“I think this year, if you have an opportunity, thank a teacher… And I think this year remote learning has exposed how complicated and difficult teaching is… and like any professional endeavor, it’s a joy to engage in, but it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t take time, work and expertise to be excellent at that professional endeavor. And many of the teachers that we worked with this year said that this felt like again, their first year of teaching, which is often the most difficult year of teaching for teachers, because they had to learn to engage students in a completely different modality.”
“We’re not filling gaps, we’re accelerating the learning… then also do the work of ensuring that [teachers] understand that scaffolding up or accelerating student learning is about putting supports in place for students that are temporary and will be taken away once they’ve mastered the content. Versus scaffolding down, which we see many educators do sometimes unconsciously, which includes removing the rigor of a lesson as we think it might be too difficult for a student, and then never bringing that rigor back for the student. That’s when learning loss happens and that’s when it contributes to these really gross inequities that we have across our nation.”
“I think if we take care of the educators, they’ll be more open to supporting students in a holistic way.”
“If you build a community where teachers really feel like they’re learning from each other, then they want to come and be a part of that community because it’s going to be very beneficial to them when they go and plan their lessons or teach their students.”
Q: So let’s start, if you would, by telling us a little about your background, and how you came to the Teaching Lab and about the objectives of your organization?
A: Yeah, absolutely. So I was a passionate high school science teacher. I taught in DC and Oakland, California. And I had a mentor that encouraged me to apply to graduate school and that really changed the trajectory of my life. But some of the reasons why I wanted to apply to graduate school were because I didn’t think we were doing right by students systemically, and I worked at schools where we mostly served black and Latin X students who were experiencing low income. And we would get these students to college, but not through college. And I felt like as a teacher I was often spinning my wheels and not helping to create some of those systemic solutions. I had experiences that a lot of teachers have. I worked all the time, sometimes early in the morning until late at night. I didn’t have a curriculum, so I spent a lot of time creating my own materials.
Like most teachers, I spent my money on my own science supplies. I had very little prep time, and therefore I didn’t have a lot of time to collaborate with colleagues. I didn’t have a lot of instructional mentorship. And I saw some of my students suffering because of some of that lack of gross opportunities that I had. And I think some of these systemic failures were leading to reinforcing systemic racism. And so for instance, I remember a student calling me on the phone from college crying and frustrated, and she told me that she was struggling to write essays at the college level. And she asked me, “why didn’t anyone teach me how to write?” And I hold that in my mind and in my heart all the time. And because of some of these early informative experiences, I’ve devoted my life to the pursuit of educational equity, particularly racial equity, and also to professionalizing teaching as an essential lever to get there.
And so on that journey, I’ve been a system level leader in New York City. I’ve been a funder. And while I was a funder, I came across a startup called Teaching Lab. Teaching Lab’s mission is to shift the paradigm of teacher professional learning for educational equity. And the early founders of the organization had put together an evidence-based approach for improving teaching and learning, which was very similar to what I had put together as a funding strategy. And so I invested early in the organization, I joined the board. And when we had a leadership transition, I became the leader of the organization. And it’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made in my life, because while I’ve been there, we’ve grown from five people on the team to 35 people. We’re now in over 30 districts in the nation. We also have six state partnerships. And the reason why we’re in such high demand is because we have this holistic model of support for teachers that we coin “head, heart and habits.”
And the head part of our model refers to how we’re trying to get evidence-based practices into use by teachers. And so we always align our work with high-quality curriculum, because we think that’s a vehicle for getting evidence into practice. The heart part of our model is a differentiator for us and exceptionally important. It refers to the importance of building strong teacher relationships, as well as strong teacher leadership over their own professional learning. And then the habits part of our work refers to how we never do one and done PD, which is generally ineffective and also teachers hate it. I hated it myself. And so our professional learning is always embedded in follow up, or what we call cycles of inquiry, where teachers learn something new directly connected to what they’re doing in the classroom, try it out in their classroom, and then very importantly, come back together with their peers and talk about it, and figure out if the change they’ve made has actually led to an improvement in student learning.
Because what we know from getting evidence into practice is that it’s not a recipe. You can’t just pick up an evidence-based practice and make it work. You have to connect that evidence-based practice to the context that a teacher is in, and that context is so important and that is at the heart of teacher professionalization. That teacher judgment, those micro decisions that they make, sometimes thousands a day, are where we want teachers to ground their professional conversations, and then support each other in their continuous learning.
