Episode # 18

The Pandemic's Effect on the World of EdTech

August 25, 2022

About This Episode

Join hosts Kara and Caryn as they are joined by Michelle Cummings from Teachers Pay Teachers to discuss how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the way that teachers use technology in the classroom.


Michelle Cummings

Michelle Cummings is the Chief Academic Officer at Teachers Pay Teachers (TpT), the world’s most popular online marketplace of educational resources created by teachers, for teachers. With an extensive career in education as a teacher, principal, and Chief Academic Officer, Michelle brings an academic perspective to TpT’s day-to-day strategy and operations.


In her role, Michelle leads TpT’s Education Content and Insights (ECI) team, which conducts research to understand education and TpT marketplace trends. Michelle partners with TpT’s sales, marketing, engineering, and seller operations teams to apply these insights and her firsthand experience to help TpT best support educators.


Michelle joined TpT with an education background of over 30 years, serving as a middle and high school English and social studies teacher, an elementary and high school principal, and a Chief Academic Officer. As an educator, Michelle has been effective in improving student achievement, developing staff, teachers, and leaders, and cultivating community and industry partnerships. Michelle is also the recipient of The School Superintendents Association’s (AASA) National Women in Leadership Award, which recognizes female educators whose talent, creativity and vision are exemplary.


Michelle graduated from Brown University and earned her Ed. M at Harvard Graduate School of Education. She has two grown daughters and lives in New York City. Michelle originally hails from New Orleans and is a proud New Orleanian.


Kara: Joining us today is Michelle Cummings, who is the chief academic officer with teachers pay teachers. So, hi Michelle.

Michelle: Hi, good morning.

Kara: Yeah. Thanks for joining us. So I guess before we start, I would like to know how you ended up in education.

Michelle: The origin story. I am one of those people who, as a child, I was probably seven or eight when I asked for my first chalkboard. So I could teach the neighborhood kids. I was a sixth grader when I told my teacher Ms. Beck that I would like an internship with the first graders.

Kara: Oh my gosh. That’s fantastic!

Michelle: And to her credit, she said yes, and arranged for me to help , the littles with reading. And I was a high school student who was reading Ted Cizor’s books and studying education reform.


Kara: oh my gosh.

Michelle: I used to go to Brown to study with him and to work in the essential schools.

Caryn: Wow.

Michelle: I had the opportunity, after graduating to either go to the Peace Corps and run a dairy farm in Botswana, or go to Harvard Graduate School of Education and study with Sarah Lawrence Lightfoot and so.

Kara: Oh my gosh. What an opportunity? Well, two great opportunities, but

Michelle: the peace Corps had to wait. Yes. Yes. And so I became an English and Social Studies teacher. I was volleyball coach. I became an elementary principal and a high school principal because I just kept wanting to help more teachers and more students and more families to be successful.

Ultimately, I became an assistant superintendent and when TPT opened this role for an experienced educator. It was an extraordinary opportunity to be able to help even more teachers and administrators and students. And it has been an extraordinary journey.

Kara: That’s yeah, I was gonna say, I can just imagine further all the stories that you have in each of those roles. What exactly is your role or does your role entail at Teachers Pay Teachers?

Michelle: Yeah. So as chief academic officer, I’m part of the education content and insights team.

Kara: Okay.

Michelle: Really and truly Teachers Pay Teachers puts educators at the center of everything that we do. I get to spend time with teacher authors and educators all around the world, and we collaborate across the company to make sure that educators needs and their perspectives as well as research on instructional practices and education. Topics are all, infused into every aspect of TPT. It’s extraordinary. You know, I, in my role in education, I had an opportunity to see the TPT movement as it began and I really saw the way that it inspired teachers to engage students in new and innovative ways. And so we hear every day at TPT about the impact that it’s had, just as you said, you know, you appreciate TPT in in your careers as teachers. And so to be a part of this dedicated and creative team. They genuinely honor teachers and administrators, and are committed to solving problems for them. And so many of the TPTs that I work with are also former teachers and principals. So it’s, it’s a great company to work with.

