Research from Michigan State University scholars is examining what the first year of teaching during COVID-19 was like for 25 pre-K teachers in Michigan.
The work was led by Associate Professor Bethany Wilinski and Assistant Professor Alyssa Morley from the College of Education and Assistant Professor Jamie Heng-Chieh Wu from the College of Social Science. Their research, published in the Early Childhood Education Journal, suggests three central themes that guided teachers then — and could have implications for education in the future.
In the earliest days of the pandemic, learning or teaching was not the focus. Instead, it was a culture of care.
“We did a lot less teaching in April  and a lot more … providing families with resources as opposed to providing lessons,” said one educator quoted in the study. “We were just supporting [students’] families.”
Examples included teachers working with school districts to provide meals for families and working with community organizations (such as YMCA) to distribute diapers. In one case, a teacher helped a family secure housing when the teacher learned they had no place to live.
“[When COVID came, teachers] had to just immediately leave the school. No materials, no lessons,” said an administrator in the study. “[The teachers] were, like, ‘Now, what am I going to do?‘”
Among the priorities was connecting with caregivers and working together to help the students learn. Teachers often relied on families to facilitate asynchronous lessons, such as with paper packets or pre-recorded videos. They also sometimes asked families to assist during live, online class sessions. The educators and administrators in the study argued the necessary and temporary learning situation fostered increased caregiver involvement.
“I have never in my 25 years seen the amount of family engagement that we have had this year ,” said one school official. “I think our communication modes with families will never go back [to the way they were pre-pandemic].”
MAKING LEARNING ACCESSIBLE
One school in the study created “home learning kits” to help families follow lessons and even conduct lessons on their own. Other teachers turned to household items, such as sorting socks or counting utensils, to keep kids engaged.
“At a time when there was no script,” the article reads, “teachers developed approaches to support children’s learning that demonstrated an awareness of families’ situations and drew on the resources available to them.”
The pandemic also created a modern shift in policies. Pre-pandemic, school policies often required teachers to use specific platforms or applications to communicate with families. The policies were relaxed during COVID-19. Teachers established Facebook groups, provided their cell phone numbers so families could call or text them, and held daily “office hours” where parents could join a Zoom call to chat.
TEACHING AS IMPROVISATION
Amongst the “limited” literature on family engagement practices in early childhood education settings throughout COVID, this article examines the response in a new way: teaching as improvisation.
“Teachers partnered with families in entirely new ways they might never have explored during ‘normal’ times,” said Wilinski. “[Viewing teachers’ response through this lens] directs attention to the creative and responsive practice of pre-K teaching.”
Wilinski and her coauthors liken teaching, in this study, to a series of scripts. Teachers must follow the “scripts” of policy, curricula, building and classroom norms or limitations. It shapes the day-to-day classroom life.
But, teachers must also be adaptable — or improvise.
In the case of this study, the teachers adopted a “yes, and” mentality to allow the “scene” to continue.
“The experiences of teachers in this study highlight approaches that emerge when assumptions of practice are deeply disrupted,” Wilinski explained. “They show what is possible when ‘scripts’ — policies, insular practice, relations of power and so on — can no longer be taken for granted.”
Such ways of thinking and doing could inform practice in the future. Some schools have maintained COVID-19 policies indefinitely, such as allowing varied communication modalities with families.
“Educators and policymakers are imagining what a post-pandemic educational landscape might look like,” Wilinski added. “We hope that these examples of highly responsive teaching and family engagement that center on the needs and well-being of children and families can help form that vision. Reconceptualizing family engagement as an improvisational practice can help to transform pre-K teaching in a post-pandemic world.”
Wilinski, Morley and Hu are also co-authors on “Uncovering new opportunities for family engagement during COVID-19” (Phi Delta Kappan, 2022).
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