If you have been a US educator for more than two decades your career has been punctuated by some tremendous events. You may not often reflect on those events- or their impact on education. But one thing that many of us have now is time for reflection – on, among other things, pandemic education.
My very first year of teaching, in the spring of 1999, I walked into class on a Wednesday that was markedly different than the day before, the week before, the month before. Anyone who was a teacher, a student, or a parent in the US on April 20, 1999 felt their world turn upside down as we watched an unthinkable tragedy unfold on security camera footage.
I was just 22 years old when I walked into my classroom on Wednesday, April 21, but I was suddenly wearing educator shoes much larger than those usually sported by first-year teachers. It was immediately clear that there would be no content that day. No group activity I had planned. And certainly no topic of discussion other than Columbine High School – and how we would or could be different.
Maslow’s Hierarchy – which had been so fresh in my mind from grad school – was front and center that day, by necessity. The conversation was simply about safety, security, and belonging – or lack of belonging – the underlying sentiment attributed to the two young men who caused the carnage.
We didn’t know it at the time, but the expectations for both educators – and our school spaces – changed dramatically as a result of that day. We now routinely spend school hours not only practicing for fire evacuations and earthquakes, but also teaching our students how to effectively barricade classrooms, obscure office windows, and repurpose heavy objects to thwart potential intruders.
Our school spaces have changed as well. My younger colleagues aren’t sure what I’m talking about when I mention “Columbine locks” (which may be locked from the interior, without a key), because they have never worked in a room where you had to reach your hand into the hallway to awkwardly lock your door. (Indeed, for years following Columbine, I would open my classroom door, re-lock it immediately, and then prop it open for the rest of the day.) Each and every space has blackout shades. And our entire school community knows what to do when they hear “this is a lockdown.”
A few years later, another Wednesday: September 12, 2001. Another exceptionally challenging day to be in the classroom. The adults were barely able to process what had just unfolded. (While the crashes occurred early in the school day in the Pacific time zone on Tuesday, September 11, we had little access to television at school and the internet was not widely accessible for news, so we really couldn’t process anything until after school that day).
The raw footage of airplanes flying into towers, and people fleeing through ash and debris was seared into our minds. I wanted to crawl into a corner and cry. But instead I sat with class after class of young people, helping them process what we could. Who. What. Where. When. How. The why was, of course, much more difficult.
As an educator – and particularly as a secondary social studies teacher, which I was at the time – the unintended consequence was a new level of relevance. Perspective. Point of view. Cultural conflict. And the government’s response. For a number of years following, we were able to more successfully register young voters, encourage civic involvement, and make a strong case for the relevance not just of the social sciences, but of world languages and global literature. Quite a feat in our often STEM-obsessed society.
And here we are. Nineteen years later. Overhauling our education system from our living rooms and kitchen tables. While the world for which we are preparing our students seismically shifts beneath our feet.
Navigating the current pandemic is like fording an uncharted river. We are still in the middle of the river – many of us abruptly thrown from it’s banks in the middle of March.. It is unclear how long the crossing will be, or what we will find on the far banks. But some truths are already emerging.
There are changes that are happening that are long overdue. Systems and processes that were stuck on paper for decades, not because it was better that way, but because change is notoriously slow in public education. We are automated and streamlining more. Colleges and universities are providing more virtual tours and meetups as well as moving toward test-optional admissions. Both of these shifts will ideally provide much more equity of access.
The truth is that telehealth is likely a better way to connect with kids who avoid school due to their mental health challenges; it’s nearly impossible to have an in-school check in if the student can’t get out of bed. And practically overnight, our school and district closed the digital divide – at least in terms of hardware. (A clear area of growth is teaching fluency with the technology – to different extents – to students, parents and staff.)
What is relevant now: the ability to use technology to connect, and the ability of young minds to capture the myriad lessons from this complex situation and raise their voices for a better outcome in future years.
But what is emerging alongside this lurch toward the future is a simultaneous stripping away of what it means to educate. It is likely that the spring semester (or quarter) of 2020 will long be remembered for its unique place in our collective memories. Schools at all levels are still very much grappling with questions regarding standards, assessments, grades, transcripts and diplomas. Despite this lack of clarity, there is one thing that is not questionable: the relationships that are forged in school communities are foundational.
So while the documentation of this term is legislated by school boards and superintendents, on the ground, consider going back to Maslow. Educators, especially teachers, tend to focus on Bloom’s taxonomy – scaffolding learning to support students in analyzing and synthesizing complex information. But now is the time for Maslow.
Set aside the complex homework policies and stop chasing your tail to create cheat-proof online tests. Instead, call your students and check in on them. Connect on whatever social media or educational platform where your students hang out. Invite them all to jump on Zoom with you – just so they can see your face – and each others’.
Because when they recount their experience in the spring of 2020 to their children, they won’t remember what was in chapter 16. Or even what happened at the end of the novel you had assigned. If we’re lucky, they will remember that they stayed home for several weeks in their physical home – and that you helped bring their school “home” to them.
What does pandemic education mean to you? Comment below with your thoughts.
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