Teaching and Covid

Teaching and learning are social endeavours. You can’t teach without others. And, it is also very difficult to learn without others. For many, myself included, changes brought be COVID 19 have completely upended the way that teaching and learning function. But I think it is important to realize the ways beyond the obvious that both have been altered. I have been teaching for over 18 years. And, for each of those years the experience was always similar and familiar. The content that I taught changed and the methods and strategies that I employed changed greatly but rarely if ever was the simple structure of me being with my students in a room for 180 days ever altered. That is, until March of 2020 when almost everything with school and life in general was upended. My own school attempted to get back to “normal” in the Fall of 2020 but, as we know by now, nothing has the ability to be normal in 2020 and we are currently stuck in some awful place between what school was and what school could become. And I may write later about why this is and how it could be changed and improved, but for today, I want to focus on how this upheaval to education has impacted me personally and potentially millions of teachers across the country.

A few weeks ago, I believe out of sheer necessity, the school district where I worked transitioned to a fully remote education model. For the first time ever I have come into my classroom each day and I see nobody. I see no other students. I see no other teachers unless I deliver myself to their classrooms which I am most often afraid to do because the transmission rate of COVID 19 is currently at alarming levels in my area. I see no administrators. I come to school each day and I sit in a box. I have tried very hard to deliver the content of my courses, which I have altered almost completely due to the necessities of transitioning to a hands-on-content to a virtual environment. I have made videos of myself. I have hosted live Microsoft Teams meetings (which is like zoom but school-district approved or something) that some students have found their way into. I have tried to give very structured and graded assignments. I have tried to give very free and optional assignments. I have emailed students and parents. I have called students and parents. And still, despite all of these things, I have failed in my attempt to connect with my students.

So here I sit in my brick box that was built to house a teacher like me and students who are currently at home. And I’m alone. People who don’t teach probably don’t understand how I feel right now. And, maybe even some people who do teach don’t understand how I feel right now. But all of those students who I have tried very hard to help for 18 years are out there somewhere right now and I can’t reach them. Maybe I can’t even reach myself because I am trying very hard to make this new school work for my students and for me. But the truth is that it is not working. It is definitely not working for me because it isn’t working for them. There are solutions to these problems because there are solutions to every problem, but those solutions won’t change how I feel today. Today I am disconnected from my students, my colleagues, my administrators, and maybe part of society.

So I will try to do better in connecting with that world that used to exist for me and one that will hopefully come again. I think the best thing to do right now for me, and probably for a lot of teachers, is I am going to focus on myself and trying to find ways that I can stay healthy and happy as I also search for ways to help my students. And maybe our students need to do that to. As I stated at the beginning of this, learning is a social process. But learning is also very personal. Students must find it within themselves to take responsibility for their own learning and their own lives and navigate through this difficult time . The major difference here is that for the first time for them, they do not have teachers in front of them daily helping them to do that. I will continue to search for solutions and work on my own journey to becoming a quality post-Covid 19 teacher, but today, and think I’m a far way away from what that is.

What’s Next?

I was a senior in high school in 1999 when the Columbine shooting happened.  I remember coming home from school and watching the news coverage with my family.  We sat and watched for hours as details of the horrific events were revealed in real time.  But as horrible as that day was in Colorado almost 20 years ago, it would have been hard to imagine that it was only a type of jumping-off point for mass shootings that would continue through the present.

In the nearly 20 years since the Columbine tragedy, a great deal has changed for me personally and for the country.  I am no longer a nieve high school senior eagerly anticipating entering college to prepare for a career in sports medicine.  Somewhere along the way I grew up, decided I would become a teacher, and have been attempting to educate students for nearly 15 years.  And sadly, the United States is no longer a nation where a school shooting that claims the lives of multiple students and teachers is shocking.  I’ve heard some say this is the new normal, the new reality in which we as a nation are forced to live.  I’m sorry but I don’t want my reality, my normal, to be a place where I have to wonder if my school, my students, or my friends will be the next victims of a purely senseless act of carnage.

