Ryan Bravin has reported to his classroom every day for the last few weeks to teach English to ninth and 10th graders at his school, located in Vance County in Eastern North Carolina.
He leads discussions on literature from behind his desk. But there’s no one else in the room. All his students are logging in from home.
It’s not quite the experience Bravin had envisioned when he applied to join Teach for America during his junior year of college. Nor is it the experience that he thought he’d be getting when he agreed to move 2,100 miles, from Arizona to North Carolina.
For Bravin, who had not gone to college with intentions of becoming an educator, the global pandemic and the subsequent nationwide experiment with remote learning might have dampened his enthusiasm for Teach for America, which recruits young people—often recent college graduates—to teach in under-resourced communities for at least two years.
But even as his first year in the classroom was thrown into question, and then dramatically transformed, Bravin was not deterred.
When the pandemic first hit the U.S. in March, “the main thing immediately flooding my head was, ‘Oh, my goodness, I may not get to do this at all,’” Bravin recalls. “In the midst of everything canceled—from graduation to trips I had planned—the prevailing thought was, ‘I may not get to do Teach for America.’”
As the pandemic persisted, Bravin wasn’t wondering or worrying about how Teach for America may not be the experience he’d originally signed up for. Instead, he became more resolute about its mission.
The more I saw people struggle with online learning, it convinced me this work is more important now than it ever was."
-Ryan Bravin, 2020 corps member in Eastern North Carolina
“If anything I think I was more committed to joining,” Bravin says. “A lot of people in my life—friends and family members—were like, ‘Maybe you should not teach. Maybe you should stick around and work the job you have now.’ But the more I saw people struggle with online learning, it convinced me this work is more important now than it ever was.”
It’s too soon to say how the pandemic will impact retention of Teach for America’s 2020 corps members—the organization won’t have complete data until all of the schools it serves have had their first day and can tally how many of the 3,000 incoming corps members show up to teach (in person and remotely). But staff at Teach for America suspect COVID-19 will only bolster their corps members’ commitment to teaching and supporting students.
“I would put money on it, and I’d bet that we’re going to have higher retention through the first day of school and even through the end of the school year, because of just how much energy there is for equity work,” says LaNiesha Cobb Sanders, senior vice president of teacher leadership development at Teach for America.
In addition to counting who shows up on the first day of school, Teach for America also measures retention by tallying how many of the corps members who were hired show up for summer training. This year’s numbers were higher than average, Cobb Sanders says. And anecdotally, she and her colleague ChaKia Parham, the vice president of institute and program implementation at Teach for America, are hearing a lot of corps members echo Bravin’s sentiment: The pandemic has illustrated some of the inequities in education, and spurred them to want to be part of the solution.
That’s true for Prince Islam, a 2020 corps member teaching in New York City this fall. His school is starting in a fully virtual setting on Aug. 31.
“For me, personally, I didn’t have any second thoughts, because I’ve always just wanted to be in the classroom. It’s more so thinking about what I want to do differently in the classroom,” he explains. “What are the ends I’m seeking in my classroom? How can I achieve those ends? How can I build community in a virtual setting?”
Virtual Teacher Training
Parham, who was traveling to different Teach for America regions up until the end of February, says that within a week or two of the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S., Teach for America staff realized that a traditional summer training experience on college campuses was not going to be feasible.
“We had to pivot really fast,” says Parham. “We asked ourselves, given what is happening in our country, and happening in our schools, ‘What needs to be our path forward this summer?’”
The organization decided on March 27 that it would do a fully virtual summer teacher training for 2020 corps members.
Between then and June 4, when the training would start, staff reoriented their training program for a virtual setting, Parham says, in a way that still allowed corps members to learn the foundational teaching skills and build community with one another.
“It was quick. It was agile. And it was scrappy in some ways,” Parham describes.
Ordinarily, Teach for America holds about 19 summer institutes at college campuses across the country. Members teach summer school during the day and attend teacher training in the afternoons. The virtual training, held for four weeks from June to July, brought all 3,000 corps members together at once.
Given the constraints of an online setting, the staff had to “get really, really clear” about what was most essential for corps members to take away, says Parham. They decided to focus on instruction and pedagogy; learning environments (since some would teach in person, and others in hybrid or fully virtual settings); diversity, equity and inclusion; and reflection.
The training included six hours a day of synchronous learning, then asynchronous work later for reading, reflection and lesson planning. It was intended to be as rigorous and high quality as an in-person experience, Parham says.
