Striving for Change in PreK-12 Education While Preserving the Art of Teaching

By Guest Contributor Dr. Shawn Smith, Chief Innovation Officer at McGraw Hill School

As this school year draws to a close, I’ve been hearing from some teachers that this year was their hardest yet. The focus of the beginning of this year was, of course, on academic learning loss: We had to determine the severity of the losses, the scale, and the best way to address gaps without approaching the situation with a deficit mindset and discounting the incredible growth that students did achieve during the pandemic.

The challenges associated with learning loss of course came to bear this year, but so did plenty of others. Teachers found that many students were lacking the developmental skills to perform daily tasks as expected at grade level, that trauma had deeply affected students’ wellbeing, and that, quite simply, the teachers themselves were exhausted. The lingering effects of such a massive disruption to learning are so complex and so individual to every student and teacher’s experience, that we cannot – and should not – expect learning communities to function as just they did before the pandemic any time soon, or perhaps ever again.

In some ways, we might consider that knowledge a gift. This seismic change could give us the opportunity to reframe our expectations for teaching and learning and chart entirely new paths for students. However, alongside this opportunity for innovation and ingenuity is also the absolute necessity of time for restoration and recovery. In our excitement to reimagine what’s possible for teachers and learners, we can’t lose sight of what they need in the immediate future – time to connect, to grow, and to build relationships.

As I reflect on the past school year and the conversations I’ve had with teachers, school leaders, and families, here are a few spaces I believe all stakeholders should direct our focus in the coming year to both carve an innovative path forward and keep the voices of students and teachers at the center of everything we do.

Restore Educators’ Wellbeing and Reduce Their Workload

First and foremost, we must take care of educators. This cannot be overstated – the teacher retention crisis in our country is now widely known, as are the mental health challenges teachers face every day. Teachers are suffering, and supporting them must be a top priority for all stakeholders. While there are no easy answers or quick fixes, reducing their workload, implementing social and emotional learning for teachers, establishing leadership practices that support teachers above all else, and, when possible, increasing teacher’s pay are all commonly cited solutions.

While not all of these changes are within every stakeholder’s power to influence, curriculum and EdTech providers must focus our resources on reducing teachers’ workload and providing them with ample instructional support.

Ultimately, every resource, tool, or platform that we provide educators should serve to lessen the logistical burdens of their work and elevate the uniquely human, incredibly complex artform teachers use to create personalized, enriching learning experiences for their students. This is where our opportunity to innovate in a new era of education intersects with the necessity to address immediate needs: By leveraging data science and automation, we can greatly improve educators’ workflow.

At McGraw Hill, this work is a top priority. Our teams are refining tools that will make differentiation and personalization scalable and even automate the manual work teachers undertake to generate critical reporting. While these specific efforts are only a fraction of the systemic changes required to improve teacher wellbeing and curb the burnout crisis, I consider them some of the most urgent needs we address as an organization.

Support Relationship-Building with Students  

Despite the burnout and exhaustion that teachers feel, I am continually in awe of their commitment to their students and the resilience they display to meet their students’ increasingly complex needs. The bond between teachers and their students is truly remarkable. Teachers have expressed this dedication countless times over the course of the past year, and I believe it should serve as a reminder for all of us seeking to influence change and improve the education landscape, that the relationship between student and teacher is the single most important, fundamental, and basic element of PreK-12 education

This is perhaps a bold statement to make – but truly, to anyone who has spent time in a classroom or taken a look at supporting research, it shouldn’t be a surprise. Teaching and learning are deeply human experiences. Students in a PreK-12 classroom are not just recipients of information, test-takers, or representatives of “outcomes”. They are individual, unique, growing humans with evolving needs, dreams, and talents. Educators know this deeply and intimately, and for many of them, it’s the connection to each of their students that drives them to stay in a profession that has not always rewarded (or even respected) their achievements. Just as we have a responsibility to do what we can to improve teachers’ direct working environment, I believe stakeholders also have a role to play in preserving and strengthening these precious relationships.

While this may not seem like an applicable place for technology, I would argue that technology holds an important role in protecting student-teacher relationships amidst a rapidly changing environment. At McGraw Hill, we approach this work through two central goals:

Freeing up the teacher’s time. Reducing a teacher’s workload and allowing them to create meaningful relationships with students are inextricably linked. Simply put, by removing the logistical burdens that take up teachers’ time by introducing automation where possible, teachers should have additional time to do the work that technology cannot do: Getting to know and respond to students as humans. This of course is dependent on several factors, including teachers’ very justified fear that an emptied plate will mean more room for asks from leadership. Therefore, automation can only take us so far – school leadership must also prioritize and see value in relationship building, and leave room for bonds to form.

Providing teachers with insights about their students. This piece is more complicated and will continue to evolve along with technology. Much of the knowledge that teachers gain about their students comes from conversation, interaction, and simple touchpoints throughout the school day. However, to know each student on a deep level and understand the nuances of their learning needs is a great deal to ask of any educator – and, truly, of a student, who is still working to know themselves, let alone learning how to express their needs succinctly.

As students increasingly interact with digital curricula and online assessments, we gather more and more data about their learning journeys. This data, when collected responsibly and interpreted thoughtfully, can provide educators with a rich picture of a student’s needs, enabling them to develop an even more meaningful relationship with every learner on an individual level.

At McGraw Hill, we’re working to provide teachers with insights by leveraging what we know about learning science in the context of the evolving field of data science. We believe that teachers should be able to leverage accessible data stories to have 1:1 conversations with students about growth and progress.

I do not doubt that the 2022-2023 school year will present us with a fresh set of unexpected challenges. I also fully expect many of the challenges we saw this year to continue as the effects of the pandemic linger. However, what I have seen and heard from teachers, students, and school leaders has still filled me with the hope that through innovative problem-solving, thoughtful technology, and a commitment to elevating and celebrating the art and science of teaching, we can make great progress this year toward a new era of education.

Dr. Shawn Smith

Dr. Shawn K. Smith is currently serving as the Chief Innovation Officer for McGraw Hill and a national leader on issues surrounding digital education and pedagogy.

Described as an “education futurist”, Shawn is an author, speaker, entrepreneur, and rare book collector. He has one of the largest private collections of John Dewey’s writings in the world. Shawn has authored four books on education: Teacher as Architect: Instructional design and delivery for the modern teacher (2012), The New Agenda: Achieving personalized learning through digital convergence (2017), The Shape of Change: The continued journey of the Digital Convergence Framework (2018)and Wisdom and Influence: Mastering the Digital Convergence Framework (2019)Formerly Shawn was a teacher, principal, and Chief of Schools for 15 years in school districts in Illinois and California and served as CEO and co-founder of Modern Teacher for 9 years.

Shawn has made appearances on both Discovery and Learning channels as well as various radio, web, and podcast programs. Shawn has degrees from Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin (bachelor’s degree, elementary education), the California State University, San Bernardino (master’s degree, middle school education), and the University of Southern California (doctorate degree, urban education policy and leadership).