The Need for ‘Learning Pods’ Creates a Generation of Unexpected Teachers

“Some are calling themselves tutors, others teachers. Regardless of the title, we are agents in a profoundly new educational space.”

Last September, I took my “last first day of school” picture and celebrated my intention of never returning to a classroom. In April, I graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in English and American culture.

The Need for 'Learning Pods' Creates a Generation of Unexpected Teachers
“School is a bit different this year: there are only three students, our schoolhouse doubles as a family home, and—somewhat unexpectedly—I am the teacher.” (Lauren Janes)

Here I am, though, bachelor’s degree in hand, waking up at 6:30 a.m. to get ready for another first day of classes. School is a bit different this year: there are only three students, our schoolhouse doubles as a family home, and—somewhat unexpectedly—I am the teacher.

While many industries have halted hiring in the face of the global pandemic, one is actively seeking workers: elementary school education. Many families are feeling the uncertainty presented by virtual and hybrid school models, so to help educate their children, they are seeking recent graduates.

That is how I found the Baker family. The Baker’s Victorian-style home rests in the heart of Washington, D.C. and is certainly not a typical learning environment. Their two sons plus one family friend are my students—in the second and fourth grades.  

Some refer to this new setting as a “learning pod,” and they are popping-up across the country. Students from multiple families gather in one home to receive otherwise inaccessible in-person instruction. The “pods” allow for students to develop social skills and navigate online learning, while parents are given the space to focus on work and home-life balance. We are all able to minimize the number of germs to which we are exposed.

As I took off my mask that first day to greet my new students, I thought to myself: Here we go.

Graduating in the midst of the pandemic meant I had few job options in the fields in which I studied. Many journalism outlets—the industry I had spent years working in—were deeply struggling financially.

With limited application opportunities and even fewer interviews, I decided it was time to pivot toward a different path. Like many, I had too much time at home and thus was intensely following the news.

I saw stories of teachers’ unions threatening to strike, parents switching to homeschooling, and virtual school technology failing. Sitting on the floor of my rented apartment, wearing my quarantine uniform of pajamas and clutching a coffee mug, I Googled all of the schools in walking distance. I made a list of each school and emailed its principal one-by-one, intruding myself and pitching why I believed they should hire me:

Education is the cornerstone for what I hope to do in journalism. However, I want to work in schools now. Your school’s values of progressive learning, inclusivity, and community support connect with me. 

A few principals got back to me, uncertain of how the year would look but sure they would need help. The principal from a Catholic school down the street—the school the Baker boys attend—said she knew of a family looking to hire someone to help with remote learning. The job would be more lucrative than an assistant teaching position in any school, and it could help some families struggling with online learning.

The Need for 'Learning Pods' Creates a Generation of Unexpected Teachers
Writer Lauren Janes’ learning pod. (Lauren Janes)

Despite not having studied education, twenty-somethings who have degrees, but no employment, are grabbing jobs in education. My Facebook feed is littered with recent graduates like myself helping families navigate education during the pandemic. From Boston to Denver to Ann Arbor, friends—none of whom studied education—are now helping teach.

Some are calling themselves tutors, others teachers. Regardless of the title, we are agents in a profoundly new educational space.

I cannot help but wonder how our presence will impact these children for years to come. Will unqualified teachers—those who were never taught formal teaching strategies but have their own interests and training—open children’s minds in ways otherwise unattainable during the pandemic?

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School supplies sprawled and uniforms on, I entered the Bakers’ home for the first day of school: two grades contained on a ten-foot table.

With computers open and Zoom muted, the real teachers on the other side juggled interrupting kids, problematic technology, and new course materials. I remind myself this is why I am here—to try to relieve some of the intense and unprecedented pressure these teachers face. Instead of interrupting the Zoom to ask questions, my students ask me. When my students finish an activity early, I have writing prompts, reading games, and yoga cards to keep them engaged.

Our classroom is not perfect. Within the first fifteen minutes of school, one of the boys spilled chocolate milk across the table. We snatched the computers and books quickly, escaping the first challenge with no casualties.

During silent and sustained reading time, the Bakers’ youngest brother, not yet in school, took off his diaper and peed on the hardwood floor; this we escaped with laughs and Clorox.

By the end of the first day, we all felt tired and hungry. We opened a box of cookies to find a message from one of the moms. The note, “What you do today can improve all your tomorrows,” reminded us to stay the course. This is going to be a long and meandering process, and we are just in the beginning.

The Need for 'Learning Pods' Creates a Generation of Unexpected Teachers
(Lauren Janes)

While my background in English and American culture did not teach me how to educate elementaryaged children, it did train me in how to critically think, write and problem solve. On our little kitchen table classroom, I help shape three young boys’ minds.

We will get to talk about racism, ableism and sexism. The privilege these young boys unknowingly process in accessing a “pod teacher” like me will be a cornerstone to our conversation. I will take my love for James Baldwin and expose my students to his children’s book, Little Man, Little Man: A Story of Childhood. In an attempt to be the most qualified unqualified teacher possible, I will share what I have learned as a student and hope that my struggles and my triumphs one day help them navigate theirs.

Meanwhile, I am reading The First Six Weeks of School to help create a welcoming class environment. There are no chapters however about a “pod” classroom. Google helps, though, with articles like: “Learning Pods 101: Tutor-led, teacher-led or parent-led?” and “I Run a Tutoring Company. I Get Dozens of Calls a Day About Learning Pods.”

Next week, we are going to work on creating a “Morning Meeting” and “Closing Circle” to talk about expectations and goals. I am getting to know the boys’ strengths and weaknesses. This new classroom is a space where we are learning together to be resilient and adaptive. 

My students’ moms, Beth and Sam, thank me at least twenty times a day. Sam tells me over and over, “Ms. Lauren, we would have been lost without you—you are saving us.” Beth jokes, “Maybe this will be better than the old way of school!”

What I hope they realize is that they are saving me too. While teaching was not what I thought my first “real job” would be, so far, it feels like the perfect fit.

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Lauren Janes is freelance writer and audio producer based in Washington D.C. Previously, she worked for the NPR member station Michigan Radio reporting on education, politics, and climate change. Check out more from Lauren at Find her on Twitter at @laurenejanes