The most important job of any school is to protect the students it serves.  I believe that for the most part, schools do an adequate job of providing this protection.  But over the past few days, it has become quite apparent to me that our nation is failing to protect the lives of young people.  There is plenty of blame to assign, but the one place that blame should never go is to the students who are now attempting to stand up and draw attention to an issue that the adults in their lives have refused to confront.

We will only solve the issue of gun violence in this country when we are able to admit that guns are the problem.  The statistics are clear and I need not list them here.  America has a gun problem.  America has a problem with a minority of people who want to cling to those guns and convince others it is their God-given right to own a machine that was designed for war and has the potential to mow down hallways full of innocent children in a matter of seconds.

Since the shooting in Florida occurred last week, I have been having a difficult time going to school.  Never before has a school shooting affected me to the point where I felt differently about doing my job until this most recent event.  Perhaps this is because I now have two young children who, with my wife, eagerly await my arrival each day after I return home from school.  But I believe it is more than that.  Schools and the country are moving so far away from the ideals that I value and I am saddened by that.

I am saddened that I live in a country controlled by people who cite the sanctity of life in controlling a woman’s right to have an abortion while at the same time demanding that nobody’s right to own a machine designed to take multiple lives quickly be infringed upon.  I am saddened that I live in a country where one has to be 21 years old to buy a can of beer but can buy a war machine at 18.  I cannot understand why a 16-year-old has to go through a 6 month waiting period and pass multiple tests to drive a car but can instantly receive a license to own and fire an AR-15.

Tonight I listened to the president of the United States discuss how arming teachers may be the solution to the epidemic of mass shootings in schools.  Many will agree with this position, and I would assume it has a good chance of becoming a reality shortly.  But like I previously stated, the nation and schools are moving further and further away from my personal convictions.  Schools should have No guns.  Teachers should have No guns.  Children should have No guns.  Nobody should be permitted to own a device designed with the intention of killing massive amounts of people.

This is a sad time to be a teacher and an American.  The best interests of millions of children are held hostage by the NRA, fearful politicians, and those who are too afraid to live without the protection of firepower designed for war.  If arming teachers is the answer to mass shootings in schools, I should not be a teacher.  I am confident that most know that gun control is the solution to this epidemic and can only hope that the majority of people in this country will someday come to this realization.  Until then I will remain sad that I have to go to a school where children are afraid and the adults they trust are also too afraid to take the right steps necessary to protect them.

A Fresh Start

I started this blog with the idea of being able to imagine what school can become.  And while I still believe in the absolutely great potential power within public education, I’m not sure that some of the ideas I have discussed  will come to fruition soon enough for me or even my children to benefit from them.

The simple fact is that the machine that is public education is large and slow.  And we know that public education does a fairly good job of doing what it was designed to do.  But at this point in time we as a people need so much more from our educational system than it currently delivers.  I see no signs that anything will take place in the foreseeable future to bring about the type of change that is really needed.

I’m sure that some could debate these points but I’m truly not interested in such a debate at this point.  My current vision is to begin to work outside of the public education system to bring about the quick, dramatic, and meaningful change that it is unable to produce.

Public education has not failed.  It is simply not able to do the types of things that the youth of today need it to do to adequately handle the challenges of tomorrow.  But I don’t believe the answer to the problems found within public education is to tear it down and start over.  There are too many good people doing too much good work already to do that.  I love public education and the ideals it should represent.

My charge is then for anyone passionate about bringing real and meaningful change to the lives of young people through the power of education to begin to explore those channels outside the traditional public education system in order to do so.  In my vision passionate educators who choose to view the potential of an adaptable educational model will create their own programs that exist in addition to the system that is already in place.  These programs will not displace but rather supplement.  Perhaps through such a system real change can occur that may someday be adopted by the system that currently seems so unwilling or unable to actually change.

My plan is to very soon begin such a program that will supplement the current education system in my community in attempt to produce some of the important change that I believe needs to occur.  I will try to document those efforts here so that anyone who is interested in also bringing about their own change may feel inspired to do so.

