I became a fan of Charles Dickens after being blessed with inspiring, kind professors and a cooperating teacher who brought joy to the art of reading and interpreting literature. This passage rings true today in many ways:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only. (Tale of Two Cities)
One’s viewpoint about the world today can be seen through two different lenses. How do you see it? Yesterday I engaged in conversation with my sister-in-law who just so happens to be an educator, an incredible educator, by golly, and I am not biased at all. A teacher of the year candidate on multiple occasions with a disposition that screams elementary educator, as she is kind, loving, happy-always, compassionate, patient and fun, really fun! She truly is the kindest person I have ever known and the epitome of a primary teacher. We chatted about our kids, the health of our parents and husbands, and then the topic transitioned to education. We would swap stories often, but today was different. The stories were not funny as in tell me about those moments when kids would say the darndest things or how inspired we felt when a student caught us out at Walmart, making us feel like celebrities. I mean, Come on! Teachers really shop for groceries?
But instead of laughing and reminiscing about the best job in the world and how serving amazing kids and swapping stories about them and their interesting, curious ways, I found myself lost in her words, listening intently to this exemplary educator for quite some time discuss the challenges that lie ahead. While leaning in to her every statement, I realized she was different: she didn’t appear to be her bubbly self. She seemed a little anxious. How could that be? I mean, she’s taught for 29 years! This is year 30! She’s a pro and could do every bit of it with her eyes closed. She walked me through what the first week of teaching all the way through to the beginning of the first day of school during this pandemic would look like. It was eye-opening! Yes, even for me, someone who served as a school and district leader and one who still works in the field, it left me questioning education during this crazy time.
Interestingly, this sister in law began her career in education in St. Croix. She was assigned 24 students from various walks of life, three of whom didn’t speak English. She would write three different lesson plans for every day and had only a trunk of education goodies to use to teach students whose grade levels ranged from first grade to fourth. Oh, and she often taught right on the beach! Seems like a bit of Heaven, right? Well remember, while holding class on that white sand in the sun with a beautiful ocean view right in front of her, she was charged with keeping each child engaged in the lesson with limited resources. And not every child was on the same page or spoke the same language. This was a challenging year in education, one that she didn’t really long to repeat.
As she dove into the start of this year, she was reminded of those significant challenges in her first year of teaching, realizing that “this too shall pass.” But until then, she had to put all her amazing, seemingly traditional teaching methods aside and implement an entirely new style of teaching. And then she began to describe the start of this year.
She began with her first week back to her old friend, that one school at which she spent so much time over the years but left well before the conclusion of the 19-20 school year, and she didn’t step foot into the building again until today. How she missed it, departing in March when the pandemic struck after the Governor ordered every school closed. The rest of that year would be such a learning transition, teaching students using a modality for which she and her colleagues were greatly ill-prepared. But here she was in August, back at school, ready to light a fire in the hearts of her students while gearing up for the most unusual school year in all her years of teaching second grade students.
Week one included a week’s worth of training. Five full days learning about the latest greatest technology that will be necessary for remote teaching, the modality that will be used for delivering instruction to all students. Five days of training! No integration of technology into instruction, no try a bit of this in context to see how it actually works, no research best practices to be implemented and measured for results, just training on application after application after application- tool after tool.
Google Classroom was introduced, a web based platform that integrates Google tools and other classroom based applications in one place. A teacher can post notes, check email, assess student work, and make announcements, among other uses. Another tool some teachers would be required to learn is Teacher Ease. While some have proficiency using this application, many other applications can be integrated with this one, so more training is necessary. There’s also Loom, not to be confused with Zoom. Loom is a video recording tool that allows teachers to record lessons and share through the technology platform provided by the company. How about Google Meets, an application that provides a venue at which students and parents can meet with the teacher and chat about progress or challenges or whatever. Then on to FlipGrid. This application allows teachers to facilitate video discussions through grids that serve as a sort of message board which is interactive. Questions can be posed and discussion can follow. Another application that is definitely a favorite is Bitmoji Classroom, which can be described as an engaging, interactive application for teachers to create a virtual classroom through which creative ways to deliver instruction can occur. Using animations of the teacher, this classroom experience gives students access to links, videos, and other content with the click of a mouse.
But wait! That’s not all. There are other initiatives in the works that must be continued. What about those that have added a new reading or math program or initiated the transition to standards-based reporting for their grade level. When would they spend time talking about and planning for these initiatives?
Whew!!! I can’t imagine participating in that many trainings without having the opportunity to use in context, one at a time. I taught the Integration of Technology in Education Curricula to preservice teachers at Blackburn College. Students were assigned approximately five projects using five different applications over a semester. They had five months to learn five applications and were able to discover, research, try, revise, complete and submit. I also have experience with implementing a new program and even a standards-based reporting process. It would be necessary to provide professional development for educators and hire subs in advance, as this teacher training would run throughout the school year for adoption the following year. Today, this is neither plausible (as subs would need to be trained) nor possible (not enough subs). What is occurring now in education is beyond challenging.
