In Support of My Colleagues

A wonderful teacher friend is the latest to share exhaustion, frustration and confusion about teaching at this time. Since this site is for teachers, and I have been asked to share my response to her, I will post it here.

I won’t be offended if you disagree with me. Everyone is in a different situation and looks at teaching in a different way.

What many teachers are feeling is this: Students are frustrated, or not even checking in. Parents are frustrated because students are doing these things. Administrators are frustrated because parents are contacting them. Teachers are being asked to take responsibility for everything and to fix everything. The following is in response to that. I am sure, having worked with many administrators as a teacher and as a consultant, that administration IS frustrated with fielding the influx of complaints, but we need to find a better way to address our challenges.

This “blaming down the chain” helps no one. I’d love to see admins call 300 students individually and see why they aren’t turning in work. Really talk to them and find out what the issue is…..not assume that it is something that either teachers are doing wrong or that teachers should be the ones to fix the situation.

And yes, if I am responsible for 100ish students, calling 300 and getting their feedback is an acceptable expectation. I’m not saying that admins can solve it alone. There is not simply one solution, but just handing it to teachers is unprofessional. Expecting to a. locate the problems and b. fix the problems in the first two months of school is also unrealistic. The biggest issue here is the expectations we have created with schools.

Expectations like: National standardized tests are important and have meaning (no) Education is about memorizing facts and answering MC questions. (no) Administrators have the skills to be the PR voice of the school AND the supervisor of teachers. (no) Schools can fix everything. (no) All families have the time and ability to handle all of their children’s educational needs at home. (no)

Teachers can address the educational, cognitive (they are different), social, emotional and physiological needs of 25+ students at the very same time. (hard no) Teachers can address the needs of up to 250 students if they teach some subjects. (harder no) Teachers can understand the needs of all of those families and adapt to them in their teaching. (still no) Teachers not only have the content area knowledge needed, but also the humanitarian skills, crowd management, nursing and custodial skills during a pandemic. (seriously, no) Above all, the expectation that teachers ALSO have the technological information, experience and skills AND hardware/software to adapt ALL of their teaching to that format. (impossible) And here is my new favorite: Teachers also should be finding ways to adapt sports and clubs to these new conditions so that students and parents don’t feel they are missing out on anything. (Um, definitely no.)

Above all, teachers are the ones who need to feel guilty for not being able to take care of the issues of everyone above (students, parents and administrators) because ultimately, that is who they look to for solutions. (NOT SORRY, but no.)

Over the past 50+ years this has emerged as the pattern and it is way past time to change it. But education is a busy “business” and change is never easy in an institutional setting.

Now change is not an option. That much is clear. We, the education folks, have had to change. It’s not going to be about how MUCH we change, it is going to be about how WELL.

I think that it is time to look at what that could mean. I have no answers. I am neck-deep in it with all of you. We are not building the plane as we fly it. We have to redesign it and keep it flying until it flies better. We don’t get new parts. We don’t get new blueprints. We don’t get experts who have done this before. And we get not only the original passengers, but the passengers families on board as well. It’s almost as if each passenger on board needs a life-sustaining surgery and we have to do that at the same time.

Or at least that is how it feels.

So for now…..I think we need to practice a new kind of self-evaluation. Keeping the passengers joyfully happy is not on the list. Keeping them alive as best we can is. Keeping the crew alive is now on the list. In fact, as uncomfortable as we are with that….that is now the prime objective.

No crew, no flight. No flight, no passengers. Dear administrators, please take note.

We also have to stop lying to the passengers and their families. Folks, we are not here to “keep school going during the pandemic.” We are not here to maintain the same pre-pandemic standards. (which may have not been all that ideal to begin with.)

We are here to connect with students and families as our entire society takes stock in a new way to live. That is NOT going to look like school for the last 50 years. It is also not going to look like school last spring.

Now maybe, in a year, “life” will be back to “normal.” I doubt it. Too much has already changed. But if it somehow is, we will still need these new skills and approaches for when the world changes again. Because it will. We cannot live in a world that updates its technology every 3 months and not change.

In the past, parents went to work and could put their children out of their minds for 8-10 hours in order to be “productive.” They cannot do that any longer.