Q: Okay. Now that kind of leads into my next question a bit, you’ve touched upon this a little. Your organization places enormous value on shifting the way teachers are trained, which in turn affects the way students are learning. So given this past year, or almost year, of remote learning that many, many students across the nation are experiencing, what has that meant for the teachers that you partner with and for their students in turn?
A: Yeah, I mean, I think this year, if you have an opportunity, thank a teacher. They’ve done God’s work this year. And I think this year remote learning has exposed how complicated and difficult teaching is. And we like to say that teaching is rocket science, and like any professional endeavor, it’s a joy to engage in, but it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t take time, work and expertise to be excellent at that professional endeavor. And many of the teachers that we worked with this year said that this felt like again, their first year of teaching, which is often the most difficult year of teaching for teachers, because they had to learn to engage students in a completely different modality. Teaching 30 kids through a screen and a little camera is different than teaching in-person. And so, we shifted at Teaching Lab to support teachers in that endeavor.
And so for the first time in our organization’s history, we also shifted the way that we supported teachers, so all of our work was in-person before as well, mostly because of the importance of that heart component of our model and we thought that we had formed stronger relationships in-person. But this gave us an opportunity to learn authentically with educators that were making that shift with their students so we could say, you’re learning how to do this with students, and we’re learning how to do this with you. So let’s learn together. And although it requires time and skill to learn how to teach in this new modality, a lot of what we did was to reassure teachers that the things that they did pre pandemic that worked were the things that they had to do during the pandemic and during remote learning, but in this different modality.
So for instance, it’s very important for teachers at the beginning of the year to establish strong instructional routines. And so when you’re in-person teachers will teach students how to enter the classroom, how to start a do now, how to engage in group work, and we advise teachers to spend just as much time doing that in a virtual environment as they would do in-person. And so teach students how to enter the Zoom call. Are they supposed to be on video? Are they so supposed to be un-muted, muted? What kind of materials should they have in front of them? How do you engage parent’s support, especially younger students to be prepared for school? And then additionally, we advise teachers to continue using the same curriculum they were using before. Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water, figure out how to adapt that to this context.
I think one of the most challenging things there was certain districts had restrictions on the amount of time that teachers could spend with students, especially in synchronous time. And so we supported teachers and identifying the highest priority instructional content. And we used materials from student achievement partners where they’ve created these guides for teachers during this time, so that they could focus on the things that students needed to learn the most or the things that were the most important so that they would prevent learning loss going into the next school year.
Q: Yeah. And that’s a big topic that I want to ask you about too. With hybrid models, as well as fully remote learning models, continuing for longer than we probably any of us imagined last spring, there has been ample concern and discussion about students falling behind and a significant loss of learning. So how can teachers and administrators address these concerns? And it sounds like you have helped districts map out a plan for how to use existing curriculum, et cetera, but how do you think that potential learning loss could be addressed?
A: Yeah, yeah. So we’re all about the whole child, the whole student and the whole system. And like I said at the beginning, we’re about shifting the paradigm of teacher professional learning for educational equity. And so instruction is one lever, and there are others system-wide levers that we need to push on in order to continue to disrupt educational equities across our educational systems. And so I feel like there’s a tendency to get caught up in the dire predictions of learning loss. And sometimes I think it’s too deficit based, and also presents learning loss as this new problem, as opposed to one that has existed for decades. So for instance, when I was a teacher, the majority of my ninth graders entered ninth grade reading on a fifth-grade level. And so, pre pandemic we were supporting educators with stemming learning loss or addressing what we would call unfinished learning. And the way that we do that is by accelerating learning for students.
And so we’re not filling gaps, we’re accelerating the learning. And another term that we use is scaffolding up as opposed to scaffolding down. And so what that means is you start as an educator with the grade level content that you expect students to learn and the profound belief that students can learn that content in this modality. And so we actually do a lot of teacher identity and bias work, and we did not stop that through the pandemic, because we didn’t want teacher biases to get in the way of that profound belief that students can learn in this modality. And so for instance, we all come into the classroom with biases about how students should show up, and that’s true in remote learning context too. So if a student says that they can’t be on video that day, maybe we need to believe the student and figure out how to ensure that they keep learning on grade level. We shouldn’t make assumptions about what’s happening in the background of a student’s home, et cetera.
