Lessons Learned from the Pandemic: The Schools we Need

(Education Part II)

What have we learned during the Pandemic and from Distance Learning? That learning has been so compressed and intense in a single year. But also, what have I learned from the distance of time and age?

First, as I wrote in my Education Part I blog post, we have learned how important our schools are to our country, to US families. That feels really good to an educator like me. Huge accolades to kids, teachers, administrators, and parents. You acted quickly and were flexible. You used much of the old system, but taught and learned in a whole new way.

And believe me I see how strange and frustrating that must have been. I have glimpses of the daily challenges of distance learning as I continue my volunteer English teaching in Latin America but via Zoom. At times I would like to crawl into the screen to make eye contact, touch a shoulder, let alone move around a room of learners gathered together.

What is worth worrying about? What’s not?

Many are arguing of the importance of getting kids back in schools, for a combination of worthy reasons. But some are of much more concern to me than others.

What’s worth worrying about?
For sure anything that makes more inequity for students with special needs, English Language Learners (ELLs), young people of color, families in remote areas, and those living with poverty and hunger. That’s worth worrying about. Diminished expectations and opportunities have historically plagued them. And now that truth is both worse — and more apparent to all of us.

And perhaps scariest is knowing of students who are not just struggling, or getting behind, but are simply not “in school.” Missing. Thinking about how to rectify this, that’s worth worrying about — a lot.

The socialization and mental health of our kids, that’s definitely worth worrying about. Trouble engaging and focusing. Pressure over online attendance, missing assignments, poor grades. Stress. Anxiety. Loneliness. Depression. Inability to understand the material without a teacher present. Fear of going back to school after being safe at home.

BUT let’s not work so hard to quantify time lost in academic content and skill development or, god help us, projections of lost earning power. Let’s simply concede that, of course, this has been very, very hard on kids and families. But it’s not about 3 months behind in reading, or 4 months in math, a year of academic progress, or lifetime earnings. That’s not worth worrying about. It’s just not.

We can overcome all that easily with the right priorities in mind.  Keep reading, keep writing, keep building relationships, those skills we work on our entire lives — we can’t go wrong with that. But if the problem we identify is reduced to numbers, we will have lost a tremendous opportunity to be better than before, to change the right things.

Learning never ends, lessons learned from the Pandemic
Josef Albers in America: Painting on Paper “Color Study for Homage to the Square,” at the Morgan.Credit…Werner J. Hannappel, The Josef Albers Museum Quadrat Bottrop found via The New York Times

Why is this an opportunity for change?

But why do we need to change? Can’t we just take a big breath, a sigh of relief and go back to normal school? For sure we are hungry for much that is normal in-person school.  But like my youngest grandchild said, “I have been changed by the Pandemic.” I think we all have. Those children impacted by the pandemic are the ones reentering schools and growing up marked by history as generations were marked by the Depression, World War II, 911. We probably won’t know for years what that will mean for both harm and resilience. But we know we can’t be just exactly the same as we were in order to serve them properly.

And not only have individual students changed, but we have seen the deep divisions and inequities of groups in our country, exposed with greater clarity by the pandemic and its resulting economic and educational challenges. We cannot unsee this.

We can’t ignore the realities of this time. Surely we can’t need stronger messages than these. Hate. More killings of young men at the hands of police. Black Lives Matter and Say her Name worldwide. Repeated calls for dismantling historic racism. Mass shootings, too often in schools. Relentless climate change. Repudiation of science and logic and humanity by too many.

Our children need an education that is a match for these times. Sure, they are just kids, teenagers, needing friends and fun. But they also live in this world; they will inherit it and be responsible for its future health. Sometimes they are innocent victims of the times. Sometimes they show the most courage and leadership in facing these issues. At a minimum, they are young citizens. The education we provide can aid them going forward.

Since I became a teacher in the late 60’s, we have studied methods, tried strategies, rejected some approaches, advanced our practice, never fully realizing our potential as a system. This unique time offers us a tremendous opportunity to rethink, reimagine, rebuild. We don’t get very many such opportunities when awareness and concern are so high. And I am personally haunted by some of the recommendations made over those 50 years that we did not follow but are so clearly needed now.

Some things can change the minute we reopen our doors and others will take more consideration and time for implementation. Let’s go back to school with the right priorities in mind while we buy some time for needed change.

Top priority, health and safety.

Top priority, recognizing the changes in our kids–so emphasizing welcome, encouragement, connection with peers; promoting a sense of protection, confidence, self-esteem, and commitment to school. As we move from remote learning to hybrid models to full in-person school and even to summer programs, we must always put the child before a concern about “being behind.” Well intended programs to fill in academic losses will be meaningless if a young person is feeling scared, uncertain, overwhelmed, hopeless.

What do we need?

Clearly somethings are terribly wrong in our society when the very heart of education, respect for the mind and for studying to learn, can be so disparaged and disrespected, when ignorance is promoted. Education has not made a positive impact for some, and yet I still believe is our greatest hope for societal change.

What do we need going forward?

We need Readers. Writers. Thinkers. Listeners. Debaters. Library users. Helpers. Truth seekers. We need folks who think about others, try to do what is right, who take responsibility, who work with others to analyze and solve problems – who can try to sort through what is complex, even chaotic.

What have I learned that might help us now?

I think of myself first as an English teacher and a principal. That is who I am. I studied to be a teacher in the 60’s and have experienced two national school reform movements. I learned that the classroom and the school are everything, but that big ideas and huge national aspirations can also affect those smaller, important places.

