Well, hasn’t this been an interesting couple of months? Little did we know when we left for spring break that we would not be returning to our campuses and classrooms for the remainder of the year! It has certainly been a strange, bewildering time. While we miss our kids, colleagues, our schools, and our normal routines, there have been some remarkable changes happening at a breakneck pace, and some real positives may come out of this when we are all back together again. Here are a few of my own, personal thoughts and observations:
- Teachers and administrators and support personnel have been amazingly resilient and adaptable. The immediacy of all of this has forced change on the fly and a great deal of professional learning to happen all at once. This has been a great opportunity for the world to see the dedication, talent, creativity, and hard work of educators everywhere. Undeniably, there have been bumps and a learning curve, but obstacles continue to fall. In a time when stories in the press about schools are overwhelmingly negative, this has been like a B-12 shot for education public relations and goodwill.
The digital divide continues to be a real barrier for our students. We now have a much larger body of evidence that many of our kids don’t have the kinds of technologies and connectivity to make learning outside of the classroom successful or even feasible. Additionally, many parents don’t have the technology knowledge or skills to adequately support their children in their online learning. Schools are being forced to address these inequities, which should be a good thing in the long run. Some are buying student devices to implement 1:1 programs. Others, like Seguin, are purchasing wireless hotspots or are even going so far as to install community wireless towers. Along with the devices and infrastructure, schools will need to find ways to ensure students and their families have the necessary experiences during more normal times to succeed in times of crisis.
- For a variety of reasons, some students are thriving in this new reality. Perhaps learning via short videos, websites, and student-selected online tools provides better opportunities for on-time reteaching. Maybe it gives them multiple styles of presentation of information, allowing them to find what best speaks to them. I think some students can better focus on learning without the distractions of the complexities of the classroom social structures. It doesn’t matter how fluently they read out loud in front of their classmates, what they wear to school, or how disruptive the classmate next to them is. They can do the essential work without the negative, extra “stuff” that goes along with being a kid. For my own son, who generally finds football the only exciting part of the school day, it has been a chance to get the “boring” stuff out of the way of the things he’d rather be doing. He misses his friends, but he manages to keep connected via a variety of online games and networks.
Some students are struggling mentally and emotionally during this time of physical isolation. Schools provide more than just access to knowledge and skills. They are places where kids can connect positively to other people. They can laugh, share secrets, complain, unload their painful thoughts, get support. Sadly, teachers are often the only positive, supportive, loving adults some of our students encounter on a day-to-day basis. School administrators and counselors provide invaluable support to kids with a range of mental and emotional issues. School lunches are the only reliable meals for many students. These kids, even the ones who are often the most challenging, miss the consistency and positivity that schools provide. The social distancing situation we find ourselves in has to force schools to think about ways to creatively and effectively take care of these kids.
- Inexperience or misguided priorities have been an issue for some schools or districts. As I have followed the news and the Twitter-sphere, I have seen some likely well-intended but hopelessly off-base policies and practices being advocated or implemented. For instance, some schools have sent full-day, detailed schedules for students to follow while learning at home. Such schedules reflect a complete disregard for the home life realities of students and parents, many of whom are either at work or working from home. Other schools have issued edicts that students continue to wear school uniforms, or that teachers wear “professional dress” while working from home. While certainly sensible during virtual meetings by video, it is dubious that a teacher is less effective in a t-shirt and pajama pants while grading essays at the breakfast room table. Still other schools have reminded staff that lunch breaks should be limited to a half hour. These kinds of administrative decisions are likely rooted in experiences limited only to normal, physical school, and we will, hopefully, learn better how to structure the schedules and environment of online learning, as we have no guarantees that we won’t be returning here next year or in the future.
- Now that we are mastering the basics, the next step is empowering online learning. The past few weeks have required on the fly learning and transitioning curricula into the online learning environment. Now, we need to work on the work. How can we move beyond viewing a video and completing an electronic worksheet? How do we make learning more relevant and meaningful and engaging? Can we use this opportunity to empower students to construct their own knowledge, with teachers serving to prompt and guide? I think there is a hesitancy among some educators thus far to give students more open-ended, student-driven tasks online. However, if the learning activities online would not have been good enough for the physical classroom, should they be acceptable in the virtual setting? The reality is, students have access to more diverse, powerful tools for learning and for creating, collaborating, and sharing online than in a typical classroom. We need to structure our online courses to take advantage of these.
- Professional development may be changed forever. This is not to say the face-to-face workshop or conference will become a thing of the past. However, more teachers are taking part in PD through book studies or Zoom or Google Meet. Having offered these types of professional learning for years, I know I have seen countless more participants joining in now. Will this be a positive experience that affects how they choose the grow as educators in the future? I think it is a real possibility, so long as they find it worthwhile in the present. A related benefit is that a lot of educators have become much more familiar and proficient with the use of technology tools that they might not take the time to learn in normal circustances..
The heart of the educator is all about the kids. Given an unprecedented time of separation from their students, teachers have shown time and again how their love for their students is at the heart of all the work they do. Teachers genuinely miss their students (and vice versa). I have read countless stories of teachers going out of their way to express how much they miss their students. Teachers in my own neighborhood and many others put together parades, honking, waving, shouting support. They have hand written personal letters to students. Others have read bedtime stories to their students at night. They have organized Zoom meetings just to catch up on the latest news from their students. They have worked to put together virtual proms and graduations. It has been a remarkable and touching display of the deep affection of educators for their students, and that is truly encouraging to me in such difficult and challenging times.
Something else just occurred to me. There will continue to be successes and stumbles in our new, virtual existence. We will learn from this in the most effective way there is, through real-life experience. I hope that may be the biggest takeaway for educators. Just like their teachers, students benefit from authentic learning experiences. It makes learning relevant to their real lives and makes it durable. After we return to the classroom, perhaps we can work harder to create these kinds of experiences.
Best wishes for success and continued good health all of my education peers.