And so we do that work with educators, and then also do the work of ensuring that they understand that scaffolding up or accelerating student learning is about putting supports in place for students that are temporary and will be taken away once they’ve mastered the content. Versus scaffolding down, which we see many educators do sometimes unconsciously, which includes removing the rigor of a lesson as we think it might be too difficult for a student, and then never bringing that rigor back for the student. That’s when learning loss happens and that’s when it contributes to these really gross inequities that we have across our nation. For instance, and this is a pre pandemic statistic, that only 40% of our nation’s fourth graders read on grade level by fourth grade. And so everything that I’m saying now, we had to figure out how to do within this new modality, but we have to stay the course and continue on that trajectory related to accelerating student learning, even when students return to the classroom.
Q: So it sounds like some of that foundation, or much of that foundation really, was already in place and being utilized for other types of learning loss and other reasons for learning loss. And so, although some transition has taken place, the foundation was there already. Is that accurate to say?
A: Or it wasn’t there. Or it was there, and we use this as an opportunity to establish that foundation. But in our partner site that we continue to partnership with from last year to this year.
And then we had to help educators translate what they were doing into this new modality.
But I mean, this isn’t to say that it’s not different. And so we created at Teaching Lab what we call our Four Distance Learning Principles. And first principle supports educators in prioritizing. So again, if you have limited time with students, you need to prioritize the highest leverage instructional content. Then we had teachers focus on establishing strong instructional routines. And then third, building strong student relationships. And I can give examples of how you can do this over Zoom. And then finally, centering equity in all decision-making, and that includes preventing your own biases from assuming what students will be able to learn in this modality.
And I think the final thing I’ll say is, we did also support educators in leveraging technology aligned with the curriculum. And so not just supporting teachers in how to use Zoom effectively and whatnot, but also helping them learn how to use technology so that you could have students engaged in independent work aligned with what the whole class was doing, but then use that sort of extra time to engage students one-on-one or in small groups so you could really address any gaps that they had in learning and do some more targeted scaffolding work with students. And then I think though to speak to the larger systemic factors that we need to address, I think students will need more time when they come back to school to learn.
And so national initiatives that are being talked about right now, like a mass tutoring program for students, I mean, I give two thumbs up to that. I think tutoring can be an amazing support for classroom educators. And then the one concern I have is doing that with quality. And so I think there’s also an interesting question about, how do you actually leverage the expertise of teachers to engage in more one-on-one time with students, which is really what tutoring is?
Q: And so returning to in-person instruction, you’ve talked about it may take some time and tutoring might be a component. Is there anything else districts should know, teachers and administrators should know about how to ensure that learning success once we are evolving and returning to an in-person scenario, anything else you’d offer in that?
A: Yeah, absolutely. So, I mean, again, like I said, learning gaps are not new, but they might be more pronounced at this time. And other things are not new related to addressing needs of the whole child. And so in order for students to succeed academically, we also need to ensure that they’re fed, that they have access to mental health resources, that they have access to social supports. Students may have been homeless during this time. They may have engaged in trauma. They may have lost loved ones. And so, how do we also ensure that they get that support for any trauma that they’ve experienced? And how do we ensure that we take this holistic view of how to support children and address both their social, emotional and their academic needs?
And these two things are interrelated. It’s not like, oh, okay, we’re going to do social, emotional learning now and now learn how to compute on grade level. You can intertwine these things because of a student. If a student’s social, emotional health isn’t addressed, they’re not going to be able to access that academic content. And so how do we think really carefully and strategically about how to use all of the resources, all of the adults at our disposal to meet all of the needs that students are going to bring to us when they return, hopefully in the fall?
Q: Yeah. Kind of going back to what you had mentioned before about looking holistically at the child, and the student and their whole scenario.
