• By Jeni Ann Flores

Is it time to escape to the pod?

Microschools and pandemic pods are emerging options to supplement online education

Pod teacher: this is the newest job title in education. A pod teacher is hired by parents to teach a few children in a “pandemic pod,” also called a micro or nano school.

According to LinkedIn data, job postings for pod teachers have doubled since February. About 44 percent of pod instructors previously worked as teachers, teaching assistants or tutors. Others were former food and beverage servers, musicians, writers and software engineers. Hiring is most intense in the big cities such as New York City, San Francisco, Boston and Los Angeles. The Washington Post and EdSurge report that wealthy districts can pay as much as $90,000 a year.

My friend Tillie Blas, a veteran public school teacher on Guam, will consider pod teaching as an option when she retires. “For the love of teaching. Even if I retire, I still have it in me. I still have that desire to make an impact on children’s lives,” she said. “I would even do it for free.”

Jennifer Estella, who teaches 9th to12th grade classes at JFK High School, is keen on this option as well. “I would definitely consider this because I have two young kids in elementary and pre K and other friends with kids the same age and we have actually discussed doing this among our group of kids,” she told me.

What’s there not to like? This is the ultimate teacher experience — making a direct impact on specific lives, controlling your content, close collaboration with parents, unhampered by endless paperwork in regular schools. I don’t mind doing pod teaching myself — rigor on skills, lots of art and STEM projects, robotics and drones. The sky's the limit. Students get more individualized attention in a small group and get some socialization. Pods can be more nimble —easier to take on field trips, interview with experts, etc.

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Yes, it will possibly gut regular schools. But in many districts, teacher pay remains low, class sizes big, support minimal and mindless paperwork take us from the real task of teaching. Yes, it will magnify the inequity between haves and have-nots: the best teachers can market their skills to the highest bidders.

But this inequity already existed even before pod teaching became an option. We think nothing of doctors and football players being paid according to how well they perform. Why not teachers? But then again, a teacher can also take on a pay cut and teach a pod of low-income students. Or choose to stay in public school. Many, I suspect, will choose a mission in public schools. That should be the teacher’s choice. (There are parents who prefer a diverse pod— varied socioeconomic status, ethnicities and ability levels. Again, their choice.)

If you are thinking of being a pod teacher, here are some things to consider.

Make sure you have a contract that defines your duties, compensation and the work conditions. Some do offer health insurance (medical, dental, vision). Think of taxes and insurance when calculating your actual pay. Most contracts are for hours spent with the children, and do not account for lesson planning.

Note what materials or equipment will be shouldered by the parents: laptops, high speed internet, subscription services, a garage and living room.

Agree on the curriculum and learning goals. Pods may be online or face to face. Keep it to five or less students, as close in age as possible. Follow CDC sanitation guidelines.

It can be lonely; you will not have a “teacher’s lounge.” You need to be disciplined about professional development, keeping up with best practices. Keep your certification up-to-date so you will command a higher rate or seamlessly return to public or private school teaching if you so choose. If you will do this for the long term, think ahead about retirement options.

Pod learning is essentially private school. Parents who cannot afford to hire a pod teacher but are seriously struggling helping their child may consider getting together with a few friends and hiring a tutor such as a college student, new graduate or a retired teacher. You can even hire another mom or dad who has the time and inclination for tutoring several children a few hours during the day (and can use the extra cash) while your child continues with regular school. This way you can all get respite without the cost being prohibitive.

Pod learning works best in elementary. But parents can hire tutors for specific areas such as math and science for their older children. Some pods share different rotating teachers. You, not the district, call the shots.

Hopefully the government will not come in with restrictive regulations. Actually, school districts can create their own pods during the pandemic. They can send teachers out in communities to tutor a small group a few hours a day while following CDC guidelines.

“Schools will never return to business as usual,” Andrea Saveri, a futurist, states in EdSurge.

Saveri analyzes data from current trends to predict alternative scenarios in education mapping.

“The U.S. education system was designed 100 years ago to support the Industrial Revolution,” she writes. “A shock like the pandemic shows just how rigid the institution really is. The future will only be more ‘VUCA’ – volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous – because of pressures like globalization, greater connectivity and climate change. How schools reorganize now in response to the pandemic may only be a dry run for what will be increasingly needed in the future.”

Saveri was not specifically referring to pod learning. But culture wars, dissatisfaction with public schools and standardized testing have driven parents to homeschools, private and charter schools for many years now.

Inequities in education existed long before Covid-19. The pandemic simply revealed the rigidity of the current educational system. So, pod learning is not a surprising trend. The ‘VUCA’ Saveri spoke of is not in the future. It is here and now. The present is already volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. Although the learning curve is steep right now - with parents and educators groaning under the weight of new learning normal, there is no going back. Just as we got used to remote controls when changing channels, someday we will look back and think, “We learned so much during the pandemic. What do we now do with what we learned?”

Jeni Ann Flores is a cool teacher - a robotics coach, aspiring drone operator and wanna-be writer. You may read more of her writing at https://teacherseditionflores.blogspot.com/ or tell her what you think through teachersedition.flores@gmail.com. Follow her on Facebook and LinkedIn.

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