Utah Teacher of the Year: Be kind to each other in dizzying new territory

Written by Christine Cooke

August 31, 2020

Let grace and flexibility rule the day.

That’s what Lauren Merkley – the 2020 Utah Teacher of the Year – hopes educators remember as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact public education this fall.

Parents and students know this fall is already quite different from last year. But Merkley said there are pros and cons to the changes. 

Still, the challenges for educators are significant. Merkley, who teaches 11th grade English at Cottonwood High in Murray, gave us firsthand insight into the emergency closures of last spring and the uniqueness of this new school year.

Read our Q&A with Merkley below.

Christine Cooke, Sutherland Institute education policy fellow: What was your experience last semester with the sudden school closures – and what did you learn from that experience?

Merkley: Fourth quarter of the 2020 academic year was easily the most unusual and difficult quarter of my teaching career. And, while I had always known this truth, the pandemic reiterated it: Students need voice and choice to be motivated to learn. Students are not inspired to learn what the teacher has prescribed, read the novel the teacher has chosen, or write the essay the teacher has selected. Their science experiments simply “discover” what has already been discovered; their papers regurgitate class material. School, to many students, is about compliance, rather than discovery. Distance learning, on the other hand, untethered us from looming standardized tests and liberated teachers to engage students in authentic student-driven projects that magnified their interests and their world. I witnessed the magic that happens when students have the freedom to self-design projects, choose books, and work at a pace that makes sense for them. I saw students come alive, and it shouldn’t take a pandemic to see that.

Cooke: What did you feel most prepared for in that situation? Least?

Merkley: The greatest advantage teachers had in the switch to distance learning in May 2020 was the relationships they had forged with their students and their students’ families. Classroom communities had been established, routines ingrained, and relationships fostered. So, while the switch was certainly chaotic and challenging, teachers could lean heavily on their knowledge of each student and the trust they had cultivated over the previous seven months. Furthermore, teachers knew some or all of the parents of their students, making a home-school partnership smoother. I was no different. The relationships with my students were the bedrock of my teaching. I had a sense of who would soar with the increased freedom and who might need regular one-on-ones, enabling me to customize and tailor the online experience as much as possible. 

I certainly felt least prepared to deliver engaging, interactive online instruction. The wealth of digital tools and platforms was dizzying at best, paralyzing at worst. My physical classroom is highly interactive and centers on group work, discussion, debate, and collaborative learning. The largely asynchronous nature of distance learning meant that my students weren’t “together” virtually very often, and I needed to find creative ways for them to not only learn from me but from each other and from themselves.  

Cooke: How are you/your LEA planning to approach this upcoming fall – and what are the pros/cons of this approach?

Merkley: My district (Granite District) has opted for in-person learning four days a week, with distance learning on Fridays. Additionally, students have the option to take some or all classes via distance learning. The pros of this approach are obvious: high-risk students and families have the opportunity to learn fully online, thus providing a safe learning experience. Additionally, the dual option of online and in-person has driven down in-person class sizes, making face-to-face somewhat safer. The district’s decision to move all learning online every Friday also provides teachers extra planning and collaboration time to prepare for the demand of concurrently teaching in-person and online.

However, many cons of this approach fall squarely on the shoulders of teachers. Teachers are expected to teach a full course load in-person while simultaneously creating, teaching, and managing an equivalent online course. While the Friday schedule will help ease this burden, teachers essentially will have two full-time jobs – only one of which they are fully trained for. Online pedagogy is its own field with research-supported practices and philosophies to guide it, and traditional teachers are simply not fluent in that pedagogy, despite a few days of professional development. 

Cooke: How were teachers involved in the decision-making process at the school level, district level and/or state level?

Merkley: At the state level, Superintendent Sydnee Dickson created the COVID-19 Teachers Council, composed of myself and a number of teachers from across the state in various disciplines and grade levels. This Council met consistently throughout the summer and will meet throughout the fall to advise the Utah State Board of Education (USBE) on the concerns of teachers and the effect of policy on the practice of classroom teachers. This platform not only elevated teacher input but also shaped policy and recommendations from USBE. Districts and schools involved teachers in a variety of ways throughout the state: some held focus groups, some issued surveys, some included teachers on scheduling and planning committees, some asked teachers to join school-level leadership teams, and some – regrettably – did little to involve teachers in the reopening process. 

Cooke: In what ways to do you think we need to change our approach to schooling?

Merkley: The sudden shift to distance learning exposed deep inequities that plague our public school system. Students were stymied by lack of reliable internet, spotty access to devices, or chaotic home situations. We saw with clarity the critical role played by in-person schooling and a physical building to equalize, however imperfectly, the learning experience. And yet, a physical building is not a panacea. Not all students in (or out) of a school building are getting an education that meaningfully engages their individual mind and experiences. The steady, relentless drumbeat of assignments and quizzes and tests is not consistently resulting in high achievement for all learners. Learning, we can now see, is simply not one size fits all.

Imagine schools as a place for individualized, personalized education – where students can work at their own pace with significant autonomy over their learning. We need to create spaces that are adaptable and flexible enough to elevate the culture, experiences, backgrounds, and interests of every student in order to ensure their maximum engagement with content and skills. Teacher-led material simply can’t compete with the handheld computer in the palm of every child in a classroom. However, student-led or student-chosen material can! Granting students a louder voice in their own learning will not only increase motivation and performance, it will also strengthen metacognitive skills necessary for their success long after graduation. 

Cooke: What would you like parents to know/do? And for the students to know/do?

Merkley: Parents: Please know that your children’s teachers see you. We see the hours you’ve spent with your student navigating the tangled web of distance learning apps. We see the frustration you’ve experienced with mercurial and opaque school reopening plans. We see your dedication to your children and their progress. Teachers share these experiences and concerns; our joint capacity for empathy is high. Let’s not waste it. Teachers, like you, are doing their best in challenging circumstances. Let us all offer each other abundant grace, compassion, and flexibility. Do not hesitate to contact your child’s teachers. Form a partnership with them and nurture it. 

Students: Never has there been an opportunity for you to take ownership of your learning like this one! Whether you are learning online or in-person, the likelihood that you will do some distance learning this school year is high. You can prepare yourself by investing in your own learning. Know the learning objectives every day. Track and reflect on your progress. Seek ways to blend class content with your interests. Don’t wait for a teacher to tell you everything. Advocate for yourself. Reach out to your teacher early and often. Ask your questions. Share your story. Give feedback. Teachers will need your initiative and feedback more than ever, so don’t be shy!

Cooke: What would you like the general public to know about the educator profession at this time? 

Merkley: When distance learning descended upon the nation, educators were quickly hailed as “heroes,” with celebrities (who were now full-time homeschool teachers) taking to Twitter to demand that teachers be paid a million dollars a year. While such accolades were amusing and much appreciated by educators, we must remember that teachers are not superheroes. We are people. People who love your children and who love to teach, but still: people. We are people who, like you, are simply trying to do our best in a situation for which no one was prepared. So, while it will be tempting to critique a teacher’s inchoate distance learning plan or criticize the layout of an online lesson, remember that the vast majority of teachers, like you, are in new territory. Let that commonality color all of your interactions with educators. Educators: Do the same. Let grace and flexibility rule the day. 

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