DonorsChoose

Listening to teacher demand: Tracking K–12 student needs during COVID-19

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Nov 5, 2020

When COVID-19 hit, many teachers knew that millions of their students wouldn’t have the home environment needed to transition successfully to remote learning. Videos of educators going to all manner of lengths to deliver food and learning supplies to students have tugged at our heartstrings.

As the pandemic has progressed, what students need to make progress has come into sharper focus—even amidst the uncertainty surrounding the election and what lies in store for schools in the winter.

The national education nonprofit DonorsChoose has a unique window into the real-time and granular needs of teachers and students based on what teachers request on their site. With 50,000 teacher projects live on its site, teachers are asking for money to buy everything from books and hygiene items to headphones and devices to culturally-responsive materials and mental health resources.

I recently spent time with Charles Best, DonorsChoose’s founder and CEO. In response to school closures, the nonprofit went beyond empowering teachers to request much-needed materials for their students and delivering those resources directly to schools to also building out the capacity to deliver funded materials to a student’s home, a teacher’s home, or a district receiving center.

The topic of what teachers and students need to make progress—and how those needs are evolving—is on the minds of many, and perhaps no one is better positioned to help answer that than Best.

Books, basics and more

Pre-pandemic, Best said, teachers primarily requested books for use in the classroom. They’re still asking for books, but today the requests are either for class sets of books—as sharing is no longer an option—or for books that teachers can give permanently to students. The goal is for students to begin building their own small collections of books at home, he said, given they can no longer visit their schools’ libraries.

Pre-kindergarten through second-grade teachers are seeking the expected physical materials students need to have at home—from colored pencils and alphabet magnets to finger paints and construction paper. A Chicago preschool program is requesting a series of English- and Spanish-language readers for students to keep at home. A kindergarten teacher in Brooklyn is asking to take her class on a virtual field trip to a sanctuary for owls.

“Zoom is an important ingredient for early learners, but it can hardly be the whole experience,” Best said.

Best pointed to another category of requests: meeting the basic needs of students. Teachers working in communities with families with lower incomes are the primary users of DonorsChoose, he said. In addition to traditional classroom resources, many teachers are requesting jackets for children, nutritious snacks for their homes, and prescription eyeglasses or hygiene items for those who don’t have access to these essentials. 

“We’re seeing even more of these projects,” he said. “Districts have been good about creating grab-and-go lunch options and maintaining free breakfast and lunch programs. But, as with so many things, gaps remain, and teachers are creating projects to address them.”

Teachers also need more materials than ever before. Students could formerly use a common set of art supplies, for example. That can pose a health risk today, which means teachers need students to use their own materials and cut down on sharing. 

To that end, teachers who are facilitating some degree of in-person learning—whether full-time or hybrid—are asking for the obvious: more personal protective equipment (PPE), including hand sanitizer.

Technology

It’s no surprise that teachers are requesting all manner of instructional technology, both for students and for themselves. 

Within that, teachers are looking for technologies that keep learners focused and engaged, such as cameras and interactive software and interactive labs for chemistry, physics, and other STEM disciplines. One Texas high school is requesting film equipment, cameras, microphones, speakers, and computer software so they can create a movie about the pandemic. Another in South Carolina is seeking resources to create a wireless weather station at the school. 

Teachers also say they need document cameras, additional computer monitors and color printers for use at home.

The most requested piece of equipment, by far, is something perhaps unexpected: headphones. 

“They’re non-optional,” Best said. “Students in households with a lot of people need a listening device or a set of headphones to be able to make productive use of those tablets or laptops. It isn’t necessarily the first thing you’d think of, and yet it’s absolutely imperative.”

Professional development, mental health

Teachers also use DonorsChoose to raise money for their own professional development.

“That’s a core area where teachers are raising their hand saying, ‘How do I reach my students? How can I provide a holistic, humanistic education, not simply a rote, digital-only education? I need training to get there’” Best said.

The programs vary from virtual conferences to more education. A music teacher in Oklahoma is requesting to attend an eight-week course on mindfulness in the classroom. Another teacher in North Carolina is requesting support to become a National Board Certified Teacher.

As the country continues to reckon with racial injustice, there has also been an uptick in teachers taking advantage of DonorsChoose’s partnership with the Equal Justice Initiative to request racial justice books and materials. One project from a teacher working with English learners in Maryland requests resources to create a restorative classroom that recognizes the value of diverse learners. 

Other projects are devoted to the mental health of students, an area that Best anticipates will grow in the future. For example, DonorsChoose and Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation forged a partnership to eliminate the stigma around mental health issues in young people. One current project requests resources to turn a New York teacher’s office into a comfortable space where his kids can work on their social-emotional development. 

Best said the projects underscore the inspiring and humbling ingenuity of teachers that is channeled through the platform. 

“They’re so determined for their students to have the materials and experiences they need for a great education that they spend time outside of their working hours telling the world about a set of materials that their students really need,” he said.

Michael is a co-founder and distinguished fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute. He currently works as a senior strategist at Guild Education.