I have also been incredibly fortunate to have been in a rare mix of settings as an educator. Those experiences have informed my perspective about what is possible. One of the earliest and most influential of these settings was working in Crescent Valley High School in Corvallis, a carefully designed high school that included open space learning, team teaching, shared teacher-administrator leadership, and division of all of us into smaller House and Advisory groups. As a “baby teacher” I learned that I could help create a whole school environment and not just my classroom. I learned the power of a long-term commitment to a group of advisees and the magic of team teaching with a respected colleague.

Then during graduate school, I got to work in research, including conducting a state study on dropouts in Oregon which we ended up calling the Early School Leaver study. We had found that many students who quit school were often back in another educational opportunity pretty quickly. I also taught much later in a vocational college with many young adults who had not necessarily liked or been successful in school but were ready to change their lives. In both of these roles, I learned that past school struggles do not have to mean the end of education.

My first year of teaching in LA City Schools and my years at Portland State University, an urban university, helped me understand the special challenges and energy of cities. In counterpoint, part of my experience training potential principals, took me to remote parts of Eastern Oregon where education must be delivered differently.

But most distinctive in my career have been three unique experiences that inspired me and for which I will forever be grateful. Each of the three has been national or international in perspective and each has intentionally sought diversity of participants.

The first incredible experience was as an Educational Policy Fellow in Washington, DC with the Institute for Educational Leadership (IEL). I was assigned to the staff of the National Commission on Excellence in Education. Our job was to support the Cabinet-level Commission members with their study of US education both across the nation and in comparison with other countries. I was fortunate to be asked to stay beyond my year of fellowship so was able to participate in the full life of the Commission: commissioned papers from experts, hearings across the country, staff and Commission meetings, myself focusing a lot of on issues of language and literacy.  At the end of that time, the Commission released its report A Nation at Risk which sparked a national conversation about education. This was the main intention of the Commission during a time that the Reagan administration was espousing the view that there is no Federal role for education, teaching me about the impact of national attention on the importance of education. 

The second remarkable experience was a summer at the Harvard Principal’s Center. I have said so many times that I “lived off” what I learned there for years, the readings and presentations by a Who’s Who of researchers, writers, and thinkers on education were so thought-provoking and ahead of what we were doing at the time. Then there was the small writing and discussion group of other principals from around the country. I learned so much about change and culture and for the second time, about the motivation to improve schools that comes from perspectives beyond my own. 

In my retirement, the lens has become even wider, from national to international. I had three retirement dreams: to write children’s picture books, to travel to a series of Latin American countries, and to work on my Spanish. It was such luck that I had shared my dreams with a colleague at Lewis & Clark College who offered me momentum toward those dreams. I oversaw a Federal grant to prepare mainstream teachers to serve the growing numbers of ELLs in the Portland area. I asked to participate in the teacher training for an ESL endorsement right along with participating teachers from the 15 urban/suburban schools selected for grant participation.

Those dreams advanced even more when I was pointed toward Partners of the Americas, created under JFK at the same time as the Peace Corps. I shared my interest right at the moment Oregon Partners were considering answering requests to teach English in Costa Rica. I have now visited eight times, coordinating expanding programs to send interested Oregonians to aid in Costa Rica’s admirable commitment to bilingualism. And that led to other work focusing on English teaching in Latin America, in Colombia, Panamá, and the Dominican Republic. I learned of the importance of making a campaign visible and prominent by a country’s political leaders and ministry officials. And I see how the same effort can not only achieve national ends but also the way out of poverty for individual young people and their families

Finally, I not only have ongoing experiences with ELLs but both professional and personal experience with supporting students with special needs. I was principal for a school identified to include children with needs beyond those normally served in a neighborhood school. And more personally, I adopted a child at eight who was identified with learning disabilities and later fought through those challenges along with traumatic brain injury after a car accident as a teenager. Just in the last year, I have tried to be Nana-helping-my-grandkids through their year of distance learning, all smart and interesting as can be but two with attention and autism challenges exacerbating issues with learning remotely.

What do I recommend?

It was at this point that I planned to make three recommendations for our schools going forward — Who should work with our children, What students should learn, and How student performance should be assessed. And I wanted to post this Blog in time for Earth Day 2021.

But what a day yesterday was, with a verdict in the George Floyd case. Like so many, I was stunned that a verdict had been reached already, then waited in fear and hope, then felt both celebratory and sad.

I need more time. I can’t think clearly right now, only feel. How does this symbolic moment move us forward? What might it mean? For sure, education and children are still central. Commentators after the verdict over and over spoke of relief and hope but of the work that faces us. I want to think more about my small part in that future work, making recommendations for an educational system that can either perpetuate or liberate. As a result, I will now write a third Blog on education for May Day.

I chose some time ago to share this Blog on Earth Day 2021. I was a teacher of middle schoolers on our first Earth Day and remember the thrill my class felt when we received a reply on Congressional stationery to a letter we had written about the creation of this special day. Over 50 years later, its importance has only grown. Amanda Gorman expressed that in her poem Earthrise written two years ago for Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project:

The time is

Everything is tied together as I tried to communicate with my first children’s picture book We Share our World/Compartimos el Mundo inspired in part by the Trayvon Martin case. On this planet that Gorman calls “earth, a pale blue dot” we need both to save our beautiful natural world and to be more caring with one another.

And we will need a strong educational system to achieve those two ends. I remembered a poster from my time as a Policy Fellow in Washington, DC. It memorialized the creation of the US Dept. of Education just a year or so before.  I share it here as the message is so appropriate for our significant challenges and opportunities now. Learning Never Ends.

Blog post coming May 1:

The Schools we Need (Education Part III)