A: Exactly. And that’s why you also have to think about the whole teacher, and that’s really our mission. And so then the other thing we have to think about is teacher burnout. I’ve heard that teachers are feeling demoralized, which is kind of different actually than feeling burned out. They feel like sometimes they can’t be successful, and that is related to the system supports that they’re providing to teachers. And so, I think teachers need one curriculum. They need strong instructional resources. They need time to learn. They need those structures for learning the habits that we talk about. And they need opportunities for leadership. We know that teachers learn from each other. And so how do we formalize some of those systems and maybe use this crisis as an opportunity to get some of those systems in place for educators? And I think if we take care of the educators, they’ll be more open to supporting students in a holistic way.
Q: Okay. That makes sense. How are you advising the districts that you work with, the educators, how are you advising them to keep students engaged and interested throughout the days and weeks of this continuous online scenario, or even hybrid? Any ways that you’re advising the educators to kind of keep that engagement high?
A: Yes. So I would say that is the number one most frequent question we receive right now. And so, I have a five-year-old son who has been in fully remote kindergarten this entire year. And at the beginning of the year it was really rough for him. And I remember, he said, “Help, I’m stuck in a boring box of Zoom.”
I’ll add that I saw his teacher and his school just continuously learn and improve how to engage him and how to engage all of the other kindergartners in his public school in New York City. And so for instance, they did things like, like at first they were demanding a lot of assignments from the students, and they cut down some of those assignments and focused on the highest priority instructional work and assignments. They also did what I was talking about before, which is they increased the amount of small group time with students, and they also leveraged technology during those off times when the teacher wasn’t with the student. And they did this even for my son in kindergarten, so you can do this with kids in the younger grades. And yesterday my son returned to remote learning after a two-week break, and I asked him a question while he was in class and he said to me, “Hey, don’t interrupt my meeting.”
I say this anecdote, because I think that people are resilient and students are resilient, and I think that teachers and educators are resilient too, and so we have learned to adapt. Do I think that it’s the best modality for students? Absolutely not. Do I worry about my son’s social, emotional learning? Absolutely, and I’m going to be thrilled when he can go back to school. But there are many things that educators can do to engage students. And so, some things that we advise teachers to do are include time for joy, incorporate music, dance breaks, read alouds. My son looks forward to all of those things every day, especially the dance breaks. And at the same time don’t shirk on the rigor. So, learners also enjoy pursuing and overcoming challenges and learning new things. My son is really proud that he’s learning to read right now, and his teacher has done all of that in a remote context. So again, it’s like we can’t throw in the towel just because it’s a remote learning modality.
We have to believe that students can learn, and now we’ve seen that they can learn in this modality. I think we can’t underestimate the power of synchronous instruction. So one of the things that we’re very worried about are some of the middle and high school students who are kind of left to fend for themselves and are put on sort of personalized learning tech tools and whatnot all day. I think that will cause a lot of damage, because we know from research that the majority of learners benefit from the support of teachers. And so I think that is one thing that we have advised systems not to do when they can, is ensure that teachers are still holding class and still meeting with students. And then finally, I’ll add that parents and caregivers are amazing resources, and teachers that have taken the time to take an asset-based approach, meet with caregivers as partners, schedule one-on-one time, ask them how they want to be involved in their child’s learning, and then helping to make that happen can dramatically increase student engagement, because those parents are the ones that are in the home supporting their kids.
And then again, just speaking to the resilience and creativity of educators, we’ve seen educators do really amazing things, like car parades in front of their students’ homes, and they’ll wave and still be able to create that community with students. And even when you can’t do something like that, we’ve seen educators still schedule movie nights with students. And so there are ways to create that community and sort of that internal accountability that students need so that they still want to show up and engage even in a less than ideal context.
Q: Yeah. I’ve seen a lot of those sort of rapport building where rapport maintenance initiatives, even on social media, which is awesome, shared out by some of the schools and students, and it’s been fun to see those. And I think resiliency, I’ve heard you say that throughout our conversation numerous times, I think that’s just kind of an important word for all of us to think about is resiliency, being resilient. And it’s so true. People are resilient. Kids are resilient. This is something to just kind of keep our eye on, I think. Light at the end of the tunnel.
A: Yeah. At Teaching Lab we’re all about hope, so I think it’s very easy at this time to become hopeless. And I think that’s where I also think we can get caught up in all of the dire predictions about learning loss. We really, what we want to do is uplift the stories of hope persevering, overcoming, and resilience and creativity, which is really what we see when we are in professional learning with educators across the nation.