Kara: So how do you think that the pandemic accelerated the need for these types of resources? Yeah. I mean, do you have thoughts on that?

Michelle: How long do you have?

Kara: A long time. Well, and too Caryn we’re curious too like what the trends that you’ve seen so.

Michelle: Let’s talk about the digital transformation in education.

Caryn: Mm-hmm.

Michelle: We’ve been in education long enough that technology integration used to be optional.

Kara: Mm-hmm.

Michelle: It was early adopters and teachers who were, always looking for something new who were testing out and experimenting with tech tools. The pandemic changed that right? In 2019, having a learning management system was optional attending professional development on how to use EdTech tools to engage students was optional and all of a sudden this extraordinary emergency this public health crisis caused an immense acceleration in education as far as tech integration is concerned. So, overnight in the middle of March, districts are scrambling to get one to one devices out to students creating these extraordinary partnerships with companies to make that happen, bridging the digital divide and creating greater equity within their communities. And teachers are working heroically under impossible conditions to learn how to use tech tools, to build up their LMS, to learn how to reach and teach children virtually And that happened! And it’s extraordinary. And you think about the collective wisdom that it took to get there quickly. And it fills me with hope and inspiration.

Because we see what’s possible. We see what’s possible with our teacher authors. I was awed by the way that they stepped up in this crisis, they were providing video tutorials, guest teaching opportunities on zoom and on YouTube. Speech, language pathologists were teaching each other how to do virtual exams and assessments. And this TPT community stepped up to provide these innovative and really meaningful new strategies for reaching and teaching students when they have to learn at a distance.

Kara: Yeah. Which is, it really is miraculous.

Michelle: It is. You think about your role as teacher librarians? I don’t think that I shared with you how important teacher librarians have been in my career. And I do just want to have a moment to honor that role because library media centers have been not just the hearth and the welcoming place to connect students with books and literature. But the tech hub of schools because teacher librarians were the early adopters were providing professional development to willing and interested colleagues were providing tech support to the whole school when, you know, computers were brand new or just creating, genius bars for students when they had their own devices. And so that role of teacher librarians in this pandemic moment to provide support and expertise to their colleagues was also incredibly impressive to see.

Caryn: Yeah.

Kara: And yeah, I mean, Caryn and I talk about this all the time but it’s disappearing in some areas. Let’s preface it with that. In some areas it’s a disappearing ro le.

Caryn: Yeah. Even around here, there used to be a library media program in one of our local universities. It’s no longer. There’s no jobs and it’s unfortunate.

Because they add a lot of value. Were we just talking about this this morning, Kara? I feel like we were literally just talking about this, that even schools that had amazing librarians that were doing amazing things and really added that value and impacted both teachers and students in a really positive way. Even those schools around here are starting to or have already eliminated those positions. and it’s sad for everybody.

Kara: Yeah,

Michelle: It is. When I was a child, I grew up in New Orleans. My mom had a bookstore and so the world you think about the early days of libraries and the role that teacher librarians played in expanding children’s horizons and in schools. Bringing when the internet arrived in schools to expand those horizons even further. And so it is my sincere hope that visionary administrators will recognize and restore the importance of those library media centers as not just the hearth of the school, but as the tech hub of the school as well.

Caryn: Yeah. Yeah. It’s a perfect fit.

Kara: So on the topic too, of tools and digital tools, when teachers are thinking about using digital tools or creating content, do you have like tips or tricks that you like to share with educators when it comes to either the selection of, or the creation of any of the digital content?

Michelle: Sure. The promise of education technology is that we can personalize learning with students. We can engage students. We can save teachers time by automating some tasks. We can inspire students and we can expand horizons. And by that, I mean that we live in a world where you can learn from anyone anywhere in the world at any time.

