How Emergency Teaching Made Me a Better Educator

Fall 2020

By Nina Davidson

The COVID-19 pandemic school shutdown was fierce. My school community was informed of the impending shutdown on Wednesday, the next day was students’ last day, and on Friday, we had a crash course professional day to get ready for emergency online teaching. I was more prepared than some of my colleagues because of my previous experience teaching online, but there was no way any of us could have prepared for the months to come. Spring 2020 was a game changer, but the experience has made me a better teacher by showing me the places where I needed to stretch and grow for the sake of my students and my teaching. The COVID-19 pandemic has irrevocably changed the way I teach. Here are a few of the ways:
Lesson 1: Emergency teaching taught me how to slow down and manage the workload for both myself and my students. Pacing has always been a struggle for me. In fact, I was fired from my first teaching job as an adjunct professor because I let my class out too early on the day I was being observed. I have since learned how to design assignments for the entire time allotted for class, and I always have a backup activity just in case.

I had to teach Hamlet to sophomores during the shutdown, our fourth quarter, which was a frightening task for someone who had never read it before, let alone taught it. Luckily, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre was streaming their 2018 stage adaptation, so I had my students watch it the first week we studied the text. The play was perfect for us because Hamlet was played by a woman and Ophelia was played by a beautiful man in a dress. We’d spent the beginning of the school year battling through Gilgamesh, Arabian Nights, and The Odyssey, where we had talked about toxic masculinity and what it looks like when men police women’s sexuality throughout time, so the stage adaptation was perfect for our reading of Hamlet.

I decided to devote the entire fourth quarter to it. The purpose of doing so was twofold: First, there are so many “words, words, words” in Hamlet, and it can get confusing, so breaking it down to a scene and a lesson a week was ideal for my students. Second, with each scene, I was able to ground it with something in popular culture like how Hamlet’s unresolved grief and descent into (perceived) madness parallels that of Kanye West. Their final writing assignment was to write letters to rising freshmen about their takeaways from Hamlet.
Lesson 2: I needed to increase the scaffolding. I pride myself on my ability to teach writing to students by breaking down the assignment into small, manageable chunks with measurable outcomes. This works well in the classroom, but it did not work well online. I had two sections of freshman English and one section of sophomores who were all required to do research writing. I started teaching the process to my sophomores in class, and we were working on drafts when we moved to virtual instruction. I had in-person time to walk my sophomores through the entire process from brainstorming and prewriting, to finding and citing sources, to writing the first draft.

My freshmen, on the other hand, began the writing process on their own in April. I did what I usually do and gave them the written instructions and all the scaffolded steps. It was a bumpy ride, and once it was over, I realized we all could have benefited from one-on-one or small-group sessions where we troubleshooted the process together. For my students, written instructions were not enough; they needed more guidance and reassurance about the process. Moving forward, I’ll be recording videos of each step of the process to help support writing remotely, which leads me to my next point.
Lesson 3: Maintaining connection was crucial. I mistakenly thought online teaching for high school students would be the same as when I was a community college professor, wherein I did the work to put the lessons online and students would log on and follow the weekly plan I laid out for them. That was wrong. It took me two weeks of mass confusion to realize that, in order to avoid meltdowns (for them and me!) and to maintain our connection, I needed to send a Monday email outlining assignments for the week, have students check in with me midweek about their progress, and have assignments due on Friday. From then on, I had students sign up for mandatory office hours when we would go over their paper drafts, which I’d printed, marked, scanned, and emailed back. I then set up optional Zoom open office hours to answer burning questions about the readings or assignments. Some of my students opted out, but quite a few showed up ready with questions, comments, concerns, and complaints.
Lesson 4: I learned how to be open and receptive to feedback about everything. I always welcome feedback from my students, and emergency teaching revealed holes in my lessons and assignments that were not evident to me. Sometimes I would assign something that made perfect sense on my end of the computer. My students would play along and complete the assignment, but in the metacognitive reflections at the end, they would always tell me what did not work. I found this feedback to be invaluable. They certainly would have said it to me in person, but it helped for me to be able to see it in writing. Having a record of their feedback was helpful this summer when it came to planning my courses for the fall.

Lesson 5: By being open to feedback, I learned the importance of clear rubrics. I started using rubrics four years into my teaching career as part of grant work I was doing with my community college and the university where our graduates went after completing their associate degrees. The goal was to align our practices to aid in student success with our transferring students. I was able to tailor my rubrics to meet the needs of my Developmental English students, which I again adapted for my high schoolers. I’d used the same rubrics for years, and it was only this year that I realized—with the help of my students—that some of the criteria were not super clear. I took their suggestions and updated the language on my rubrics. I hope that I understood what they were trying to tell me with their feedback, but if I didn’t, my students will let me know in the fall!
Lesson 6: I learned how to design assignments for student interests and needs. The most exhausting and rewarding activity of the spring semester was when I abandoned my own interests and allowed students to tell me what they wanted to spend the final weeks of the school year working on. This involved sending out a Google form with questions that were designed to yield answers I could work with to build four weeks’ worth of individual assignments. My seniors pivoted to the practical and researched the schools they were committed to attend in the fall. Or they made plans for the gap years some had decided to take. Assignments had students looking into how to manage their time, how to set healthy boundaries with family members while away from home, and how and where to find the support services they may need when they are on campus. My freshmen were reading Jane Eyre at the end of the school year, so some of them opted to delve into the fashions or religious practices popular in Victorian England. Others wanted to study the rhetorical strategies of politicians or LGBTQAI+ spoken word poetry and try their hand at writing original pieces. One student—a self-proclaimed theatre geek—outlined and began writing a full-length play. My freshmen surprised me with their independent study ideas. All I had to do was get out of the way and allow space for their own interests to flourish.
Just as we can never go back to the way things were with overcrowded trains and lackadaisical attitudes toward handwashing, I cannot go back to teaching the way I taught these past 10 years. I am fortunate to teach students who are not shy about telling me what they do and do not like, and I am lucky to work at an institution that allows me the space to make these much needed adjustments to my pedagogy for the benefit of my students.
Nina Davidson

Nina Davidson ( teaches English at Sandy Spring Friends School in Sandy Spring, MD.