors and class-size reduction to facilities and curriculum projects, systems are busy adding staff, enhancing facilities, and improving curricula. While these are all good things, largely missing is what has long seemed to me the biggest opportunity to improve teaching and learning: fundamentally rethinking how schools make use of instructional talent.

When it comes to instructional talent, efforts have focused more on adding, allocating, professionally developing, or evaluating staff than on rethinking how we can better use the talent we have. Yet the pandemic is a good reminder that not all teachers are equally skilled at all the tasks they’re asked to do. We’d be better served, I suspect, by reimagining the teacher’s role so that schools can provide more high-quality instruction, without asking each teacher to excel at so many different things. A half-century ago, when teaching talent was plentiful and the demands on teachers were more uniform, the notion of the do-everything teacher might’ve made more sense. Changes in the larger economy, the profession, and the resources at our disposal mean this is no longer the case.

After all, teachers perform many tasks in the course of a day — from lecturing and facilitating discussion to grading quizzes and filling out forms to counseling distraught kids and monitoring the cafeteria. No one believes all these instructional activities are equally valuable. Yet when I work with teachers, they almost unanimously report that they have never been part of a disciplined effort to unpack what they do each day in an effort to increase the energy devoted to the things that matter most. Having an exquisitely trained early-literacy teacher watch students eat lunch, fill out forms, or teach addition — simply because she’s a “2nd grade teacher” — is a bizarre way to leverage scarce talent. Figuring out how to let individual teachers do more of what they’re already good at is a powerful place to start the improvement process.

Elsewhere in schooling, there are telling examples of what it looks like to use staff time and energy well. At a well-run football practice, players may do film study with an assistant coach, lift weights with a conditioning coach, and practice techniques with a position coach. There are a lot of similarities in the work routines of an accomplished high school orchestra or debate team. In short, it’s wholly possible for schools to figure out how to leverage staff more effectively; it’s just not the way teachers’ work has traditionally been organized.

The pandemic has also shown us that it’s time to reimagine the geography of how teachers teach. Remote learning makes online instruction or tutoring in any subject available whenever and wherever it’s needed (of course, the value rests on the teacher’s knowledge and competence at remote instruction). This means that education premised on full-time, in-classroom teachers need no longer be the universal default — and, as we learned this past year, some students and teachers fare better when they’re online. Abandoning the presumption that teacher-and-student-in-classroom is the right model for all students or all learning makes much else possible, including models that provide curated online offerings alongside in-person options, offer relationships with far-off mentors, create cohesive civics classes of geographically disparate students, or simply use remote delivery to provide quality calculus instruction to students in schools or communities where local instructors aren’t available.

And it’s time to rethink who can teach. Today, early-career transience, professionals routinely working into their late 60s, and the prevalence of midcareer transitions make it increasingly bizarre to see education systems intent on recruiting 22-year-olds and hoping they’ll teach full time into the 2050s. It’s not that this model was “bad,” just that it’s not an especially good match for the realities of the professional labor market in the 2020s. Meanwhile, balky licensure systems, seniority-based pay, and factory-style pensions create big practical burdens and financial penalties for engineers, auto mechanics, or journalists seeking to enter teaching midcareer. Even aside from those seeking full-time roles, one can imagine a raft of opportunities in 21st-century America for senior citizens, grad students, or stay-at-home-parents who may be eager to take on part-time work as tutors or coaches — providing a pool of skilled, flexible labor at affordable rates.

Practically speaking, of course, any of this requires retooling job descriptions, hiring protocols, licensure, collective bargaining agreements, teacher-of-record requirements, salary schedules, and more. That’s one reason why we tend to focus on the things that are easier and simpler to do (like simply adding staff). But if there were ever a moment when changed dynamics, enormous needs, and a torrent of cash made something bigger both timely and feasible, this may be it.

This post originally appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.

Direct Ed Policy Studies at AEI. Teach a bit at Rice, UPenn, Harvard. Author of books like Cage-Busting Leadership and Spinning Wheels. Pen Ed Week's RHSU blog.