The Big Reset
I usually appreciate the endless variety and curious challenges that my profession regularly presents me with. But being asked to rethink our jobs as educators last year left my head spinning. In retrospect, the hollowness of that year– with its endless Google Meets, missing kids, and lax standards– augured quite poorly for 2021 - 22. I suppose I was so happy to reach the end of that strange ordeal that I didn't notice the storm clouds on the horizon.
I started this school year with a plenty of energy and hope that things would be back to something resembling normal. But the ongoing pandemic, and the ramifications of our recent policy choices, soon tempered my optimism There have been no shortage of think pieces, op-eds, social media rants, etc. about how much education (and educators and students and parents) have suffered this past school year. I wrote about it in February during the roughest stretch of my teaching career so far and I won't rehash it all here. Some of the problems I observed this fall and winter persisted until the final weeks of school, while others resolved themselves somewhat. We all have some perspective that we didn't in September and I thought it could be helpful to look back and consider what we can learn from it all.
Some personal musings and lessons from this year:
It took less time than I thought it would to thoroughly disrupt the routines of a school
The spring of 2020 and the 2020 - 2021 school year were directly impacted by the pandemic (like "we couldn't have normal school" impacted). There were serious negative externalities such as lost jobs, disrupted family routines, and illness that certainly led to trauma for our community. But most of the worst effects were behind us by the start of this school year and yet students seemed totally at sea. Kids had to relearn the basics of being a student and the complex social gallimaufry that is a school building. Teachers had a learning curve too– the expectations of students and parents had shifted under us and we had to decide when to bend and when to hold the line. Other annual exercises, such as wide-spread Regents testing, felt like novel undertakings since they hadn't been part of our lives for several years.
Staffing and the COVID dance
There were some periods this past winter where we barely had enough staff to keep our school operating. We owe much to the hardworking substitute teachers who bailed us out throughout the year as we each took our turn getting COVID, having our family get COVID, etc. The system ultimately held, but continuous disruption was the norm for several months and it seems likely that we will see similar surges in future years.
I wonder about current policy around isolation after infection with COVID and whether it is advisable going forward, especially if future variants continue to be so mild. When I got COVID this spring, I was allowed a one-time stretch of paid leave to complete my isolation (I wasn't able to get a substitute for any of the days I was out). I did not feel really sick either of the days I had to take off and have definitely gone to work in much worse health. Very little learning occurred in my classroom while I was out.
I understand that the public health apparatus is always challenged with balancing the health of citizens with other considerations. I increasingly believe that disruptions and lost instructional time, which harmed kids in real ways, must figure more prominently into those deliberations. We seriously underestimated the impact of policy decisions like shutting down schools or adopting a hybrid model of teaching. Policies like these were particularly damaging to children from lower socio-economic backgrounds who may not benefit from the structure and supervision that would allow them to weather such disruptions successfully. Since these children are unfortunately such a large component of our population, I worry about the consequences of leaving current policies around isolation unexamined.
Behavioral and academic norms are in the toilet
I could imagine a world where it was an expectation that every adult in our school building would be unable to teach for a week or more due to COVID isolation protocols or family disruptions caused by COVID. Assuming we had enough substitutes (we don't), students might be able to continue their learning without their regular teacher if such absences were carefully planned for. In such an optimistic world, students too would work from home when isolating, using our impressive quiver of technological tools to stay on pace with their peers.
Besides the lack of reliable coverage for absent teachers (because of an insufficient number of willing substitutes), this future is impossible because a non-trivial number of students consistently treat substitutes horribly. I'm not pollyannaish about the historical treatment of substitutes, but trust me- this year was bad. Many students are disdainful of authority and disrespectful in a way that was new to even the most experienced teachers in my building. As for students making progress through disruptions, I found that in the case of a teacher absence or a need to work virtually from home, the student who did any school work was the extreme exception.
Most of our students have unhealthy relationships with technology
Smart phones have been in our schools for years, but students' relationships with these devices has devolved to a point of dependency that is painful to watch at times. Many of us were caught off guard this year by the intense emotional attachment students have to their phones (and the nastiness they are willing to fling at anyone who would question their perceived right to be using their devices at all times). I finally settled on a routine in my classes that included a draconian ban on phones unless we were in one of our preannounced, timed phone breaks scheduled periodically during each class. I took more phones this year than I ever have in the past and spent an absolutely bonkers amount of time dealing with the things. The reactions I get from students when I try to limit their phone use leads me to wonder if anyone else in their lives is questioning or limiting the way they use their devices and the internet generally.
Grappling with phones this year has led me to think more about attention more broadly and wonder why it seems to be an increasingly scarce resource (and not just among young people). I have a few books that I'm excited to read this summer on the topic of attention and I'm hoping I may be able to apply some lessons from these to my classroom.
Self-paced learning should be an approach that more educators consider
Although I finished last year with new skepticism of digital tools, I ended up embracing an entirely new approach to teaching algebra that relies on short instructional videos. I first learned about self-paced learning from a Cult of Pedagogy podcast interview with Kareem Farah, the founder of the Modern Classrooms Project (MCP). I was so intrigued that I ended up completing MCP's virtual mentorship program this past fall and my classroom runs very differently than it did a few years ago. Now that I've had significant experience with self-paced learning, I am planning to write more about it soon. But briefly, it combines principles of standards-based grading with an instructional program that students move through at their own pace. Instruction is delivered through short (5-7 minute) videos created by me or my coteacher. Students must master a lesson before moving on to the next topic and they demonstrate mastery by completing short "mastery checks." Overall, I loved how this program allowed students to truly master topics and feel successful in math class. The baseline differentiation and time for 1:1 instruction were also exceptionally positive changes. I believe that, short of adjusting our math curriculum to more realistically reflect the likely role of math in our students' future lives (a touchy topic for me), self-paced learning has been a great way to build student independence, self-awareness, and useful learning habits that will serve them well going forward.
As my experiment with self-paced learning demonstrated, the "big reset" that was the 2021 - 22 school year wasn't all negative. I believe that next year will be an opportunity to build on some of this year's success, even as we continue to dig ourselves out of the hole that virtual learning and school shutdowns sunk us in. When it comes to behavior, attention, and phone use, we may be at a crossroads as a school community where the problem is so serious that we may finally find the confidence and leadership to address these issues head-on in a more proactive manner.
I was able to attend graduation this morning and enjoyed watching students I have known for four years walk the stage and accept their diplomas. It was a strikingly "normal" event, with all the usual ceremony and none of the limitations that were placed on such events in the past two years. I reflected on the resilience of these students and the strength of their support network of family and educators. This year thoroughly tested us, but after some time to recover and reflect, I believe we have reason to be optimistic about the 2022 - 23 school year and the progress we can make if we work together thoughtfully and with purpose.