People first, teaching in a Pandemic 🙋‍♀️ 🙋‍♂️

Core Questions for Educators Teaching in a Pandemic

Sara Vogel

This week our blog shares three questions offered by Sara Vogel, PhD, one of the speakers at the 2019 Sphere International Seminar.

What a time to be teaching and learning.

As the COVID-19 coronavirus has spread across the world, university courses and K-12 schools have moved online to help families adhere to social distancing policies. While several months in, some regions and nations have begun to loosen restrictions, school will likely not look as it did before the pandemic for a long time — or even ever again.

As an education researcher in New York City working on projects in collaboration with teachers in our public schools, I have come to realize that people’s experiences of “school” vary greatly. Some students have ready access to tech tools and broadband, and some do not. Some find themselves stressed, and others bored. Some get sick, some do not.

With this unevenness and diversity of experience in mind, I propose three core questions that all educators — no matter their situation and location — could and perhaps should be asking and using to guide their practice. 

My colleague, Dr. Christopher Hoadley, at New York University brought a blog post by Professor Vanessa Dennen to our project team’s attention (Dennen, 2020). Professor Dennen offers a simple mantra that can help us all prioritize during these times: People first. Content second. Technology third.

I’ve taken this to mean that before educators can meet their students’ needs, they must take care of themselves — ensure they and their families are physically and mentally healthy. This is not an easy task. People face different struggles depending on their economic and social circumstances, and the kinds of supports offered by local and national governments (Goldstein et al., 2020). 

As teachers navigate their own health and the health of their families, Dennen’s “People First” guidance should also inspire them to take stock of students’ situations. Where are students, and with whom? Are all members in the home healthy? What are your students’ emotions and capacities for learning at this time? How active of a role can parents play in students’ learning? 

It would also be useful to learn about the non-digital practices happening in the home — are families cooking together? Playing with games and toys? Making art or music? Going on nature walks? Knowing this information about students’ funds of knowledge (Moll et al., 2005) can help teachers design learning experiences that will be in touch with students’ present realities.

This pandemic reignites age-old debates about the purposes of schooling.Today, kids need reasons to self-motivate and manage their time around school-based tasks. If they do not see the relevance or importance of those tasks, then why do them? There are plenty of other interest-driven things to do with devices and around the house. 

Educators should ask themselves what their roles and the roles of “school” should be in this crisis. Perhaps schools and teachers see providing students with a stable routine and caring adults as a top priority. If that is the case, then practice should reflect that value — maybe schools build in time for teachers to check in with students in conference calls throughout the week or begin each day with an emotional “temperature check” over a video chat. Perhaps, educators see themselves as mentors for especially older students — they might learn about what students enjoy doing at home, and help them deepen and expand those passions and interests. The Connected Learning community (Dyson & Larson, 2019) and many others remind us that learning can happen anytime and anywhere. The teacher-as-mentor might point students to relevant resources and safe online communities — for instance, the Wattpad fan fiction writing community (, or the Scratch community for creating and sharing digital stories and games (, or a YouTube channel for physical activity, cooking, or art — and then hold students accountable for engaging with those interests and reflecting on their progress.

Asking this question should also prompt teachers to reimagine their and their students’ relationship to school subject matter. Do teachers expect students to learn all of the content and get practice with all of the skills as written in state policy documents? A core goal for educators in these times is also to help students answer the question “why school?” Outside of the compulsory framework of the school day, students might be motivated by the promise of an authentic audience for their writing, digital projects, or artwork, by connections to their daily lives, interests and topics they care about, or by social connections to their classmates.


While the transition to remote learning happened swiftly and without much warning, stopping to think about core priorities and goals will help students and teachers stay healthy and use this time in fulfilling and meaningful ways.


Sara Vogel

Sara Vogel

PhD in Urban Education at the CUNY Graduate Center, Lecturer at CUNY Hunter College Investigating the intersection of bilingual, social justice, and computing education. Research Assistant with the National Science Foundation funded project, Participating in Literacies and Computer Science (PiLaCS).
Former bilingual teacher and practitioner in the field of innovative digital “out-of-school-time” programs for youth.


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