Lessons From Pandemic Teaching
We’ll soon hit a full year of trying to figure out how public education works (or doesn’t) during a pandemic. Some of the experience gained may be specific to 2020 – the social and political dynamics of which have not been even remotely encouraging (see what I did there?). I’d respectfully suggest, however, that many of the “lessons” learned along the way apply to most forms of remote, virtual, or online “education,” whatever the surrounding climate.
I’ve numbered them in order to make my observations seem more carefully weighed and thoughtfully considered. Seriously, doesn’t even the illusion of someone having a coherent plan and consistent ideology seem insanely comforting these days?
#5: States and Some Districts Are REALLY Committed to Testing and Pointless Paperwork
One of the most crippling aspects of long-distance learning is what it does to our ability to “connect” with students, individually or en masse. The thing most of us signed on for – that idealistic, touch-lives-and-help-kids stuff – has been reduced to the point of near-extinction. What remains strong, however, is the bureaucracy and nonsense we’d mostly learned to tolerate. It’s always been annoying, but it’s traditionally been overshadowed by the meaningful bits.
Not this year.
Many districts are plowing ahead with “virtual PD” and hoping that if they simply require enough documentation of, well… everything they can think of, engagement will somehow soar and distance learning will no longer be a disaster. Kids being at home will be just like them being at school, and we can think happy thoughts and click our heels together until AYP is met!
The centerpiece of this delusion is the conviction that THE TESTING MUST GO ON. Standardized state assessments, sketchy endeavors in the best of times, have long claimed their primary function is to “assess student learning and growth.” Supposedly the resulting numbers help direct instruction; as a bonus they can be twisted like balloon animals into some sort of marker of teacher ineffectiveness as well. (Why did you not learn them harder?!)
Standardized testing has never done much to account for culture, poverty, circumstances, or anything else – but its complete disregard of reality has truly reached new heights this year. WE MUST MEASURE THE GROWTH of students who are no longer coming to school, many of whom don’t have internet, others of whom lack self-discipline, stay-at-home moms, or sufficient protein, all so we can... know what, exactly? What are we even pretending to measure right now?
It’s the most cynical sort of sophistry. We might as well have them take the tests while strapped to various amusement park rides or with Tiny Tim at dangerous volumes on infinite repeat. The validity of such “testing conditions” would be far more defensible than pushing ahead this year.
#4 Bipolar Teacher Disorder
Personally, I’ve always had a soft spot for the semi-dysfunctional, over-committed educator. Sure, they’re repeatedly taken advantage of, and they often operate out of insecurity or guilt at being unable to save every last child – but they’re so sincere and adorable while they’re doing it!
Even relatively stable, well-adjusted teachers, however, are beginning to manifest what I think of as “bipolar teacher disorder.” It’s a natural result of the pendulum of thoughts and emotions inherent in trying to reach disengaged populations long-distance. The internal dialogue often goes something like this:
“I’ve got to do more to engage and challenge these kids! They deserve a quality edu—“
“CAN THEY SERIOUSLY NOT LOG IN FOR 10 MINUTES AND AT LEAST USE THE BUILT-IN MIC?!? I FEEL LIKE A DANCING BEAR REPEATEDLY PAUSING FOR THEM TO TYPE ONE-WORD RESP—“
“My poor babies. It’s not their fault this is happening. Most would rather be here! School really is the most structure and approval they’re likely to get most days, not to mention—“
“WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU CAN’T OPEN IT ON YOUR PHONE? THE SCHOOL ISSUES YOU A CHROMEBOOK! THEY’LL PICK IT UP AND FIX OR REPLACE IT FOR FREE, REPEATEDLY! I MADE 27 TRAINING VIDEOS TALKING YOU THROUGH HOW TO DO THIS! YOU WANT ME TO COME TYPE IT FOR Y—“
“My God everyone on Twitter is rocking virtual education and doing all of these cool projects and discussions and – they’re using breakout rooms? And it’s working? Yeah, I suck. I’ve failed my students when they need me most. I might as well start handing out vouchers personally...”