And our schools are starting to reflect that our teachers are opening up those possibilities by their intentional use of digital tools. Let’s take the practice of teaching writing. You can have a student who substitutes a keyboard for a pen, and that is a use of a digital tool. When you allow students to safely publish their writing to a larger audience. You are giving them new engagement and inspiration for that writing and a new audience who can learn from them. When I think about teachers selecting digital tools, they come to that decision with great intentionality and great purpose. It’s not just a shiny new object that has bells and whistles and is fun. It has to have an educational purpose when we’re using it for learning. And so using tools to open up the world to students, using tools to personalize learning for students. That’s the promise for EdTech tools. And that’s what I see teachers doing as they come back in person to the classroom after this period of remote learning. They’re looking for ways to blend technology that was adopted so widely during the pandemic and adapted to in person learning.

Those are some of the ways that I see, teachers and students benefiting from the technology and one really great piece of n ews from a recent survey was that we found that 78% of teachers said that they felt confident using digital tools to engage students in learning, which is awesome! And a sharp contrast from 2019 too.

Kara: Yeah.

Caryn: And that’s exactly what I was thinking because in our experience that lack of confidence often will hold people back from trying those new things, because, you know, it’s kind of scary to try something new or integrate a new piece of technology. So having that confidence, I mean, I assume having confidence with the technology that they’re currently using is going to make them also more confident or more likely to try new things as they come out as well. So that’s exciting.

Kara: Mm-hmm yeah. . Yeah. And I just, I always love the personalized learning piece. And maybe it’ll keep expanding I’m assuming. But I think, you know, people struggle with the implementation of like, well, how would that look? Or how do we decide who or, you know, all of those things that kind of hold people back from innovation or thinking outside the box, when it comes to new tech or new tool, whatever the case might be. It doesn’t even have to be technology. It’s just innovative practices and education period.

Michelle: Yeah. But all of this extraordinary growth in instructional practices has occurred under extraordinary strain.

Kara: Mm-hmm .

Caryn: Right,.

Michelle: And so burnout is real.

Caryn: Yeah, we’re seeing it for sure.

Michelle: To think that all of this innovation has occurred during a period of extraordinary stress and strain on educators, on teachers and administrators and support staff. It is really awe inspiring to me. And I wanted to share with you. I mentioned our survey data because we serve 85% of teachers in the United States. We’re able to survey teachers and get a pulse on the state of education. And so we’ve started publishing state of education reports every three months that look at not just the concerns that teachers have, but what is working in education?

So it is our belief that if we amplify the voices of teachers and if we share data with teachers and administrators that everyone will benefit from this collective wisdom and get smarter faster, right? Just so that we can say, oh, this is what’s working in this school district. What if I tried it and modified it for my students and got great results as well?

And so in the most recent state of education report, we are finding that more than half of teachers are considering a job related change, only 16% of teachers that we surveyed said that they would recommend the profession. That’s extraordinary. And so we are going to need to look at what’s working. We’ve gotten some data back from school access administrators who have gotten a subscription for teachers to feel supported and like they have a thousand teachers in their classroom every day

Caryn: yeah

Michelle: supporting them. And they are reporting that teachers feel a greater connectedness to school. One of the administrators, a principal in California said to me that he’s not experiencing a teacher shortage. He’s an administrator who engages teachers in decision making who listens to teachers and hears what their needs are and supports them in getting what they and their students need. And so that’s very exciting. The other, you know, big finding that we had was that social, emotional learning is one of the top concerns of teachers and administrators right now. That there has been, you know a national emergency declared on children’s mental and that teachers are needing support in not just meeting the academic needs of students, but in meeting the social and emotional and behavioral needs of students. And so we were seeing a huge increase in the search for social, emotional learning resources on TPT in fact, there’s been a 317% increase since

Kara: wow.

Michelle: 2015 in the number of searches where teachers are using the search term, social, emotional learning. And so, with that as a concern, they’re also telling us what’s working in their schools and what the practices are. And so those teachers who are finding that they have resources, they have professional development to implement those resources. They have support staff in the way of additional social workers or school counselors that they have school administrators who are concerned about their staff’s social or emotional wellbeing. And those are some of the key promising strategies that are actually helping teachers to support students in their social, emotional growth.

Kara: Yeah. Well, and I think that just you talking about support. I think that’s overall just a huge word because oftentimes either they don’t feel supported, and it’s across the board, it could be administrators, it could be teachers, it could be students, et cetera. They don’t feel supported or they don’t know there is kind of thing.

