A male school teacher records himself from home presenting a course using a digital camera.

Leadership, School Community, Teaching

Teacher Expertise Is Key

Now, more than ever, we need to support educators’ relationships, curriculum knowledge, and effective pedagogy

I want to be clear about two things. The first is that everyone within the education system has made herculean efforts to keep kids safe, maintain positive environments, and in the midst of all this still cultivate the conditions for learning. Teachers, educational assistants, bus drivers, custodians, clinicians, library technicians, secretaries – all have done what is needed and beyond.

By way of example, music educators have adjusted countless times, redesigning their entire practice on a moment’s notice. Physical education teachers continue to take their learners outdoors for high-intensity experiences that are critical to wellness. These are just a few of the ways educators have pushed the boundaries of their expertise.

Second, teaching children remotely – whether that is for four days or two weeks, half of them in and half out, hybrid, hyflex, or hub-based – is really difficult. It requires expertise, an ability to work with families, and a fundamental shift in design. Simply teaching online does not equate to learning, and in some cases can be deemed miseducative. Moving worksheets online isn’t remote learning. It’s just worksheets online.

British researcher and consultant Dylan Wiliam makes the claim, supported by cognitive science, that the single most important factor in a child’s learning is the quality of the teacher and the day-to-day interactions that child and adult have. Not class size. Not the design of the classroom space. Not the amount of technology strapped to the wall. Not even the curriculum.

What counts is the expertise of teachers – teachers who spend countless hours designing deep learning experiences to engage their learners, to cause cognitive dissonance, and to fundamentally cause learning. And this comes in all sorts of forms. From traditional teachers at the front of the class, to project-based-learning teachers, and to those who weave back and forth with ease, a teacher’s expertise in teaching is what counts in learning.

COVID has certainly challenged this. With Senior Years learners attending every second day in most of our school divisions, and Early and Middle Years students having to leave for periods of time when cases occur, educators’ expertise has been put to the test. Their ability to replicate what they do in the classroom has been stunted, fractured – perhaps even sabotaged – by a virus that has shown no mercy.

And despite all these challenges, our teachers have persevered.

We have seen that success in the micro and macro adjustments educators make toward deep remote learning derives from three design assumptions. These assumptions rely in turn on the experience, research, critical thought, and desire to collaborate on the part of educators. Again, teachers are engaged in this work, despite the masks, the plexiglass, and the many unknowns.

The first of these assumptions is that what is done in the classroom cannot be replicated. We know the best learning happens in the classroom, on the land, at the internship, or in the lab. With the potential of face-to-face learners, learners connected online in the moment, and learners who need to learn in an asynchronous way, the expertise of a teacher can be stretched and distorted. In these cases, educators have reconceptualized their time. We have learned that an educator’s online time is best spent with small groups and individuals, and engaged in conferencing, coaching, planning, and feedback. Our teachers have expertly designed stations where learners rotate from asynchronous blocks of providing each other with feedback, to a small-group discussion with the teacher, and then time to read, reflect, and design significant projects.

The second assumption of deep remote learning is that the educator knows the curriculum well. Our educators see the curriculum dripping from the buildings and trees when they walk down the street. There are no limits for them. They read ferociously, they are engaged in the community, and they always seek to bring their passion into the classroom. They are able to bring curriculum areas together in powerful transdisciplinary projects that ask learners to engage in adult work – that is work that obliterates silos and domains and work that forces us to wrestle with the unknowns about the human experience.

The final assumption on which deep remote learning is predicated upon is the critical relationship that the educator has not only with the child, but with the family. We have seen this in the Kindergarten teacher who reads with her learners from the front door or in the backyard. We have seen this in the Middle Years educator who knows the circumstances of each of his children and is able to engage with each of them through the choice in reading and writing workshops. We have also observed this through the Seniors Years educator who follows the golden rule when teaching in a pandemic: less is more. There are countless examples of teachers who pull back and bring to light what Parker Palmer deems “the grace of great things.” Big questions, big struggles, big ideas, big history.

All educators are making quick cuts in muddy fields as they react to where their learners are – physically, emotionally, and cognitively. To meet the needs of learners, educators across the system demonstrate what matters: expertise. Expertise in design, expertise in passion, and expertise in love.

We need to nurture and support this expertise as we move further into the abyss that is COVID-19.

Photo: Adobe Stock

Meet the Expert(s)

Matt Henderson

Assistant Superintendent, Seven Oaks School Division

Matt Henderson is Assistant Superintendent of the Seven Oaks School Division in Winnipeg. He is also an instructor at the Faculty of Education at the University of Winnipeg and a PhD student at the Faculty of Education at the University of Manitoba.

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