“Mr. Kelly, what happens next?”
As a teacher, I have heard some version of that question countless times in different circumstances over the years. However, I have never faced that question more than I have in the first week of “eLearning” caused by the closure of schools due to COVID-19.
After our governor announced the statewide closing of schools on March 15, the best answer I could muster to student questions of what comes next is, “we’re taking this one day at a time.” And, one day at a time, I have witnessed teachers across my state build an entirely new learning environment from scratch, often with little more than a day to prepare.
Over the last few days, I’ve introduced new vocabulary to my instruction I have never used before, terms like “meets,” “hangouts” and “please click mute.” I never had to consider this vocabulary in a traditional classroom setting, but new terms are essential in a new eLearning paradigm. In many ways, this experience for teachers mirrors what is happening in society as we become familiar with a new “normal” based on new phrases like “social distancing.”
All of this is occurring on a remarkably sharp learning curve. As I’ve become more comfortable with what works and what doesn’t in eLearning, I’ve found I can now start planning beyond tomorrow in order to strategically design materials and experiences to meet the needs of my students. In the same way, it is now time, as a society, to start thinking ahead about “what happens next.”
To be clear, I know there are still massive, immediate needs to be addressed—literally issues of life and death. But, if there is one lesson to learn about how we collectively prepared (or failed to prepare) for this crisis, it is this: If we wait until the moment has arrived to plan for the moment, we are too late.
In thinking forward to what happens next, many commentators have been quick to point out that we are at an “inflection point” in our politics. However, I would argue one step further: we are now at an inflection point as a society. We have lived on the edge of this inflection point since our founding, a balancing act that can be found in our Declaration of Independence. As hopefully all of my students could tell you, this document captures our society’s fundamental belief in individualism with the opening stanza’s eloquent defense of the right of each person to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” (a right that has, admittedly, been denied to certain groups for large portions of our history).
However, there is another, less discussed, but equally important, strain of our national character captured in the final line of the Declaration. In that line, the signers express their belief in collectivism by “mutually” pledging their “Lives, … Fortunes and … Sacred Honor” to the cause of independence.
We clearly see both of these elements of our character—individualism and collectivism—on full display in the way we are responding to our current crisis. While some members of our society are giving of their abundance to care for those with less, others are choosing to leverage their advantages to gain even more. While some people isolate from their loved ones in order to better serve the needs of the many, others selfishly continue to gather, regardless of the danger it poses to others. As a society, we are clearly at an inflection point in regards to finding the appropriate balance between individualism and collectivism.
This inflection point stretches to how we will structure all elements of our civic life in a post-COVID-19 world, and, as the past few weeks have clearly reinforced, our public schools are a bedrock of American civic life. For proof, one need look no further than to the role of closed schools in continuing to provide food for children or to the abundance of memes on social media from parents expressing their newly gained appreciation for the work of teachers. In a world that seems to change by the minute, the work of teachers continues to provide some sense of “normalcy” and encouragement to our children. This crisis has shown the centrality of schools to our social fabric, and as we consider what happens next, we face important choices about public education.
On one side, some will argue that this experience provides support for continued “personalization” of education. While “personalized” education can take many forms, it is often invoked by those that focus on mechanisms like vouchers and online learning, where the value of education is measured by nothing more than the individual attainment of academic skills and knowledge. This approach would diminish the amount we collectively contribute to education in favor of a model where everyone is responsible for providing whatever educational opportunity they can to their own children.
However, I argue that this moment shows more clearly than ever the need for robust and healthy public schools. In the 21st century, education is the pathway to achieving individual goals and ambitions, so a society committed to the “American dream” must collectively ensure that each child has access to a quality education, regardless of their means or social station. And while “social distancing” is a winning strategy in the face of a pandemic, the type of polarized, silo-ization of our civic life that has occurred in recent years has diminished our “social capital” in a democratic society to the point where we are struggling to find common ground to fight this virus. In a world where fewer and fewer experiences bind us together collectively, public schools remain one of the core civic institutions that brings together diverse viewpoints and backgrounds in a way that enhances our capacity for democratic discourse and action.
In looking at this inflection point in our history and considering what comes next, I continue to think of a container filled with liquid. While the container is at peace, there is no way to really know what is inside. It is only during moments of change, when the container is poured or cracked, that you learn about its contents.
The crisis of COVID-19 is stressing and breaking our social institutions in a way that hasn’t occurred in at least a generation, and it is up to us to determine which part of our national character—individualism or collectivism—pours out. I became a teacher because of a desire to invest in people and help them reach their goals. My hope is that “what comes next” in America is a renewed commitment to collectively investing in the dreams, futures, and lives of our children.
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