“Hardest year since my first year. I feel like I failed my students this year.”
“This year has been very hard on all teachers, we work too much and get paid very little.”
“This has been the hardest year ever and I hope to return to some type of normalcy again soon.”

The quotes above from K–12 teachers—sourced from a recent survey—highlight the unprecedented challenge many faced during the 2020-21 school year. Hopefully, at this point in the summer, frontline educators are finding some time to rejuvenate. And hopefully, the worst of pandemic-era instruction is behind us. But come what may, teachers’ experiences offer important lessons to be learned for the upcoming year. 

Last April and May, the Christensen Institute surveyed a nationally representative sample of teachers to capture a snapshot of their instructional approaches and overall experiences during the pandemic. We asked teachers, “What have been your biggest challenges this year?” and “Please let us know about any additional successes, challenges, barriers, solutions, or new practices that were not captured in prior questions.”

Responding to the first question (which included discrete response options), 79% of teachers said their biggest challenge was “keeping students engaged during remote learning.” To add nuance to this statistic, consider the following free-response comments:

  • “Kids that are at home learning have way too many other distractions that keep their attention over education.”
  • “Students are not engaged nor do they understand their role in the active learning process.”
  • “Students do not learn as well nor are they as engaged in their academic activities when they are on-line.”

Interestingly, however, when teachers opined about the needed remedies for low engagement, many drew the conclusion that poor engagement was caused by poor accountability: 

  • “It was very hard to hold students accountable if we were always supposed to give the students the benefit of the doubt as to why there was no evidence in learning.”
  • “I had a student who has missed more than half the school year and comes and goes on Zoom as he pleases and nothing is done because I am told, ‘We are in a pandemic.’  Parents and students should still be held accountable.”
  • “Parents who have not made themselves available regarding their children’s lack of progress face no legal accountability.”
  • “If there are no systems in place to hold students accountable, then teachers can only do so much.”
  • “Students are taking the absolute easiest way out by cheating, copying and pasting answers from the internet, or doing less work than would be expected in person.  And there is not much I can do to change that right now.”
  • “Students are not as honest or engaged remotely. Many cheat because they can. Some pretend to be in class and aren’t. There is less accountability now, which only hurts them.”
  • “Compassion over compliance has become the coded catch phrase to just pass the kids regardless of their learning and that is very disheartening.”

These comments grate against the narratives and tone we typically hear from education journalists and thought leaders, which tend to avoid placing blame on students and their families. But they represent the authentic statements of real teachers struggling to reach their students from afar.

I completely empathize with these comments. When I was a teacher—a decade before the pandemic—I often felt frustrated by students who were disengaged and didn’t seem to care. I did my best to cover my assigned content and make it fun and interesting. But some students seemed to just do the minimum to get by until the bell rang, and then blamed me for not explaining things well enough when they received poor grades.

I can only imagine how difficult things must have been for teachers this year. At least in a physical classroom, students are a captive audience. Teachers control rewards and consequences for not following instructions. 

But take away the classroom setting, and teachers lose most of their leverage. 

The real issue behind low engagement

On one hand, it’s easy to see lack of engagement from a teachers’ perspective and blame students and parents for not doing their part. On the other hand, if students aren’t engaged, shouldn’t a fair amount of blame fall on teachers? Isn’t it their job as professionals to know how to manage children’s behavior and to make their lessons fun and interesting?

When frustrations arise, it’s all too human to start looking for the places to point fingers. But these comments really speak volumes about a bigger systemic issue: conventional schooling’s reliance on compliance. 

Whole-class lessons rarely fit the needs of the whole class because students aren’t standardized. Background knowledge, personality traits, natural aptitudes, developmental delays, and past trauma aren’t doled out in equal proportions. But conventional schooling requires all students to show up at the same times on the same days and participate in the same lessons at the same pace as the rest of their classmates.

There’s no ill intent behind the conventional approach to mass education. It’s a system created over a hundred years ago when mass education was the only economical way to educate large populations. But unfortunately, a system that functions on conformity is inevitably a system that marginalizes. 

Breaking the constraints of convention

Fortunately, there is a better way. Consider these more optimistic responses from a minority of teachers who completed our survey: 

  • “We were able to communicate more on an individual basis with students and differentiate their learning needs and instructions better. … Students were able to develop independent thinking and problem-solving skills out of necessity and with the safety of not worrying about peer pressure, bullying, and self-consciousness. While some students stopped attending or working, this also happens during a normal school year. Presence does not mean engagement. My perception is that we were better able to engage students [this year] due to the ability to differentiate lessons and learning, as well as the fact that so little time had to be spent on behavior and conflict resolution.”
  • “I prefer to teach in person, however I plan to use exactly what I have developed and used this year, only refine it more. … This year my students are all on different problems, different assignments, and they have been more independent than I have ever had students be in the classroom, and they LIKE it this way.  They don’t want to all have to be on the same problem at the same time, that way those who are ready, can go ahead and those who need extra help and to go slower, can without feeling pressured.”

Teaching online was frustrating for many teachers and students this year. Online learning alone is not the quintessence of high-quality instruction. Furthermore, our data suggests that online learning used only to support conventional instruction made teachers’ jobs more complicated. But some teachers appear to have found that with the right orientation, online learning can play a pivotal role in making education more engaging for all students. It can enable variation in the time, place, path, and pace of students’ learning, and give teachers more capacity to build relationships with students, support individual needs, and orchestrate deeper learning experiences. 

Whether students are remote or in-person next year, engagement will persist as an issue. So regardless of where and how instruction happens, now is a prime time to explore new approaches to teaching that overcome the all-to-familiar compliance culture in schools. We owe it to our disengaged students to rethink conventional instruction to better address their individual needs.

One teacher put it best: 

“I have taught 30 years now and it was a challenging year for sure.  My biggest fear is that our fight to get back to normal or status quo is going to erase all that we learned this past year. We can do education differently. There was good and bad and everything in between in our practices this year. … Why don’t we take some time and rethink everything we do before we drift right back to status quo.”


  • Thomas Arnett
    Thomas Arnett

    Thomas Arnett is a senior research fellow for the Clayton Christensen Institute. His work focuses on using the Theory of Disruptive Innovation to study innovative instructional models and their potential to scale student-centered learning in K–12 education. He also studies demand for innovative resources and practices across the K–12 education system using the Jobs to Be Done Theory.