Monday, February 15, 2021

A Remote Hope

I think remote schooling has been a teaching success.  

There, I said it.  

Here’s why.  

Thousands upon thousands of teachers rose to the occasion of the “unprecedented times” (even though they were, in fact, a little bit precedented, if you look at prior pandemics and wars) by seeking training for themselves, training each other and creating valuable online communities of professionals to share strategies and resources.  Teachers subsidized remote learning by buying and/or using their own equipment, document cameras, laptops; their own subscriptions to necessary apps to make remote learning happen; their own digital books; upgrades of their own home internet connection speeds to facilitate instruction. There was so much we didn’t know how to do.  The running joke was, every teacher is a first year teacher this year.  And like all first year teachers, we were exhausted.  We cried.  We hated it and smiled for the children in the face of it. I was exhausted, cried and hated it.  Children, too, were exhausted, crying and hating it.  That’s what happens when you don’t have what you need and it makes you feel like you’re inadequate.

Once I realized I didn’t have to be good at every bit of new technology being thrown at me all at once, I hated it less.

Once I realized things were going to go wrong and it’s okay, it happens, I hated it less.

Once I realized that some of the reasons things were going wrong were because I didn’t have what I needed and I didn’t even realize it, and I started getting those things for myself, I hated it less.

Once I realized that my relationships with children were not contingent on physical proximity but on the daily expression of interest and compassion, just like it always was, I hated it less.  

Once I heard the children laughing again, cracking jokes in the chat, getting answers right, begging for read-aloud not to end, creating wonderful projects that they couldn't wait to show me, I hated it less.

And once I hated it less, I had the tools and became de-centered enough to help children to hate it less.  

Once I realized that the people who kept decrying “learning loss” have no longitudinal data to support any long-term harm (how could there be, we are still in it, after all), I hated it less.  What we are measuring as loss may not be what children really would have learned as a result of this experience anyway.  The gains may never be measured; one thing I've learning from teaching during COVID-19 is that data is meaningless unless we ask the right questions, and unfortunately I no longer trust that we know how to do that in education, there are too many private interests at stake.  Even when we do ask the right questions, we don't use the right answers.  I mean, if data ever meant anything, wouldn’t the data suggesting older children need more sleep or that children should not be in front of a screen for so many hours a day or that boredom is more than okay, it’s necessary, or that homeschooled children are better socialized than people think or that read-aloud is one of the best and most reliable things we can do to support academic achievement have come more into the forefront, especially now? This pandemic has been nothing but a daily opportunity to finally, actually use what we know about children and best practice.  We have had so, so many chances to reinvent education with the child at the center of it, and instead, too often, it was an embodiment of our mania for doing things the way they have always been done.  Failure is a condition of learning and growth.  We try to exorcise a fear of failure from our children so they will try new things but systemically we model that fear. 

And there’s the rub. Everything about teaching and learning that felt like it was “bad” or like a “loss”  or “failure” has been the result of trying to do things as they had always been done, as if there wasn’t a pandemic going on.  Every time I tried to keep up the pace and schedule and even the content as if we were in person, I floundered, I suffered, and so did the kids. 

There was no “powering through” this; in order to be successful, we would have to actually slow down. My students and I had to actually meet each other where we were.  I needed to really evaluate what was going on in the homes of the children I taught in a new and deeper way.  I really needed to revisit the virtue of patience as technology failed us again and again.  I really needed to teach step by step, paying extra careful attention that nobody fell through the cracks. I really needed to invent new units, revisit the curriculum, reinvent my whole methodology for presenting to a roomful…now a screenful…of children. I needed to make things more hands on, create new and more dynamic projects to engage them, and with that, new ways to assess them. I had to do things differently, the children have done things differently.  I’m a better teacher for it, the children have showed versatility.  And I daresay, if we are being perfectly honest, even after the best-case scenario in which we get the spread of the virus under control, if we give any credence to things like, oh, climate change, maybe deep down we believe we might have to do this again sometime in the decades to come…and next time, at least, we might know a little better how to do it.  Is that so bad?  Does that constitute “a loss”?  So many school mission statements include creating 21st century learners.  If this isn’t 21st century learning, what is?  