Big Business

I’ve been thinking recently about the responsibility of schools to provide students with the skills and abilities necessary to fill jobs.  A common refrain for some time seems to be that schools need to do a better job of preparing students to be employable upon graduation.  A quick google search would reveal that there seems to be a shortage of skilled workers in a rapidly changing job market.  But it’s important to note that most of these jobs are in the industrial sector.  And it’s also important to note that when these job shortages are listed, starting salaries are rarely attached to them.

When thinking about the perception that education has failed this ever-changing job market, we should consider how more stable professions use the education system to prepare their employees.   Students who desire to become lawyers do not enter the profession directly out of high school.  They first receive an undergraduate degree and then attend additional specific training in law school to prepare them for the career.  The same is true for countless other professions.  There is no shortage of students willing to attend medical or law schools.  And any candidate wishing to do so has most likely been educated in the same public education system that has supposedly failed in preparing students for employment in other sectors.

I wonder then why the perception is that for certain professions, most in the stem fields and most involving rapidly changing technologies, employers desire individuals who are trained and ready upon graduation from high school.  I suspect this perceived difference between the training required for many professions and those with suspected shortages has more to do with salary and job quality and less to do with the failure of an educational system.


Technology and Learning or Learning Technology

There is and has been a huge push in education for some time to integrate new technologies into schools. An estimate from 2012 cited spending on technology for  K-12 education in the United States at 56 Billion dollars per-year or $400 per student. The dangerous question to ask when considering that 56 Billion dollar price tag is if students in general have benefited in terms of learning through this spending. Has student learning improved as the result of technology integration?  Scores on national levels of student assessments would indicate that technology has done little to improve overall student learning. I would choose to look past these scores as I believe student learning must be measured by more than standardized tests. However, I feel there is a distinct disconnect between the power that technology affords in improving student opportunities and what takes place in the typical public school classroom.

Technology is rapidly changing the way the world works and people live but schools have failed to adapt to those changes. Every teacher in most schools has a computer. But for many, those computers are simply an electronic record keeper and word processor. Students have been given wonderful technological devices with the power to not only grant access to the world’s knowledge but also to create new information and understanding.  Most students are asked to read electronic forms of books or word process essays with this technology that just seems like a tremendous waist of money, time, and potential.

The problem with finding the correct application of technology in school is a disconnect between what students need and what schools desire. Schools, which are forced in many cases to align curriculum to state and national standards, still essentially desire the same products from students that they did 100 years ago. The only thing that has changed are the addition of expensive tools to create those same products. Efficiency may have improved but the fundamental function of what schools require of and deliver to students has not. What is needed is a shift in focus on what the purpose of technology is in education. Schools must stop thinking of technology as a tool for performing tasks more efficiently and instead attempt to realize the ways that teaching and learning can be revolutionized by doing things newly and differently.

The power of the progress of all human history is at our fingertips to fundamentally change and improve the way students think and learn. But for the most part that power goes unrealized, limited by politicians focused on scores on an algebra I test, superintendents who only understand technology in terms of sending and receiving emails, and teachers who struggle to incorporate any aspect of technology into a lesson plan to remain proficient. I’m not sure our current public education system is structured in a way to adapt to the needs of the 21st century learner and what should be the 21st century teacher. I believe in the potential power of public education but I also hope for a time when innovative, enthusiastic, and creative educators are able to harness the power that has been placed at their fingertips and prepare students to succeed in an uncertain and ever-evolving present and future.