During the virtual summer training, corps members taught reading and literacy virtually to children in grades K-3 through the student-coaching company Springboard Collaborative, as a way to practice engaging with students, working through lessons, setting and reaching goals, and meeting with parents and families.
“It’s not the traditional classroom environment with a desk in front of you and a blackboard,” says Islam, one of the 2020 corps members. “But you can set goals, [such as], ‘I want them to master this particular skill with phonics.’ In terms of communication and goal-setting, that’s really important to your teaching, and I got to work on those.”
Teach for America also used a platform, Teaching Channel, so corps members could watch existing videos of teachers giving lessons in a class, as well as record and upload videos of themselves teaching.
Corps members were broken up into cohorts of 40-50 people for most training, and then divided into pods of four or five, Parham says. In their pods, they would rehearse lessons for the first time with each other, which for many can be intimidating or make them feel vulnerable. It was in those pods that most members developed strong bonds with each other, Parham says, since “pods served as a place for rehearsal, reflection and feedback.”
After the four weeks, corps members did some additional training within their regions. They will also each receive ongoing support and professional development from Teach for America during the first three months of the school year.
Parham says she and her colleagues were bracing for the reality that many corps members may want to defer their spots for another year. Corps members committed to Teach for America with expectations of working alongside colleagues and teaching students in person—an experience that some may not get at all this year.
“We were very surprised to find out corps members were really excited—nervous and scared, definitely—but corps members came online,” she says. “We didn’t see a huge dropoff in our corps size throughout the summer.”
Parham adds: “For the 2020 corps, they were so much clearer about the need for teachers. … Teachers are truly essential workers. They are doing incredible work, not only for our students, but for this country. And [corps members] were able to see up close and personal the inequities that live within our education system and think about the schools they may have come from and the access to technology that they had in their schools, and how it would’ve been for them to transition to virtual training.”
‘I Know What It’s Like’
Something that the vast majority of 2020 corps members—and all first-year teachers, for that matter—will be bringing with them this fall is their own experience with virtual learning. It wasn’t that long ago that many of them were students on the receiving end of remote instruction.
Islam, who will be teaching high school math in the South Bronx, says that all of his classes at Tufts University moved online in the spring, and he finished his senior year remotely.
“I know what it’s like,” he says. “I took math virtually. I took differential equations. So I have a better understanding of the type of challenges my students might feel learning math virtually—especially with engagement.”
Islam continues: “I struggled with engaging with the content virtually, so I’m definitely going to be reflecting about my own experience and thinking about, ‘OK, so what are the moments where I myself felt unengaged? Why did I feel unengaged? What might my instructor have done in that moment to make me feel more engaged? Could they have sent me to a breakout room? Or done a better job building community? Could we have done an ice breaker?’”
Bravin’s college courses in the spring were mostly writing-based, he says. And he found the virtual learning environments to be frustrating and, in many ways, lacking. In one course, there was no element of synchronous learning—just students responding to discussion boards. “We lost a lot,” he says. In another class, his professor wanted to stick to the same schedule and cadence they had in person, so the class met two hours a week at the same time and on the same days of the week as before the pandemic.
“We had to be there the whole time, and it simply wasn't engaging—in the classroom or outside of the classroom,” Bravin says. “So overall I either saw too much adaptation or not enough, really nothing in between.”
Like Islam, Bravin’s takeaways from his own experience with virtual learning are that relationship-building is key, and engagement needs to be a priority.
Bravin’s school in Eastern North Carolina—a high-need region with high teacher turnover—started the year on July 31, so he has had some time already to observe and adjust. As a high school English teacher working with a lot of freshmen, he has worked really hard in the first few weeks to get the students to warm up to each other and him.
“Their first days of high school were experienced behind a computer screen, at home. In that capacity, it’s difficult for students to come out of their shells,” he says. He was having them break into small groups to discuss a passage of the reading, and “they’d just look at each other and don’t know what to say.”
Now, he starts classes with a prompt. For example, “What’s the coolest place you’ve been?” The students will free-write their responses for about five minutes, then he will select a few to share their answers. “We’re able to find a lot of solidarity in how students think and the things they’re interested in and things that bring value to their lives,” Bravin says. It “helps create that community that is so desperately missed when you’re not doing in-person instruction.”
Bravin teaches three classes, for a total of about 60 students, from his desk in the high school building. Each class meets for an hour-and-a-half of live video instruction every day, five days a week. For Bravin, that’s nearly five hours of Zoom calls a day.
It may be many months before he’ll see his students in person. The school, he says, does not expect to reopen for face-to-face instruction before next spring.