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Perspective | Collaboration and innovation in a pandemic offer promise for a new direction

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Lessons from the past school year. Plans for the year ahead. For EdNC’s Special Report, we asked leaders to share how the pandemic impacted education & what that means for the future. Read the rest of the series here.

“We know sharing proprietary information might not make the most business sense. But the global climate crisis is bigger than business. And if competition got us into this mess, perhaps collaboration can get us out.”  —allbirds

As we begin to emerge from COVID-19, it is important to recognize the major changes undertaken by teachers, schools, and districts, and the new ideas and practices that have or might still emerge. Educators switched first to 100% online instruction and then shifted again to simultaneously teach students face-to-face and online. And just as it is important to plan for students who have fallen behind with their learning, we must also seize the moment to identify and learn from new and innovative practices that have emerged as a result of the pandemic.

Further, it is essential to consider what we have learned about school and teacher change. After reflecting on the last year, the following three themes stand out: the importance of teacher collaboration, teachers’ ability to radically alter their practices, and teachers’ ability to innovate. Collaboration across schools and districts and the use of creative and innovative programs and practices have promise for a new direction for school improvement.

As with any change, and particularly change forced on teachers and schools by a pandemic, there are new innovations that worked and gaps that have been exposed. At a minimum, there is likely to be an increased integration of technology in teaching and learning as teachers have become more comfortable and adept in using technology. And with that has also come the recognition that student access to devices and Wi-Fi is no longer optional but essential.

There have been big picture changes with teachers and schools finding new ways to include social and emotional learning, examples of improved communication with parents, teachers reevaluating what is essential content and, with the easing of standardized testing, teachers creating more meaningful assessments of learning. In addition, there are numerous examples of teachers across North Carolina who have made significant changes and innovations to their practice.

The pandemic has demonstrated teachers’ talent to transform teaching and learning. Many teachers are proud and energized by what they accomplished. Teachers see themselves as having grown and become better educators. It is therefore vital that we consider how to keep this spirit of creativity and innovation alive.

However, these positive feelings of self-worth in the classroom have to be seen in the larger context in which some teachers felt unsupported throughout the pandemic. The increased demands on teachers during the pandemic will likely result in more teachers leaving the profession. Thus, we must create a work culture that recognizes teachers’ achievements, values teachers’ professional expertise, and supports the development of new and innovative practices.

At the school level, school culture and teacher working conditions are broadly recognized as contributors to teacher and school success. During the pandemic, teacher collaboration and professional learning communities (PLCs) took on a new form and were widely valued. Teacher networking and professional development through Zoom was easier and often more relevant. However, while collaboration is recognized as a virtue at the school level, in the larger framework of educational policy, competition between schools and districts is seen as the main route to school improvement. Ignored are the benefits of collaboration between schools and districts to address challenging issues, and the benefits of schools and districts in sharing best practices.

With all stakeholders present, positive changes, like the following, can be made.

  • Recognize that innovation is important to school improvement in North Carolina and that all schools have the potential to be innovative.
  • Provide flexibility and time to schools and districts to encourage new approaches.
  • Empower teachers, schools, and districts to try new approaches.
  • Provide resources to fund pilot/experimental programs.
  • Create an innovation lab to bring new ideas to practice.
  • Support collaboration among schools, districts and beyond to address challenging issues.
  • Identify innovative practices and schools and make these available so that others can learn from them.
  • Change how we measure school success to recognize and support innovation.
  • Revise the characteristics of the North Carolina portrait of a graduate to include qualities of learner agency, student well-being and critical thinking and problem solving.

Currently, charter schools, lab schools, and the Renewal district are the main examples of new approaches to school improvement in North Carolina. And the Canopy Project has identified eight North Carolina schools as part of its network of innovative schools across the country. However, these reforms were often created as isolated initiatives and not part of a comprehensive plan for school improvement. We need to build on this initial interest and create a comprehensive plan for school improvement in which collaboration and innovation have central roles.

Robert Smith
Kylee Maarschalk

Kylee Maarschalk is an Ohio native and an English teacher at New Hanover High School in Wilmington, North Carolina.