The pandemic is surely the cause of situational depression, stressful childcare crises, boredom and feelings of isolation to those families privileged not to have experienced the more enduring grief and trauma of job loss, home loss, illness or death.  But just like I had to discover as a teacher that what I was suffering was not always my fault as much as a void in receiving what I need to do better, so is it time for Americans to  translate their needs into policy. In the long run this may prove more effective than scapegoating and martyring the teachers whose job it is to deliver instruction, a role I have heard belittled too often these days, as if it is some little peripheral little thing and not what requires deep relationships to really work, the thing that empowers the skills that lead to opportunity, the thing with the ability to make so many of the shortcomings of childhood ephemeral.  America uses teachers and staff as babysitters, as mental health counselors, as caterers, as custodians, and then resents them when they ask to teach remotely for the health of themselves or their own families or suggest, as Alderwoman King of the 4th Ward in Chicago so bluntly put it, we don't want to "ride two horses with one ass." Teachers are not your enemy, nor are we your panacea. We may be a workforce comprised largely of women who are finally learning to say what we need…and some of what we need are boundaries. And, I might hazard to suggest, there's nothing wrong with your child being taught by someone who knows how to model saying no. 

Meanwhile.  Grown-ups: please.  Stop saying what a failure remote learning is within earshot of your children. Stop saying it will be over soon if you don’t know for sure; instead, focus on creating a cheerful and quiet space where children can work effectively so it won’t matter as much. Please appreciate that kids are not only socialized by other children; traditionally throughout history and certainly in times of extenuating circumstances, children were socialized by their own families, children did not spend so many hours at school, it's only our modern condition that makes us so much less practiced and makes it so scary. You have a role to play that can make or break your child's experience and impact everyone else's as well. Stop badmouthing your child’s teacher when you are frustrated; it creates a culture of disrespect that we will not be able to survive in or out of the building.  And please stop saying teachers need to get “back to work.” Not only is it fallacious and insulting and demoralizes the teacher, it undermines the work of your own child, the teacher’s true and symbiotic partner in this adventure.  

Remote learning can be done well with the proper mitigations at least as well as in-person learning can be done well with the proper mitigations, neither of which teachers in urban districts generally trust they will receive outside of their own volition, as evidenced by clashes…and precedent. If you have righteous indignation about kids not returning to in-person learning during a pandemic, maybe redirect it working toward accessible Wifi and equipment for all families, a school library and trained librarian in every school, hiring enough people to clean and fix filthy and rodent-infested buildings, effecting gun control legislation, addressing food insecurity and lack of affordable health care and child care and putting a stop to the funding of schools based on property taxes and thus breaching Brown v. Board every day...all of which have longer term implications on equity, achievement and health than a year of remote teaching and learning ever could.  

I am proud of my students and the way they have carried through this chapter of what will be history.  I am proud of their hard work and what they have accomplished, even while their internet connection dropped and reconnected repeatedly.  If I can’t see them in person, I try to embrace the now and look forward to seeing them on the screen at home and will support their academic growth as they are eating snacks and offering me cyber-bites, squeezing their pets for comfort, showing me their toys up close on the full screen, their younger siblings appearing in the frame now and then, their intermittent disappearances as they enjoy the novelty of going to the bathroom without the whole class in tow. I know these kids are adjusting and sometimes suffering, I know this situation is stressful and strange, I know they do not have all the resources they need for this to be optimal. But I also know there are some kids who were socially awkward or anxious, who were distracted by social drama, bullying or neighborhood terrors, kids who needed to have more physicality than sitting at a desk all day, kids who needed more time with and attention from their families and they are shining in this moment. I love teaching students to make scrambled eggs, do stop-action animation, use the public library’s collection of thousands of digital books, meet a surprise online guest author, things we might not have done if school were being held in person. It’s not the same, of course, and maybe/probably our egg-scrambling skills won't show up on the test, but I don’t feel like we’re losing.  We’re just doing something differently, in our schools, in America, in the world, at a time when we need to be doing more things differently in all of these places.  

That looks a lot like success to me. 


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