The Critical Need for Pause in the COVID-19 Era

This article originally appeared in the AACTE Journal of Teacher Education (JTE) and is co-authored by Gail Richmond, Christine Cho, H. Alix Gallagher, Ye He,  and Emery Petchauery.

The unprecedented health crisis caused by the spread of the novel coronavirus has resulted in innumerable complications and challenges with respect to schooling in the United States and globally. With the closure of schools, parents and guardians and often older siblings have had to oversee the learning of younger, school-aged children. One consequence of what might be called “emergency teaching” or “crisis schooling” has been a recognition, largely by those thrust into such roles of how hard this oversight actually is and a call for more respect and recognition for classroom teachers. Most frequently, this call for recognition and respect has actually been in the form of a recommendation for higher pay. While such an expression of support is laudable, it once again reveals a lack of deep understanding on the part of the general public about the substantial and specialized knowledge and skills teachers need and the scope of their work as effective classroom educators.

While we have learned much about the specialized knowledge and skills that teachers must have to be effective (e.g., Phelps, 2009; Shulman, 1986), given how teaching and learning are unfolding during this COVID-19 “era,” there is much that we need to understand better about these processes (Richmond et al., 2020). At the time in which we are writing this editorial, two such examples include (a) the knowledge for online, face-to-face, or hybrid teaching and learning and (b) the cognitive, social, and emotional transitions for students (and for some, substantial trauma) to new learning platforms and different learning dynamics. There is also much to understand about the specific kinds of supports for students and for teachers that are necessary to maximize effective learning. Despite these needs, the novelty of the pandemic and the conditions students, educators, leaders, and scholars are living through call for a particular kind of pause. In this editorial, we (a) unpack this pause and the relationship to the production of academic scholarship, (b) direct scholars to the complexity of conditions unfolding during 2020–2021 academic years, and (c) encourage action-reflection as an integral part of the research process.

Pausing to “Look Beyond”

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, education fields have seen calls to rapidly apply the tools of scholarly inquiry to help solve pandemic-related problems. These calls coincide with a sense of urgency to have and act upon research-informed understanding of long-standing inequalities now revealed to the general public. This urgency is reflected in COVID-19 calls for proposals from the Spencer Foundation (2020), themed conferences, targeted research funding, and more. We expect this trend to grow as we move into the 2020–2021 academic year. However, these earnest efforts to put research to good use remain entangled with the capitalist and colonial impulses of rapid, extractive productivity. In academic institutions, these impulses arise from neoliberal, temporal fixtures such as tenure clocks, annual reviews, and program completion timelines (Shahjahan, 2015). Deadlines abound, and in addition, there are often fewer incentives in the academy with respect to scholarship that proceeds more slowly, more reflectively, and more critically and which carefully accounts for unprecedented conditions and their potential aftermath.

In Decolonizing Educational Research, Leigh Patel (2016) articulates certain pauses that might disentangle education research from these capitalist and colonial impulses. Writing about this stance in the book’s foreword, Eve Tuck (2016) offers a “pedagogy of pausing” that “unsettles the relentless march of educational research toward production—of data, publications, problems, gaps, communities, schools, and futures” (p. xii). Instead, Tuck (in conversation with Patel) underscores “intentionally engaging in a suspension of one’s own premises and projects, but always with a sense of futurity. Pausing is an insertion of space in time” (p. xii). Taking direction from these two scholars, we assert that these kinds of pauses and insertions of space will be necessary for teacher education research to be useful, relevant, and perhaps transformative in response to the pandemic.

Pauses are necessary because of the ways that education systems will move from states of chaos to states of complexity as they reopen and roll out new (and likely changing) plans in the fall 2020. In states of chaos, “the relationship between cause and effect are impossible to determine because they shift constantly and no manageable pattern exists—only turbulence” (Snowden & Boone, 2007, p. 5). The sudden shifts to “crisis schooling,” stay-at-home orders in many parts of the country and around the world, and related shocks in spring 2020 are the turbulence of chaos. In chaos, it becomes more difficult to design meaningful and informative empirical research because conditions are unprecedented, wholly unpredictable, or violently erratic. Alternatively, in states of complexity, conditions are emergent. They are not predictable through simple cause and effect relationships; yet scholars and leaders can make useful decisions by attending to emergent conditions, system evolution, and nonlinear interactions (Brown, 2017; Cochran-Smith et al., 2014). As schools and institutions roll out plans during the fall 2020, we suggest that scholars take this pause by attending to conditions that entail moving from chaos to complexity in educational systems. These conditions include (but are not limited to) schools, teacher education programs, and community educators and community education spaces.

In the next section, we briefly address the complexity of conditions that face schools and districts as they struggle to support teachers and that should figure significantly in the form that educational scholarship takes moving forward.

Challenges Facing Schools and Districts

District- and school-level administrators are responsible for providing the first level of support for teachers and families as they navigate in this evolving educational context. But several factors make this more challenging than usual. First, no one has a clear picture of what logistical constraints will exist for schooling at any given point (i.e., the ways in which schooling will need to be modified to ensure health guidelines are met, and whether COVID-19 will spike in waves that cause repeated school closings throughout the year). In addition, no one has a clear vision of what schools should ideally look like under those constraints. Administrators’ decisions are largely informed by norms of schooling and beliefs about what effective teaching should be. In such a new context, administrators are operating with much less guidance, which may lead to varied decisions across schools, school districts, and state educational agencies.