During that time schools organized the children’s day, from food to instruction, from play to rest. Schools cannot do that, for all students, anymore.

Teachers know that parents will have to take a new role. But we cannot tell parents what to do. Parents are often stuck between an employer who expects the same level of “productivity” and the new type and amount of time they must spend with their children. They cannot always change their employers. (in any sense of the word change.)

So what CAN we do? We can start to be honest. We can keep telling administrators that new expectations are needed. We can stop trying to fly the plane, do surgery and keep everyone blissfully happy.

We can tell ourselves, and each other, to take care of the crew first. We can measure our success with a different instrument. Did we attempt to connect today? Did we speak to students as people today? Did we look at what we asked students to hear/read from their perspective? Without comparing it to what students did last year or “should” be able to do? Did we ask for a response (not just expect it)? Did we acknowledge and honor the responses we received? (not just the speed and/or accuracy of them)

The very bottom line is this: Students who come to school are, at the very least, a captive audience. Students who only have to check in online (synchronously or asynchronously) are not. Because we don’t have any way of making sure that they are, we are exhausted from flying a plane, and redesigning it, for invisible passengers. It feels useless and demoralizing.

So any time that we can actually connect with even one student, we remind ourselves that the plane we are working so hard on is not empty. So take note, some kids are there….and let them bring you joy. Don’t let the ones who haven’t used their ticket yet to determine your personal feeling of success. We can remind ourselves that the children that we teach are the reason that we teach, not the content, not the students’ compliability, not their homework grades nor their test scores. We can work with each other to give meaningful information and provide meaningful activities. We are no longer in the business of controlling the hours in our students’ lives….only enriching the minutes that we get. We can remember that parents and students will use technology when it is available to them, and forgive them when it is outside of our working hours. We can remember to only read and respond during our working hours.

Parents can remind their children, and fellow parents, that teachers are trying and that they care. That they care about the students more than they care about the content material, the number of papers filled in, or the scores on tests. They can recognize great lessons with support, interest and thanks. They can contact us with questions because they care and they can come to realize that many teachers too are parents, and are juggling the very same types of situations.

Administrators can use their position of power to communicate to parents that the children are the number one priority so they will also be strongly supporting teachers. Demoralized teachers cannot do the best possible job for students. Administrators can encourage teachers to find the most important sections of content and help them to find ways to deliver it by giving them time to do so. (Two days is not enough time.) They can read about how long good change takes and practice patience. They can communicate with local employers to search for ways to support families in this new reality.

And students?

Well, you see, we as a society have created the young people we have. We have shown them that winning is more important than growing. We have taught them that who you are is less important than what you “get done.” We have encouraged them over and over again that the most important thing schools are looking for is compliance. Or the appearance of compliance.

Is it any wonder that that they have invented all kinds of ways to not do things?

On one hand, they are a generation of kids who have learned to use technology to find out information that they want/need and to avoid doing things they don’t.

On the other hand, they are a generation of kids who dislikes hypocrisy in adults and craves connection with others……even if they don’t know how to pull it off.

What they have learned is how to control whatever they can. And this moment, right now, is under their control. It shouldn’t be. Even they know that. But things aren’t good, they don’t like it, and if the only way they can get any control in life is to purposely NOT show up for class, they will. Even if it seems illogical.

They feel alone. They feel closed in. They have too little structure and too many demands. They have too many expectations to meet and too few skills to manage it all.

That is where we can be of help. We can keep trying to connect in a positive way….and not give up. We can open doors to communication…even if they don’t walk through them right away. We can provide structure and support, even if we feel like they shouldn’t need it. We can adapt our expectations and use our time with them to build skills rather than pour out information.

We can let them, and ourselves, and our parents, and our administrators know that this is a unique and precious time. There are blessings here that we have barely touched on because we have been smothered in dissappointments. We can keep supporting each other by sharing any blessings that we experience, and notice.

Look back on any time, anywhere, in history when life (personally or globally) did not progress “normally”. Do people who lived through it lament about how many hours they did or did not do homework, fill out forms, memorize structures or take tests? No. Not ever. Nor should we now. We can do great things that matter. We already are. Let’s focus on that.

with love,