“YOU WANT ME TO EXPLAIN THE ASSIGNMENT TO YOU? IN AN EMAIL? WHAT AM I GOING TO SAY THAT’S NOT IN THE SLIDESHOW I POSTED, AND IN THE VIDEOS OF ME EMBEDDED IN EACH SLIDE TALKING THROUGH IT, AND IN THE EXAMPLE I DID FOR YOU TO—“
You get the idea. The ping-ponging between guilt/inadequacy and frustration/discouragement may actually produce real-life concussions.
#3 Every Teacher Is Different. Every Classroom Is Different.
This has always been true. There are strategies, lessons, and mindsets that are often far more useful or successful than others. There are things that are almost always a bad idea, no matter what the specifics. Generally speaking, however, it’s important to distinguish between “here are some things that have worked for me in such-and-such situation” and “here’s what good teachers do if they want to be effective (or at least more effective than you).”
This reality has been dramatically magnified by virtual (or blended) learning. Kudos to those of you working wonders on the small screen. Many of you had to overcome repeated struggles and frustrations to get there. That doesn’t mean those still mired in pointlessness are lazy or lack talent. It’s more likely they have different kids, different circumstances, or different strengths.
Keep sharing what’s working. Celebrate others’ successes or breakthroughs. But let’s not forget that this whole situation is stupid and not at all what we signed up for. It’s not a moral failure when we can’t make the magic happen.
#2 The "Problems" With Public Education Are Huge Advantages
We all know the litany of failures attributed to the standard 20th century public education model. Students are run through a “factory system.” There’s not enough differentiation. The rooms are too square, the schedules too rigid, and the instruction too direct. Online, self-paced, n0-walls education was supposed to free our poor, victimized children from this outdated torture.
For a handful of kids, it absolutely has. I have several students I’ve never met who are knocking this year out of the park. They love the flexibility and hate the chaos and inconvenience of in-person school. These outliers spend a few hours in the morning knocking out work and touching base with their teachers, then read or play or watch documentaries about food in other countries the rest of the afternoon. More power to them.
But most kids need that face-to-face time to flourish. You know things are bad when all the same politicians and talking heads who’ve been working diligently for years to get kids out of our rooms and in front of someone’s software eight hours a day are suddenly lamenting kids being out of our rooms and in front of the screen for eight hours a day. If we’ve learned nothing else this year, hopefully we’ve rediscovered the value of teacher interaction for actual learning to consistently occur. We’ve sorely missed proper small group discussions and kids having to learn how to deal with one another like we all live in the same world together or something.
Parents have been confronted daily with the shocking reality that their children are not naturally hungry for knowledge or motivated by where they may or may not be accepted to college in a few years. Some kids care for intrinsic reasons, and some desperately want to please their parents or compete with their friends. But many many many of our darlings learn because we woo them. We cajole them. We trick them. We engage them. We entertain them, scare them, love them, push them. It’s an art as much as it is a science. Every educator knows this.
None of us were really surprised that it’s just not the same when kids are at home working “at their own pace” and the best we can do is video in from time to time. That didn’t make it less discouraging.
#1 It’s All About Resources
In districts with lots of technology and support, the twists and turns have generally gone better than in districts without. In districts where kids already had reliable internet at home and parents with basic online communication skills (the bulk of the email goes in the BODY, not the SUBJECT LINE), etc., things have been a little easier than in districts where half the kids don’t have heat – let alone reliable wi-fi.
Sure, there are always a handful of plucky souls who overcome, and they’re absolutely worth celebrating. But there are always a handful of football players who make the NFL and a handful of musicians who win Grammys. Pointing to Patrick Mahomes or Billie Eilish as proof that “anyone willing to put out a little effort can do it” is either delusional or deceitful. Pointing to districts whose teachers and students are finding all sorts of creative ways to make it work is absolutely appropriate in terms of celebrating their success and learning from their efforts. They make poor guides for critiquing districts with whom they have little in common, however.
So, what did I leave out? What did I get wrong? More importantly, of all my wit and pith and insight, which parts made you love me the most?
Comment below and let me know what you think. If you like, you can document it and count it towards your virtual professional development.
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