Preparing Students for…

I wish that everyone could stop thinking of school as a means of preparing individuals for the workforce.  That would probably be a radical statement for most to read and I’m sure one that would garner a great deal of criticism.  The historical roots of public education in America point us toward the fact that the purpose of school is to assimilate students to the culture of the country so that they can become viable contributors to the economy.  But if this is really the purpose of school then why don’t we end the charade and label students for particular jobs at an early age and then simply train them for those positions throughout their school career? If someone seems as though they will be a good accountant, teach them to be an accountant throughout high school and upon graduation they will be prepared to be an accountant. I believe we don’t do this  because we want to believe education can do so much more than prepare an individual to make money for someone else. But what is it that we dream our educational system has the potential to do if it is more than prepare a workforce to drive the economy? If we allow the conversation to stop at preparing students to be good workers we will never know.

But what if instead of focusing on transforming students into good little workers of the future, education set its sights on preparing individuals to become great democratic citizens? Preparing great democratic citizens means so much more than preparing a worker for some job somewhere. To be a great citizen in a true democracy one first must understand what a democracy is. They then must have practice in being a participatory member of a democracy. And the purpose of school becomes to teach these skills while allowing each individual the opportunity to discover and foster their natural talents and abilities so that they can become good people and thus good contributing members of society. Notice that being a good, contributing member of society does not simply translate to being prepared to perform a job for an employer. We must instead allow students to discover what they are passionate about and allow them to build on that passion so that they can make themselves and others around them happy.

I believe it is time to leave the job preparation to the employers. A common refrain is that education has not kept up with the needs of employers.  The simple fact is that the needs of employers change at a faster pace than the entire system of education can adapt. If the needs of employers change, why don’t they create their own training facilities to re-train individuals to meet their needs? One answer is that it should be the job of public education to change to meet the needs of employers. But if we continue to view education simply as a means of meeting the ever-changing needs of employers we will continue to be left with an education system that neither meets the needs of those employers or prepares individuals to become great members of a democratic nation.

People want to believe that education has the potential to be the transformative force in peoples’ lives that allows them to achieve any dream they may have. We cannot fall into the trap of making our education system simply about scores on a math or reading test or preparing a worker for a job that may or may not exist when they graduate. We must allow education to become that place where individuals are allowed to first create their dreams and then work toward realizing them.

Just Close your Door and Teach

My favorite college professor of all time used to say you can do whatever you want once you close your classroom door.  I don’t think she meant that you can go to sleep or show videos all day.  What she was talking about was the restrictions that teachers often feel operating within a school structure that places an emphasis on whatever it is they want to place an emphasis on.  There are really no restrictions placed on a teacher once they close their door and go to work.  I have felt no more freedom in any job ever than when they bell rings and the period begins.  That 40 or so minutes I spend with those students each day are my show.  Nobody sets the agenda or restricts my performance. They really don’t belong to the nation, state, or district.  I am the professional has been hired to teach.  If someone knew exactly what I was supposed to do or what was best for me to do in that period it would be already laid out.  But it’s not.

As teachers, we can’t feel trapped by the system.  We can acknowledge the system, smile once in a while at it and even wave as it goes on by.  Every teacher must decide what they believe, based on sound research, and then put that into action each day in his or her classroom in a meaningful way.  We can’t settle for the excuse that the school won’t let us do that.  If real authentic change is to take place it must come from behind those closed classroom doors led by teachers who are willing to take the risk and teach like they know they should.

Changing people

I haven’t made a post in a while probably because I’ve been struggling with my dissertation and thinking and trying not to think about it has taken up most of my time.  But with the new school year on the horizon, I can’t help but think about school and teaching.  For as long as I can remember I have thought about school.  When I was in high school I had a notebook I would carry from class to class.  I rarely took class notes in the book but somewhere along the way I began to write down things I would change about school if I could.  Sometimes I would write questions I had about school without discovering answers.  And now, I still think about how school could be better but unfortunately I’ve learned that a lot of the solutions are very difficult to enact.

One change I do think is possible is the way schools and teachers think about their students.  When I first started teaching, I remember thinking that the only way to make a difference in some of the students’ lives would be to remove them from their homes and control their environments 24 hours per day.  And I often here teachers say that there’s not much that can be done because school only has students for eight hours per day, five days per week and their parents have them the rest of the time.  I reflect on my own thoughts now from the past and these comments that are made and I can’t believe how foolish they are.  The job of school is not to change who someone is or who someone’s family is.  Too often schools and teachers see families as the enemy.

