In my first years as an elementary teacher, like all new teachers, I faced a number of difficulties: establishing a classroom management style, becoming part of a team of teachers, and understanding the standards for all content areas. However, I was lucky that even in my toughest times, I never experienced what many educators have been dealing with for the majority of 2020 and into 2021: teaching while living through a pandemic, adjusting to remote or hybrid learning, juggling multiple priorities, and often making these changes without the support of high-quality instructional materials.
I do remember what it was like to strive to meet state standards without access to high-quality materials. Even without a pandemic, this was arduous. I spent so much of my time searching the internet for potential resources and trying to cobble together content to supplement aging district-provided materials that I was often up until midnight preparing lessons and trying to grade everything. This left me feeling exhausted, demoralized, and completely on my own.
While I scrambled to find resources at the elementary level, many of my colleagues teaching secondary ELA wanted to continue to create their own materials. Comprehensive ELA instructional materials and curriculum were viewed as “tightly scripted,” and therefore robbing teachers of creativity. One teacher I worked with prided herself on units she spent years creating and perfecting and had no desire to adopt new high-quality, aligned materials.
After eight years in the classroom, I took a position at the Nebraska Department of Education. In this role, I watched as districts went through a variety of processes to select new materials. They often selected materials with the highest of hopes, but without independent information about the quality of the materials, they often found that any gains from a new adoption were lost over time.
This all began to change as districts adopted newer, more aligned materials across Nebraska with the help of EdReports reviews. The secondary ELA teacher who had been so resistant to giving up her own materials implemented the new program her district chose and was quickly amazed at the noticeable changes in her classroom. She was in awe at the conversations the students were having and the academic vocabulary they were using. I recall her saying that it “...raised the level of everything in the room, and it even raised the level of my teaching.”
Like my reluctant colleague, as I worked with districts across the state, I also witnessed how high-quality curricula can help transform a classroom. Rather than constraining autonomy and freedom, curriculum can actually open up new possibilities for teachers. When teachers are finally able to stop searching for and compiling lessons and activities from unvetted sources, they have the time to focus on so many other components of their practice, those that have a direct impact on students.
Given the challenges teachers continue to face with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, access to high quality instructional materials is more important than ever. For those who still might be skeptical, I’d love to share some of what I learned over the years and how materials made a difference for how the teachers I’ve worked with could spend their time.
Teachers may feel like they are losing or lacking something professionally if they are not creating their own materials. But I challenge educators to consider what is being gained in terms of time and cognitive energy, and how quality materials can impact the classroom. The materials we use to teach are critical – especially for English language arts teachers who are tasked with developing readers, writers, and above all critical thinkers, as the skills they develop in the ELA classroom apply to every other content area as well as to their daily lives.
High-quality materials provide teachers with support to keep perfecting and to develop into the educator they hope to be. Materials provide structure and a framework, but there is always room for autonomy and creativity, optional tasks, and the opportunity to revise questions on-the-fly while listening to students and adjusting to their needs. This matters on our best days. Given the environment and adaptations schools have made over the past year, access to these kinds of supports are even more invaluable now.
Reading and writing are the vehicles by which students are going to learn in all other content areas. It matters for kids to read deeply, to ask questions related to what they are reading, to be able to go back and find evidence from multiple sources, and to substantiate what they are talking about and reading. Quality materials offer all of those opportunities while supporting the educational professionals closest to students.