Caryn: Right.

Kara: So I can see how just having that community that you were talking about. Just how vital that is to not only change the idea of educational change or success, but just even keeping teachers.

Michelle: Mm-hmm mm-hmm mm-hmm

Kara: So, and that’s, I mean, it seems like such a simple concept, but at the same time it’s not always easy. You know what I mean? Developing like kind of a community.

Michelle: Absolutely true. Burnout is real not just for teachers, but also among administrators who are exhausted from leading their communities through through these crises. And so we believe that community is a huge support to reduce burnout. And not only that to banish isolation to restore joy and wellness to the education profession. And so we are Teachers Pay Teachers is working on building some community for administrators as well.

If we can unlock that collective wisdom, if we can support and learn from each other. If we can get smarter, faster,

Kara: Yeah.

Michelle: About what’s working then there is an opportunity to really rethink education, rethink the role of teachers, rethink the possibilities of and tech and what it makes possible for children. So that gets me very excited.

Kara: Yeah, I know. Cause I think also too, sometimes in schools or whatever educational setting, there is your fire, it’s like you start with a fire and then it keeps getting, tapped and then over time, because you’re not around necessarily people that share your enthusiasm or that are okay with the way it is. And that’s part of that burnout piece. It’s like over time that flame kind of dwindles away. And then before, you know, it, you’re just kind of like, how am I here? Because you don’t have that kind of camaraderie of like-minded connectedness, I guess is.

Michelle: Yeah.

Kara: What it is. You know? Cause I always like, it’s refreshing to talk to people that are excited still, it like breathes new life, you know, back in.

Michelle: Yeah. We went into education to change the world. We went into education to optimize learning for children and change the trajectory of lives in a good way. Right? To be able to facilitate and guide learning with young people is an honor and a privilege and can be an incredibly joyful experience. Right now we have a lot of work to do to uplift and honor teacher.

Kara: Mm-hmm.

Michelle: That is meaningful support to retain teachers, to recruit teachers, but even more to inspire young people to learn and grow. Thank you for letting me share my excitement about what this incredible, company is doing for teachers and administrators.

Kara: Oh yeah. Anytime. How do you, how do you feel that personalized learning could build confidence?

Michelle: I see personalized learning as a way to connect students interests and their rate and level of learning with the world of ideas. Yeah. And so in a personalizing learning and in differentiating learning for students, teachers are able to look at where a student needs to build a bridge for lagging skills and where their curiosity drives them to learn and to, explore in a more sophisticated way. And so I see digital tools providing the opportunity to bring this entire world of ideas to a student and match it with their interests. And make sure that the materials are at their reading level and that the way they’re being asked to demonstrate their learning is appropriate to what they know and can do in a particular subject area. What would you add to that?

Kara: Yeah. Well, cuz what I’m thinking as you’re speaking is like I used to ask my kids all the time, like what do you wonder about? And they would be like, nothing. What? Wait, no, I wonder all the time and I’m an adult. Like I will be driving down the road and see a billboard and say, oh, I wonder what that is. Oh, I wonder why that is the way it is. Like, what do you wonder about? And then from that, I mean, it’s kind of like the world is their oyster in a way, because it’s like, you can connect so many things, things don’t have to be in isolation.

Caryn: Right.

Michelle: Yes. And to, to topics that they’re curious about. My father used to say to us, “You know who I met today? I met Mr. Wonder and he was wondering about the water cycle and why it rains, you know, or something like that. And teachers have the ability to create that sense of wonder and that ability for students to pursue their burning questions as part of the curriculum in a way that standards aligned that is differentiated and engaging, and it is really complex work. But I also think that digital tools are helping us to fine tune that process and streamline that process so that it will be more of a reality in classrooms.

Kara: Yeah. Because it isn’t, it isn’t a small undertaking and it doesn’t just happen tomorrow. But you have to start somewhere.

Michelle: Mm-hmm mm-hmm.

Kara: And really, it can start with that question.