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Educator Confidence

Francie Alexander discusses how technology, SEL, and parental involvement can improve teaching

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH) recently released its seventh annual Educator Confidence Report, which found that educators’ confidence is down due to the state of the profession and concern for students’ emotional well-being, but confidence in using learning technology is up. According to the report, only 38% of teachers reported a somewhat or very positive view of the state of their profession—down from 49% in 2020. Even more notable, 37% of educators reported thinking the pandemic would increase respect for teachers this year, a significant decrease from 63% in 2020.

HMH chief research officer and former teacher Francie Alexander answers questions about the report and what it can tell us about the future of the classroom.

How can teachers keep up with technology and transfer their confidence to students, especially those from minority or underprivileged communities? How can we boost the tech confidence of the remaining third of teachers?

This is the first time educators have been focused on the same challenge at the same time as the nation responded to a pandemic and all schools delivered instruction remotely. We’ve been on a learning journey together and have achieved a lot, starting with the very basics such as the deployment of devices. Educators, families, and communities did an admirable job of increasing access to technology, and we closed in on the long-term goal of one-on-one computing.

However, we realize that some students were underserved, including students with multilingual backgrounds, with special needs, and who had fewer resources already. Some have described the situation some of our children and youth have experienced as “underconnected.” This is when devices are shared between children in a family and when Wi-Fi and access to tech support are erratic.

Teachers were not at the same stage of readiness to teach fully remotely either, but those in HMH’s studies and professional learning sessions tell us they’ve learned a lot. One fourth-grade teacher I met started her remote teaching by sharing that she received two degrees online and that her students were going to be very ready for the future. Storytelling was one of the ways teachers engaged students, stayed connected, and dissolved the screen—and language teachers provided great examples of this. No matter how prepared they were, teachers did share the sentiment (73% in HMH’s Educator Confidence Report) that digital resources would help them be more effective. As teachers are the most critical factor in student success, this is very promising. Also, teachers were less concerned about “being replaced” by technology.

None of this growing confidence was easily come by as school proceeded in fits and starts and safety issues remained paramount. HMH also conducted a teacher ethnography study with Kelton International prepandemic that revealed that teachers used digital resources in four main ways: productivity, social networking, data analytics, and instruction. The latter was the laggard, and when we reinterviewed the teachers during the pandemic, instruction had become most prominent. This was also identified as an area for continuous improvement through professional learning opportunities.

Our journey continues, but lessons learned will help us get there. Here’s what we can do now:

Use new funds to build a robust infrastructure for providing equitable access to digital resources. This includes being sure no students are underconnected and all families and communities have the necessary Wi-Fi and IT support. Also, there is a need to ensure universal access to devices, with plans for repair and updating.

Teachers need personalized professional learning that builds their confidence in integrating technology into all aspects of their work. After all, they are doing arguably the most important work in our society. We have come to value everyone’s contributions as we’ve experienced this pandemic together and we have all benefited from the teachers in our lives. The technology and teaching goals reinforce each other and can serve as the basis of a new era in education—one that is both high-tech and high-touch.

It’s great that we’re recognizing increased SEL issues. How can teachers and administrators let students know their concerns are being heard? How can teachers incorporate SEL into their daily curricula?

This year’s Educator Confidence Report made it clear that the number-one priority of teachers and administrators was the well-being of the students in their care. Even before the pandemic, educators were increasing emphasis on addressing social and emotional needs. The National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development called out this critical area as “the substance of education itself” in 2018.

It is more important than ever to pay attention to how everyone in the education ecosystem is doing, starting with students but also not forgetting the adults—we are in this together. I read about phrases that are frequently requested for translation by the Google app, and one is simply “How are you?” We are all trying to start from a place of empathy, and asking that question early and often will help. We shouldn’t have preconceived ideas but should listen and notice carefully. The research tells us that a whole-child approach integrated into the academic, social, and physical activities at school is best. The positive effects are not only observed in personal well-being but also in academic performance. The educators in our survey understood this and overwhelmingly supported “well-integrated” and schoolwide social–emotional programs. No one wants to feel like “kindness” needs to be a scheduled class but rather to read about the impact of kind behavior in literary works through the lens of character development in English language arts (ELA) and to find other opportunities throughout the entire curriculum. When visiting schools, I’ve seen kindness and prosocial behaviors embedded in classroom culture, from A for “agency” to Z for “zest,” with qualities like M, “mindset,” R, “resilience,” and everything in between. I’ve seen creative displays on bulletin boards, in mission statements, and on report cards. It’s time to organize and coordinate so that our children, school staffs, families, and communities provide for the social–emotional needs of all and specific interventions from counselors and health care professionals are given when needed. We are better together.

Now that parents have firsthand experience and appreciation of their children’s education, how can teachers keep them involved, especially if their own education was limited?

The relationships between families and schools have been altered forever by the pandemic experience, but this can become something very positive going forward. The instant-messaging shorthand “POS” (parent over shoulder) is more than just an alert between students to let one another know a parent is nearby when they are chatting rather than studying. It is now a fact of life while students are learning from home. With a direct digital window into the classroom during remote learning, family members came away with a new appreciation for what teachers do, and teachers found ways to forge deeper contacts well beyond the traditional back-to-school nights and family conferences. These two mainstays have already been transformed to be more inclusive and accessible. Not all kids were represented by family members at these traditional in-person events before the pandemic due to childcare challenges and work obligations. One teacher friend told me that in the future all BTS presentations would be recorded. So, now some families can participate in real time and in person when that option is available, and all families can watch the recording at their convenience. No one is left out. Conferences at grading periods were starting to include students more prominently, and student-led family conferences are becoming more common. With or without students, these meetings can be in-person or online depending on transportation and other matters.

On a less optimistic note, disparities have also been revealed when devices aren’t adequate or Wi-Fi isn’t optimal. This is an infrastructure issue that needs to be addressed so that all families can participate equitably.

Another challenge to navigate is ensuring access in the home language to families of multilingual learners.

As we work to meet the educational needs of multilingual learners, we are finding out that an asset-based approach works best. Already knowing a language is an advantage when learning another. Reading together is a great opportunity for bonding and forming a view of oneself and the world. This can happen in any language. Oral storytelling can also render the same benefits. No parent is expected to be a teacher, but all can help students by finding out how they are doing and encouraging them to ask for help if needed. Knowing when to ask for help is often observed as a characteristic of successful people. When I taught, I sometimes used a gold strip of ribbon as a symbol of the connection between the home and my classroom. With recent events, that home–school connection has become very tangible via digital devices keeping us connected in unprecedented ways. This is an opportunity for all of us to work more closely in service of the children in our care.

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