Opinion: Teaching in the time of a pandemic

Tim Bearden

Years ago I sat with colleagues and students on a dusty gymnasium floor. We were engaged in Challenge Day, a program designed to illustrate that people are more alike than different.

The climax of Challenge Day is an activity, during which participants face one another across a line, and cross to one side of the line or the other based on their experiences.

When students and adults crossed the line in affirmative response as to whether they had experienced abuse, or had a family member who was addicted to substances, had been bullied, or had been discriminated against because of the color of their skin, their gender, or their sexual orientation, those who had not had those experiences were left face to face with the line-crossers.

Those who crossed the line were often astonished by the number of others who had experienced similar pain. Those who didn’t cross for any particular reason faced their friends, colleagues or peers with a guilty sadness, and a desperation to cross and hug away the pain.

In the face of this global pandemic, in some ways all schools, educators and children are on the same side of the “line,” huddled in shared challenges. In other ways, we are face to face on opposite sides of a line that is a chasm of privilege, affluence and circumstance. 

In times of crisis, change occurs with extraordinary speed. At Detroit Country Day School, on March 12 we announced that there would be no school the next day. Over the weekend, administrators and educational technology staff worked feverishly to prepare us to go entirely remote.

On March 17, we began remote classes, having moved a PK-12 teaching and learning platform fully online and into a remote environment in just three days.

Schools across the state and around the country have all had to make similarly rapid, comprehensive shifts to protect our most valuable resources, our children, and limit spread of a potentially deadly virus, Bearden writes.

DCDS was not alone. Schools across the state and around the country have all had to make similarly rapid, comprehensive shifts to protect our most valuable resources, our children, and limit spread of a potentially deadly virus. It was — and is — historic. All schools have been bound by our invisible threads.

As we lean toward the finish line of this whirlwind odyssey, educators have experienced the silver lining of pressure-induced change. Many of our veteran teachers have felt like first-year teachers, and while it has sometimes felt that we were building the plane as we flew it, it has also been exhilarating as educators have found new, creative ways to reach students.

All educators and all parents want the same thing for their children — opportunity. Knowledge is power and access and opportunity. At DCDS we are fortunate our students have access to internet enabled devices, and we have the resources to ensure that all students have access to the internet. We have a learning management system, Canvas, that is capable of managing full-scale online schooling. We have an array of digital tools.

We recognize that not all schools have the equity of access necessary to make the shift we made, and DCDS resolves to be an advocate for a transformation in education. Access to these resources must be recognized as a universal need, not a privilege. We must be prepared for periods of remote learning in a post-COVID world.

Beyond that though, this extraordinary time has also hastened a transformation in the tools and skills that have become part of our pedagogy. At a time when schools are facing massive cuts, we should actually be investing in the education of our children. 

While the future is uncertain, and national and world events highlight the chasms that still exist in our society, this pandemic has exposed an opportunity.

Finding the invisible threads that bind us as educators and communities will help us embrace new and better delivery models to meet the challenges of a new and different world. Crisis has not only sparked innovation, but perhaps our renewed discovery of our underlying commonalities will open pathways to shared long-term success and solutions.

Tim Bearden is chief academic officer of Detroit Country Day School.