By Alexis Wiggins
I confess that my pandemic experience may have been a bit different from that of many educators in the U.S. I have lived and taught just outside of Houston for the last six years, and Texas opened its schools for in-person learning in August 2020. By October of 2020, my school was back to full-time, face-to-face learning.
I do not remember this time fondly; it was scary, exhausting, and frustrating to balance the demands of good teaching with those of safety. But I do have a takeaway that feels like a gift, like a ruby glinting in the ashes, that I was surprised to feel in the middle of that difficult first full school year of the pandemic: gratitude.
Gratitude for my students. Gratitude for my administrators. Gratitude for my colleagues. But mostly, I felt gratitude for the realization that being in person matters. Relationships matter. Teaching students in an actual classroom, all physically together, matters. The pandemic really highlighted this for all of us.
A decade ago, I was teaching at another school that worked hard to be on the cutting edge and educate its faculty in best practices. Back then, there was much talk about MOOCs and the future of education being online. We had “Moodle Days” twice a year to practice online learning, even for our youngest learners in kindergarten. I saw many speakers at international conferences who promised that teachers who couldn’t adapt to online teaching and learning would soon be out of a job. The futurists were gleefully predicting a utopian, hybrid world in which students could eventually do all learning remotely just as efficiently as they could in person.
While much of what they predicted would prove true—we would all have to adapt to online teaching and learning—much of what they promised then now seems misguided. I don’t hear much about MOOCs anymore. No one is clamoring for more online classes. Few students speak wistfully about remote learning. Why? It’s not because these platforms didn’t and don’t serve a real and practical purpose—they absolutely did, and will continue to do so. But what the futurists got wrong when they predicted that teaching might go the way of the dodo bird was that technology can only provide a medium for the sharing of information and ideas; it cannot replicate or replace the human social experience. What I realized was that the human touch was lost in online learning—the spark, the connection, the magic that made us develop a classroom culture and a bond over the course of each year. Online, we were just a functional class. In person, there was often magic.
Student-led discussion is my thing; I wrote an entire book about how it can change the culture of a classroom and lead to deeper learning. During the pandemic, when all of us shifted to fully remote learning, I tried to replicate the same experience with Spider Web Discussion in my 9th- and 12th-grade classes over Zoom. Students continued to discuss using our protocols, and I believe some learning happened online that was a decent substitute in the midst of a pandemic. But nothing online came close to the magic the best in-person discussions offer; the ones in which we feel a collective buzz in the air when someone asks a thought-provoking question and the whole class leans in, debating and questioning in an animated, engaged way so that they can’t stop talking, even when class is over and they are walking out the door to lunch. On Zoom, everyone just waves goodbye and clicks off. No magic, just an hour clocked.
The contrast from going fully in-person to fully remote and back to fully in-person within six months allowed me and my colleagues an intimate understanding of how and why relationships matter the most when it comes to learning. Anyone who has been in the classroom in the last few years can see the difference between being in-person and being online. In-person learning allows relationships to develop and flourish through the subtle but important means of eye contact, body language, humor, timing, and group chemistry; distance learning jumbles all of those.
There are some wonderful technological gems we’ve gained from having to teach through a global pandemic, but the most precious gem I’ve taken away from the experience is that in-person learning matters because it allows me and my students to develop real and lasting relationships with one another. That relationship might only consist of sitting next to a student and helping her through a challenging essay topic; or giving advice to a student who drops into my office to vent about his athletic schedule and how much stress it’s putting on his life; or making brownies for my advisees and just letting them have an extra twenty minutes to eat, catch up on homework, and chat with each other during our advisory time. These are the things that matter most. Yes, I’d like for my students to learn the three kinds of irony. Yes, I’d love for them to write and develop good thesis statements. Yes, I’d be thrilled if they could discern between a reliable source and a less reliable one in their research. These are all important parts of my teaching.
But the most valuable part is the relationships we develop with our students and allow our students to develop with each other. It’s what an algorithm can never replace. Many in the tech sector thought we could simply move school online and that it would be vastly more efficient and exciting. The lesson I learned most deeply from the pandemic is that what I can do online is not nearly as good as what I can do in person. Teaching is an art, not a science.
I will always be grateful for the efficiency that technology provides us in our work as educators, but I know now that learning is more than the sharing of information or ideas; learning is, at its heart, a trust-based, collective, interactive experience that can only fully be realized when we are together in the classroom.
Alexis Wiggins has worked as a teacher, instructional coach, and consultant. Her book, The Best Class You Never Taught: How Spider Web Discussion Can Turn Students into Learning Leaders (ASCD), helps transform classrooms through collaborative inquiry. Alexis is currently the English Department Chair at The John Cooper School in The Woodlands, TX. You can contact her at www.ceelcenter.org.