Q: And as you’ve said, that goes along with how you described that you guide the educators you work with to kind of believe that the students will learn a thing, a concept or whatever, and they will. And if they need that scaffolding up to help them get there, but believe that they will learn it, rather than focus on what they’re not learning or where they’re falling short, kind of optimistic approach.
A: Exactly. It begins with that profound belief, and then the professionalization aspect of it involves learning the skills to be able to scaffold up with students. It’s both the mindset and the practice.
Q: Okay. Now you’ve clearly explained that the Teaching Lab places high value on strong teacher groups and strong student education relationships. How are you advising teachers to maintain those strong connections in a time of prolonged separateness, social distancing? You gave some examples of how you’ve seen that occur with students and teachers. How are the teachers remaining connected to one another?
A: Yeah, yeah. So this was the thing we were most worried about at the onset of the pandemic, again, because we center heart in everything that we do. And so again, we were a 100% in-person professional learning organization pre pandemic, and we launched a learning management system exceptionally quickly in March so that we could continue facilitating professional learning with our thousands of educators across the nation. And we started tracking immediately how well teachers thought we were doing in terms of building strong, virtual teacher communities. And at the beginning we didn’t do as well as we did pre pandemic. The scores that we got on that were low. But about three months after that, our scores were up again at the 90% level. So 90% of educators said that we were still building strong teacher, virtual communities. And the way that we did that is very similar to what we advise teachers to do with their students.
So we, in our professional learning have opening circles where teachers share, and they are vulnerable and share what they’re learning, what they’re working on, how it’s connected to the work they’re doing. And that builds strong community. We also have closing circles where they share what they’ve learned. And we incorporate a lot of opportunities for joy. And then again, we don’t shirk on the rigor. And so what I mean by that is we engage teachers in having deep conversations about things like race, bias, identity, and we didn’t stop doing any of that work even though we were engaged in a virtual context. And I think when you engage in those deep conversations, it also builds strong connections across educators.
And then finally, this is part and parcel of our model, but we continue to have educators come together and talk about the practices that they thought were working for their students in this remote context or in the hybrid instructional context. And so if you build a community where teachers really feel like they’re learning from each other, then they want to come and be a part of that community because it’s going to be very beneficial to them when they go and plan their lessons or teach their students.
Q: That makes sense. Some of the same practices seem like they transcend, whether it’s teacher-teacher relationships or student-teacher relationships.
A: Yeah. And we’ve gotten some pressure to unlock some of our courses for asynchronous audiences of teachers, but we haven’t done that, because we’re worried that if teachers did the work sort of individually as opposed to in relationship with other teachers, that they might become further automized. And we don’t think that automatization leads to professionalization. And so that’s something that we haven’t done yet. We still engage teachers just like we recommend they do with students in synchronous learning. There’s obviously asynchronous components, but we feel pretty passionate about engaging groups of educators so that they can form those relationships and continue to learn in community.
Q: Interesting. Yeah. Because in the learning space, whatever the industry, there’s a lot of call for learning that can be done anytime at the convenience of the learner. But your kind of whole premise really relies upon that connectivity and community, so I can understand that. I can see the real benefit from that.
Well, I know there’s so much more we could probably talk about in this space, but I really want to thank you for joining us on the podcast today. I think what you’ve highlighted is so relevant across so many fronts. Thank you very much for all that you shared with us.
Sarah Johnson is the CEO of Teaching Lab, a role she has held since 2018. Under her leadership, the organization has grown from a start-up to a national non-profit, serving over 30 school systems and six state partners. Before joining Teaching Lab, Sarah was a program officer at the Overdeck Family Foundation, where she created and managed the Exceptional Educators Portfolio, a set of investments focused on improving teaching and learning nationwide. Sarah also held leadership roles at the New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE) under the Deputy Chancellor for Teaching and Learning. In her roles, she managed strategy for a 600-person division, implemented a continuous improvement strategy across 1000 schools and oversaw policy for the city’s teacher development and evaluation system, serving over 70,000 teachers. Before her work in New York, she was a high school science teacher and founder of a social justice student leadership program in Washington, DC and Oakland, CA. She has a Doctorate in Education Leadership from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, an M.A.T. from American University, and graduated summa cum laude with a B.S. in Neuroscience from Emory University.