I had hoped that, by now – July 2020 – we would be in a different place. I had hoped that, seeing the relative success of “flattening the curve” and social distancing from April and early May, we would have a better handle on how to live while waiting for a vaccine or reliable treatment for COVID-19. We needed to have a handle on all this as the fall semester looms large at summer’s end. As each day goes by, it often feels like any hope we have had for a full resumption of normalcy is fading fast.
The more I reflect on this time in our history, the more I wonder if getting back to “normal” is really what we should strive to do. The last month has shown us that “normal” for some is oppression for others. We are reminded that inequities in the systems and in ourselves erode the very goals we as teachers strive to achieve. For as long as I’ve been a teacher (since late last century), I have heard calls to change from the “industrial age” school model to one that feels more modern. I’ve heard calls to change everything from the way academic years are structured to how classrooms are managed to how curriculum is developed. As I think about what I would want for my children – a first-year college student and a rising fourth grader – I want a new normal for schooling, one that may upend some cherished traditions but that might just, in the end, help my children see equity in a system that often promises more than it delivers. Here are some ways I’d like to see schooling change as a result of our modern and difficult times:
Learning is the constant, but time is variable. Learning and time don’t always go in sync. Some people learn some things very quickly. Others take longer. Usually, the speed at which learning happens differs within the person. For instance, a person who might learn a language quickly might take longer to learn how to play an instrument. Someone decided at some point that learning calculus in high school should take an academic term (anywhere from 6 weeks to nine months). Someone else decided that earning a degree in calculus should take four years.
Many teaching practices are designed to manipulate this learning-time dynamic to make learning happen within the time limit. We make students sit through an entire course to earn credits even if they can demonstrate already acquired knowledge. We give extra time and offer incompletes (which must be changed by a certain time) to help students who need more time to learn. What if these time factors – length of academic terms, scheduling of the school day/week, when learning assessments occur – could be more flexible? What if the learning was the main goal instead of completing things “on time?”
At no time in educational history have we had available the technological tools needed to reach students when they are not right in front of us. We can communicate and interact with students virtually like never before. How can we capitalize on this to be able to make learning the focus? How can we reclaim time for ourselves and our students by being flexible about it? I’d like to see more schools consider how to rethink daily and term schedules that allow for flexibility with time without sacrificing – and in fact, encouraging – learning.
This type of change, though, would require our general culture to get on board. Our school day and week are based on when parents need childcare to work most jobs. The timeline for finishing the associate’s or bachelor’s degree is based on when we believe people should be living and working on their own as adults. There is little, if any, good exploration of whether an 8am-3pm, Monday through Friday schedule is ideal for learning with children. And, as we’ve seen with this season of COVID-19, I would argue that there is little real evidence that work must be done on a 9am-5pm, Monday through Friday schedule, either. As we consider reopening schools this fall, why can’t we explore how a more fluid school schedule can help students learn better? We know distributed practice is better. We know that cognitive load is important to consider. We know playtime/free time for students contributes to greater social-emotional learning. Could we adapt to a school schedule that allows for more flexibility of when learning happens? COVID-19 is giving us an opportunity to give it a try in a way that might just save lives in the process.
Inclusive teaching must be the norm, not the exception. If we can adopt the idea that learning should be the focus, not time, then why would anyone NOT try to make teaching inclusive? Inclusive teaching centers on making sure students feel welcome to learn. By providing structure, checking our biases, and meeting students where they are, we can remove so many barriers to learning, and the results will likely amaze us. Students aren’t coming to us from a cookie-cutter factory model of learning. They bring an amazingly complex dynamic of personal and societal variables along with them, making it the ultimate exciting challenge to figure out how to help that students learn best. For most students, turning the learning light on isn’t difficult. It may take learning to pronounce their name correctly or explaining a procedure again patiently. It may take believing their story of hardship, even if it seems incredible. Or it may take not asking them to explain at all, but giving help anyway.
COVID-19 is affecting all of us in ways we only imagined before. How many times during this time have we felt the need to apologize for interruptions by our children or our pets or our roommates or partners during our Zoom calls? Do we blur our backgrounds or turn the books on our shelves around to avoid people’s curiosity (at best) or critiquing (at worst) our lived experiences? We hope our work colleagues will understand when we can’t meet a deadline during COVID or have an errant cat show affection during a video call. Let’s learn from COVID that inclusive teaching allows us to have that understanding for our students.
The power of education must extend beyond our classroom doors. I became a teacher because I wanted to “pay it forward.” I grew up in poverty (although I credit my parents for making our home feel richer than it was), and my educational attainment has allowed me the provide my family the financially comfortable life I didn’t have then. Because of my experiences, I have long been a champion for the power of education for my students. Yet, I realize that the level playing field I work daily to build isn’t guaranteed beyond my classroom door. BIPOC students, students with disabilities, students without documentation, students who speak other languages better than English, students from poverty, LGBTQIA students, etc., could be as educated as I am but are not given respect, deference, justice, or even life in the world.
We cannot continue to sell students on a dream. If we want to see the promise of education fulfilled, we need to work in our own communities to be sure that students can realize the promise. They must not be denied housing or loans or jobs or access. They must be treated fairly and equitably. We must work to make space for our students in the world and not just in our classrooms. We must fight for systems and procedures that bring equity, not just hope for it. We must look at results and data and be willing to see when and why things aren’t working – and then change them. We must speak up. We should also be willing to step aside and make space. Our advocacy for students must extend to the world in which we all share together if we are ever to see the dream we are giving students realized.
We can be the change we need right now. You might not have any control or say over what your institution decides about school and work in the fall. The lack of voice and choice in the larger scope of things will be frustrating and frightening in this time where these issues can have life-or-death consequences. I hope that your principal or provost is considering how to keep people safe.
As you wait to find out, consider using some of these resources to help as you plan for whatever the fall may hold:
I had wished that, by now, we would’ve been able to see the end of this COVID-19 tunnel. I had wished that we could see each other at the APA Convention in Washington, but thanks to Missy Beers (our APA Convention Chair) and Jamie McMinn (our outgoing APA Convention Chair), we have a lineup of great virtual speakers . My presidential “hour” will be a Zoom panel discussion with five BIPOC STP members discussing their work and how we can build a more inclusive STP moving forward. Thanks in advance to EC VPs Meera Komarraju and Kelley Haynes-Mendez ; Diversity chair Teceta Tormala ; Membership Chair Rita Obeid ; and Diversity committee member Dina Gohar for serving on this panel and sharing their work.
I had wished that it would’ve been possible for us to hold our Annual Conference on Teaching (ACT) in person in Pittsburgh in October. Unfortunately, we aren’t seeing the end yet, and we can’t gather in person in October. I’m proud of Jordan Triosi (our ACT Director) and Lindsay Masland (our incoming ACT Director) who have worked hard to come up with a new plan for a virtual ACT that will be available FOR FREE to all members of STP. I look forward to this opportunity, and I look even more forward to seeing you all in person again when we can be safe together.
Wear a mask. Keep your physical distance. Look out for each other.
2020 STP President