California teachers have had time in distance learning — more than they ever imagined — to crystallize their thoughts about teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic: How did the pandemic affect students and relationships with students and families? How did it affect their outlook on teaching? How might schools be structured differently based on what you learned from distance learning?

In today’s EdSource, teachers reflect on the past year. In the latest findings of a survey of 121 California teachers by the Inverness Institute, a research organization, teachers were asked to give advice to their colleagues. And in a short video, members of EdSource’s Teachers Advisory Committee responded to questions we asked earlier this month: How would you organize school for the first two weeks of in-person instruction? What have you learned from distance learning you would like to incorporate when you return?


The teachers in the Inverness survey broadly represent California teachers’ ethnic diversity, geographical distribution, subject expertise and grade level. Inverness chose them from a pool of veteran classroom teachers who have participated in school improvement networks and leadership programs. Inverness provided anonymity so that they could speak candidly.

Several themes emerged from hundreds of comments: Teachers shouldn’t be too tough on themselves; distance learning is hard. And while, out of necessity, distance learning forced teachers to cull the most essential lessons and standards, selectively focusing on fewer lessons in more depth could offer a model for when school campuses reopen.

“The one thing that I have learned is that you cannot cover everything that you would normally get in the classroom in distance learning. Distance learning is an opportunity to rejuvenate lessons for students and be more open to project-based learning,” said an Inland Empire teacher at a middle school with 96% low-income students.

“Figure out what is most important for your students to learn and teach them that. You don’t have time for all the extras. Also, take the time to form connections and allow your students to get to know each other,” said a teacher in a middle school with 85% low-income students in the Central Valley.

“Less is more. I’ve learned to drill down to the most essential skills/standards that I feel need to be taught/learned. I’ve learned to not give up on collaboration time for students to work together even if some do not participate,” wrote a teacher in a middle school with 79% low-income students on the Central Coast, then added, “I’ve learned to be patient and kind and offer extra help sessions even if nobody shows up.”

In earlier survey briefs, many teachers emphasized the instructional, technical and social-emotions challenges of distance learning. But, looking back, some teachers pointed to benefits. Here are three examples:

  • “When I introduce an assignment, I allow students to choose a breakout room. They can stay in the main room if they want to work through the assignment step by step with guidance from me. They can join an ‘open group’ room where they work together with mics and cameras on. They can join a ‘quiet group’ room where they work together through typing in the chat. Or they can choose a solo room to work independently. As long as students are completing the work, they have the freedom to choose,” wrote a teacher in a middle school with 39% low-income students on the Central Coast. “This is much more difficult in person in a single classroom, so I think it’s important to recognize the challenges and the opportunities that distance learning affords.”
  • “I learned that there were some advantages to having students complete work online: the ability to respond more instantaneously with more comments, to engage with them more regularly on a personal level without the demands of classroom management,” wrote a teacher in a North Coast middle school with 50% low-income students.
  • “In the classroom at times there are time constraints. Through distance learning while doing independent work, students can have as much time as they want to complete work. Also, for some students that have social and emotional issues, distance learning works best,” wrote a teacher in an elementary school with 95% low-income students in the San Diego area. “Education needs to stop operating from ‘one size fits all,’ and we also need to start making usage of more technology.”

EdSource’s inaugural Teachers Advisory Committee consists of about a dozen teachers and meets periodically to discuss issues affecting the classroom and the teaching profession. In the last meeting, members reflected on the past year and how they’d welcome students back during the first weeks of school. Several said the pandemic reinforced why it’s critical to listen to teachers, parents and students. Others said the coronavirus pandemic offered the chance to rethink instruction and learning to better serve students.

“I check in with my third-graders regularly. A lot of the learning that we’ve done this year — how to use technology, how to be patient and support each other and have compassion and empathy — I think my students understand really deeply,” said Meghann Seril, a third grade teacher at Broadway Elementary in Los Angeles Unified. “It’s important to hear from them because many of our kids are actually enjoying (distance learning) and have been more focused and have had different learning opportunities that we could not provide in the classroom.”

“When we go back, we’re going to play distance kickball. I’ll bring in my large screen TV, and we’ll just dance within our areas. At least in my class, we’re going to build that family and community that we didn’t have a chance to build,” said Jose Octavio Rivas Jr., an AP physics and electronics teacher at the Lennox Mathematics, Science and Technology Academy in Lennox, south of Los Angeles.

“We always knew the inequities were there, but with COVID, it was really highlighted. We got to see everything on a broad spectrum of how we neglect certain populations. Moving forward, my hope is that we can start really recreating systems of practices that actually do help students, do help families,” said Gwendolyn Delgado, a 10th grade history and English language learner support teacher in the William S. Hart Union High School District in Santa Clarita.

* Story originally published by EdSource.