Just by way of introduction, let me begin this post the way I have begun most conversations in the past month: I am both exhausted and privileged to be so.
Privileged because I have a job that, so far, has been only cosmetically affected by the quarantine necessitated by COVID-19. I am a high school math teacher, and though this current season is novel in a way I never could have imagined a year ago, mine is a job I am able to perform entirely at home in my pajamas. Along with my health, this privilege is something close to invaluable.
I am exhausted because, in addition to rebuilding my job almost from scratch, I also have three elementary-age children who are on the receiving end of their own education reboot. And a wife who is learning how to do her job from our living room. And a three-year-old who is only mostly potty-trained. It is no exaggeration to say that I have never looked forward to Saturdays so much in my life.
I can only hope that all my readers are privileged enough to be this exhausted. That being said, I find my thoughts racing as I even have trouble sleeping—a feeling I am sure is common to many of us. We’re all thinking about students and meetings and assignments and grades, trying to figure out the best way to accomplish as much education as possible during this bizarre time. And, in the back of our minds, we’re already worrying about next year.
Do We Want to Go ‘Back to Normal”?
Lately, I have found myself reading British writers from the World War II era. We’re not there yet with COVID-19, but riding out the Blitz in 1940s London feels the closest English-language equivalent to our situation today. One of my favorites, Dorothy L. Sayers, writes a trenchant essay about economics and vocation entitled, “Why Work?” Though nothing specifically to do with education, her thoughts on factories, overproduction and pollution strike an unnerving chord.
Thinking about the inefficiencies of the pre-war economy, she writes, “When the war is over … are we preparing and do we want to go back to our old habits of thought? Because I believe that on our answer to this question the whole economic future of society will depend.” Substitute “educational” for “economic” and Sayers could be writing a letter to teachers and parents today.
When the pandemic passes—and it will, eventually—are we going to let our classrooms return to their old, inefficient state? Right now educators are innovating at a rapid clip, but without intentionality that will end when we return to the school building—by and large a broken place, as full of inequity and devoid of joy as Sayers’s mid-century factories. The question is: why should we return to our brick-and-mortar buildings and accept their malfunctioning status quo?
Instead, why not use this crisis as an opportunity to reflect and rebuild? Sayers, again: “It is always strange and painful to have to change a habit of mind; though, when we have made the effort, we may find a great relief, even a sense of adventure and delight, in getting rid of the false and returning to the true.” How many false notions have we built up over the years? How good would it feel to return to something more like truth in education?
In all likelihood, most of the country is looking at something like a five-month break from face-to-face schooling. Nothing like this has ever happened in any of our lifetimes, not on a national scale at least. Let’s imagine here for a moment that we can come back different; let us dream with Sayers into a sense of adventure and delight.
What can we do to reboot our schools? How best can we rebuild?
Let me offer three ideas—the start of solutions that are intended to be neither connected nor comprehensive. Instead, my primary goal is to spur your imagination—to kick off a state-by-state conversation to which we can all contribute. We know we need to close the digital divide; I’m not interested in debating that need here. Rather, I want to dive into the kind of thinking I’ve heard described as “blue-skying.” Let’s look up together into that empty sky and dream big, wild thoughts.
Blue Sky Number One: Jubliee. I first heard about this idea on the 8 Black Hands podcast a couple of weeks ago, but it’s an idea that dates back about as far written records go—the book of Leviticus in the Bible. The gist is that, by law, every 50 years property would return to its original owner and slaves would be set free. In a time when land was intimately connected to family and slavery was the natural end state of debt, the Year of Jubliee was a powerful way to level the playing field between the rich and the poor.
A similar idea could work for school systems—in fact, it might be the most practical way to level some of the educational inequity we see playing out in this crisis. Nationally, it is estimated that systems owed $443 billion in debt in 2016. The Year of Jubliee wouldn’t need to wipe out every penny of this debt, but imagine the funding possibilities if systems could preserve even half of this money and put it back into their budgets. All told it amounts to about $4,000 per student—money that could be used to buy a decent laptop and mobile hotspot for every public school student in the country. Imagine that.
Blue Sky Number Two: Cut the Fat. It is time to cut the fat from the curriculum. If your state’s standards look anything like mine, they are somehow both incredibly dense and maddeningly vague at the same time. Our students are going to come back to the building in August off-track from the standards—no amount of ad hoc distance learning right now is going to change that fact.
What if we took this opportunity to really examine the standards we follow? What if we took the time to make our tests more valuable, robust, accurate and equitable measures of student achievement? Let’s collectively reimagine subject knowledge and ensure these concepts are reflected in our curriculum and assessments. We owe students at least that.
Blue Sky Number Three: Get School Leaders Back Into the Classroom. It’s a practical idea we could implement immediately on the micro-level if we have the will. The classroom is evolving rapidly. The current crisis is forcing a quantum leap in pedagogy, one that will take years for teachers to master. In an effort to unify the building for this task, let me put forth an idea I have long been advocating: Let’s put all the instructional coaches, master teachers and principals back into the classroom for at least one class a day.
The art of instruction is changing—let’s make sure our leadership is nimble enough to change along with it. Most teachers would agree that a disconnect with the administration is a significant source of job stress, and the school building will run better when the leadership has more stake in the boots-on-the-ground work of classroom teaching. After all, no general makes wiser decisions than the one who leads his own troops into battle.
If you are anything like me you are looking forward to returning to school in the fall. I miss my students, and I enjoy the opportunities my own children receive in their building. However, even though I am weary of distance learning, I don’t want to go back to the way things used to be.
I want to take this strange opportunity we have been given and make something of it. I believe that if enough of us can dream these ideas—mine as well as all the others I know you have dreamt on your own—we can drive policy and effect change. I want to spin gold out of the straw of this current moment.
Right now we are innovating out of necessity. We can’t let ourselves believe that we will continue to be so creative next year once we return, unless we decide to be intentional ahead of time. One more quote from Sayers: “The moment will come when we have to make a decision about this. At the moment, we are not making it—don’t let us flatter ourselves that we are. It is being made for us.”
Teachers all across the country are working hard to do the best we can for our students, this out of necessity. But let’s not flatter ourselves—right now we are entirely reactive. Next year let’s be proactive, let’s neither return to the way things used to be nor blindly continue along this current distance-learning path.
Let us dream up something else altogether.