In the midst of all of this change, the demands for school resources have increased in three main areas: facilities, educational technology, and supports for educators. Plans for school reopening require changes in the ways that school facilities are used and maintained. Guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC, 2020) have been difficult to uphold, and health guidelines will continue to evolve, but at the time we are writing this editorial, are likely to require some combination of a lower density of people in schools (i.e., social distancing), additional health measures (e.g., temperature checks, masks), and increased cleaning (see https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/schools-childcare/schools.html).

If students are not in school full-time, districts will need to provide additional resources to support the continuity of learning. This might mean ensuring students have 1:1 access to devices, trying to expand Wi-Fi to more students, or making sure nondigital resources (e.g., work packets) reach all students while also being cognizant of the ways in which school closures have exacerbated socioeconomic gaps and impact students in precarious housing situations (see Rauf, 2020; United Nations, 2020; Van Lancker & Parolin, 2020.)

Teachers’ needs are also greater than they are in a typical school year, and 83% reported in spring 2020 that distance learning made their job more difficult (Page, 2020). Meeting students’ socio-emotional and academic learning needs, likely in a blended or online environment, will require perhaps the steepest learning curve from educators that we have ever seen. Teacher professional learning will have to be a priority to have any reasonable hope that most will rapidly adapt existing pedagogies and/or learn new ones that are effective in distance or hybrid schooling models. At the same time, teachers, like adults writ large, are under greater stress from the intertwined economic and health crises and uncertainty; these make it difficult for administrators to plan and create even more ambiguity and stress. In a national survey administered in spring 2020, nearly one fifth of the teacher respondents reported they would not return to school in the fall (Page, 2020). And the likely increases in stress and trauma experienced by students will undoubtedly increase the professional and personal demands on teachers. An appropriate response by those within the system would include, at the very least: helping teachers feel physically safe with the health measures in place, building time into school schedules to teach coping strategies and build teachers’ resilience, and providing increased peer and group supports for educators’ socio-emotional well-being.

Ideally, administrators also would have an increased budget to enhance cleaning and bolster educational technology and student access to it and to consider how to most effectively support teachers in this new environment. However, education budgets have been slashed even as the demands placed on schools have been increasing; thus, administrators are faced with trying to do more with fewer funds. This scarcity can pit needs against each other, leading to terrible tradeoffs, but it can also be a disruptive moment which can present opportunities for robust and meaningful research.

The Importance of “Action-Reflection” for Research

With systemic oppression manifested through magnified disparities among communities in these chaotic moments, it is more important than ever for educational researchers to critically examine the research premises, methodologies, interpretations, intended, and unintended outcomes through a pedagogy of pausing (Tuck, 2016). Neither the chaos that we are in at this moment nor the complexity that is likely to result, lend themselves to “best practices,” because such practices are typically a product of more linear and predictable contexts. Educational researchers must recognize the duality of “action-reflection” and engage in true dialogues with love, humility, faith, hope, and critical thinking (Freire, 1970/2000). Acknowledging multiple realities, competing priorities, and contrasting preoccupations, a dialogical and dialectical educational research process may offer an opportunity for researchers to prioritize and sustain research efforts that promote equity and social justice for all students, families, communities, and educators involved. As Patel (2016) emphasized, educational research is “a fundamentally relational, cultural, and political practice” (p. 62). “Why this? Why me? Why now?” (Patel, 2016, p. 57) are crucial questions for researchers to ask themselves at this moment.

For example, when addressing technology access and supporting innovative use of instructional technology, disparity among communities, schools, teachers, and students need to be assessed. In addition, learners’ diverse learning needs should be considered, and families’ input valued so that technology is not just used to substitute classroom-based instruction for some learners, but instead, enhances learning experiences for all learners (Arias, 2020). While it is beneficial to engage in research efforts to examine the effectiveness and impact of innovative uses of technology to support online instruction, it is equally, if not more valuable, to examine elements of educational practices that may perpetuate and aggravate inequity in teaching and learning. In addition to being prepared to employ meaningful online instructional practices, teachers also need to be supported so that they might engage in authentic dialogues with diverse learners, families, and communities; attend to their own and their students’ socio-emotional well-being; and form new knowledge and skills that may challenge the current educational norms and practices of online teaching and learning.

Another issue which will need to be addressed is assessing the impact of the current health crisis on the socio-emotional health of both teachers and school-aged children. While there is a body of scholarship on the importance of strategies to meet the needs of individual professionals and learners (e.g., Osher et al., 2016; Zarate et al., 2019), it is not simply a matter of “fixing” teachers and children. It would be convenient to claim that we already have effective strategies, which would relieve us of much of the responsibility for critically examining the pushes and pulls on those within the system itself. We should be “pausing” to reassess educational systems as a whole, and in the current context, to better identify what it is exactly that needs to change so we are not continuing to replicate and reproduce the same ideologies which drive the system.

When immediate actions appear to be the solution for supporting drastic shifts in educational practices, we caution researchers to “pause in order to reach beyond, well beyond, the most familiar of tropes in education and educational research” (Patel, 2016, p. 88). Research outcomes influence how educational leaders and educators make decisions, take actions, and revise policies. We encourage our colleagues, regardless of their paradigmatic stand and preferred methodology, to participate in intentional awareness, engaged dialogues, and critical reflection; they are essential as research efforts and should evolve alongside educational practices.

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Gail Richmond

Professor in the College of Education at Michigan State University

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