So let me share an example of the first week back with students using the remote modality. The learning day begins at 8:00a. Teachers are on the job in their classrooms, delivering their “welcome to my classroom” at 8:15a and will teach until 12:15p. They will use their video applications to connect with students who we hope are out of bed, dressed for the day, breakfast consumed, and super pumped about learning while patiently sitting in front of their computer screens. The connecting begins with the teacher introducing herself followed by each student. Sounds perfect, right?
As I was reflecting on how this will work, I began throwing lots of questions at my sister in law, the “What Ifs?”
I’ve heard these questions before so I was anxious to hear her answers, but frankly there aren’t any concrete answers to share. Why? Because there will be students who cannot access the Internet, or parents who must work and can’t sit with their children until after they return home from work. There will be students who miss the instruction and will need to make it up. Some will and some will not. There will be teachers who leave school at the end of the day, arrive home only to jump on their computer to deliver instruction to those students whose parents work and are only available after hours. So many unanswered questions.
This is where I see the many challenges. Let me begin with teachers:
They will provide active instruction using remote learning and then spend the afternoon editing and uploading videos (instruction for the day). If you are wondering why editing must occur, I will share that no students’ names or faces can be used in instruction due to privacy. This is problematic, as the first week teachers are learning names and building relationships, which is the most important step in teaching students. Remember… “Students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care” ~John Maxwell. So teachers will be calling on students, providing encouragement, making corrections, and even disciplining those who are talking out of turn or being disrespectful, because this is the reality of schooling. These teachers then must take an extra step and go through every instructional video and delete sections that include students’ names and pictures. They also will use this time to attach any additional work or create interactive instructional elements that support that day’s learning. It’s definitely time-consuming but necessary to ensure students have what they need to learn the concepts introduced. Students will use this time to participate in practice activities and complete assigned work.
At this time I have to share a conversation I had with my brother who was playing teacher last year to his kindergarten-aged granddaughter. His question for me: “How do you keep a five-year-old child in her seat for six hours each day?” He emphatically followed with, “It’s impossible!”
Of course, I laughed at any consideration of such a thing. She is only five years old! “You don’t,” I quickly responded. “The attention span of primary students is minimal, so you have to include several breaks throughout the day, and the expectation for time in seat for instruction should be anywhere from 15-30 minutes, TOPS.”
We continued to chat about some strategies that would be helpful for a grandpa to help teach his very young, very energetic granddaughter.
I still giggle a bit when I think of this conversation. However, the fact is parents and grandparents aren’t necessarily supposed to be the teachers of their children, teenagers, grandchildren. So for those parents who are supporting their children or grandparents supporting their grandchildren or anyone else supporting children, I am attaching a link to a resource that can be used as a guide during this challenging time.
Back to teachers. In loco parentis rings true for most educators with whom I’ve worked. I know many and they love the students in their care. They become “like family,” as they spend so much time together. They want the very best for them and will do whatever in their ability to ensure they are serving in their best interest.
The point of this article is this: Please give teachers some grace. This is a difficult time to be an educator. There are no answers that make sense. NONE! And there is nowhere to place blame for our current set of conditions. It stinks BAD but all educators affected must act in a way that makes as much sense as the times in which they are serving their students.
My next point: Please give parents some grace. People must work to provide for their families. This is a fact. What challenging times for parents who have young, school-age children! It’s impossible to work and help support students in their education. It stinks BAD but they must act in a way that allows them to support their family while doing the very best they can to support their children who should be in school.
My next point: Please give education leaders, both district and school, some grace. I’ve served in those roles. They aren’t easy jobs in the best of times, but now? Now is a whole new set of very challenging circumstances. These leaders have worked around the clock to brainstorm ways to make school safe and supporting and engaging and fun. They realize students should be at school, especially those who come from the worst circumstances imaginable. But sometimes it is impossible. Again, it stinks BAD but they must act in a way that serves in the best interest of ALL students, ALL educators, ALL support staff. ALL families. They must think of ALL.
After reflecting on my conversation with my sister in law who is struggling to find ways to educate all her students who aren’t accessible at the same time during the day; my husband and other school and district leaders who are attempting to work with their stakeholders to make the best decisions for ALL; my advisory committee members who serve as leaders from various states who are working around the clock to update their stakeholders on constantly updated guidance and mandates at the state and local levels; parents who are struggling to find childcare so they can work while also doing everything in their power to support the education conditions in which their students must engage; board members who serve as volunteers to support and serve their constituencies in the best way they can… I can only offer this: my thoughts and prayers – truly – are with every one of you.
Yes, it is the best of times and the worst of times... But while experiencing this difficult journey, please view through the lens of hope and give grace to those - in the words of Brené Brown - who are doing the best they can, for THIS TOO SHALL PASS (Zen Thinking). ❤