A child’s family is not the enemy and if a school or teacher is to truly educate a student the family must first be embraced and understood rather than fought.  A school is not going to change a student’s allegiance to his or her parents nor should it.  One would have to look for a long time to find a parent who ultimately does not want the best for their son or daughter.  Schools then must do a better job of understanding the cultures of the families they serve. To understand the foolish battle schools fight in attempting to change students to be unlike their parents we only have to think of our relationship with our own parents.  The most significant figures in our lives while growing up are those that care for us.  I know that if someone attempted to convince me that my parents were not good for me or that I should not want to be like them that person would not go well for that person.  And it is the same for the students we serve.  The are attached to those who they live with and care for them and they should be.

On the cusp of this new school year I would encourage all educators to seek to understand their students and the families of their students rather than to try and transform them.  Our job is simply to best prepare young people for the future.  This preparation should never include the rejection of family.  It is only with families that we can give our students the best possible chance at success.

It’s Time to Do Something

I few weeks ago I was looking around in my parents house for something.  As I was sifting through piles of old papers and books, I came across a a program from my mom’s 30th high school reunion which was more than a few years ago by now.  There was a section in the program where each person could write a paragraph or two about what they had been up to for the past 30 years.  As I looked through the pages, there were a lot of impressive accomplishments to read about.  When I turned to the page with my mom’s picture and her writing, there was only one sentence.  “For the past 30 years I have been busy being a wife, mother to two wonderful boys, and teaching.”  In comparison to all of the accomplishments I had read, my mom’s seemed really sad.  How could this women who had meant so much to me sum up her past 30 years in one sentence?  But as I continued to think about that sentence it changed from being sad to really wonderful.  There was much more to report on her 30 years and I’m afraid she was being more than slightly modest.  But she had chosen to list only what was really important to her.  She was a teacher.  She was a really good teacher. I know because I had her in class as a high school senior.  But when you’re a teacher there often aren’t pages and pages to fill when writing about life accomplishments.  Your accomplishments often can’t be counted and sometimes may never be known.  And people like my mom would never want any special awards or recognition for being good teachers.  She cared about what she did and tried to do it really well.

The part of that sentence that stays with me is the fact that being a mother to me for 30 years just about summed it up.  I wouldn’t want any other mom and don’t think anyone could have done a better job at being a mother.  But now I hope that 30 years wasn’t wasted.  In a way I think she made sacrifices in her life to ensure that she was a really great mom.  I hope that some of the accomplishments that could have been listed beside her name can one day come from me.  And I don’t want any special awards either but I do want to impact real change in education and the lives of students.  I know that I have been thinking and writing about education for too long without doing much to change anything about it.  I think the time for action is now.  I think that anyone who knows that education should be much better than it is must take action sooner rather than later.  I am going to personally commit to ensuring that for my mom’s next high school reunion she might be able to write a sentence after that first one.  Perhaps it can say something about the good her son has done in the world.

The Art of Teaching

So in my previous post I asked the question of what makes a great teacher.  I think the answer should start with a discussion about teaching as  science or an art.  A friend of mine told me a while ago that teaching is no longer an art.  He said that research has enabled teaching to now be a science where we know what good teaching is and can quantify and replicate it. I then had to tell him that I respectfully disagreed with his position.  In my opinion, great teaching is much more a combination or science and art than simply one or the other.

If great teaching were only a science, anyone could be given the proper steps to take in a classroom and become a great.  But I think it’s safe to say that everyone who successfully employs what is believed to be proper pedology is not a great teacher.  Being a great teacher is very much about the best ways to ensure that students learn subject material.  But to assume that great teaching is only a science eliminates so much of what teaching should be. There is also a human side to teaching that I’m not sure can be quantified.  We know that teachers must relate well to students, understand their perspectives, and mold pedology to student needs. And aspects of being a great teacher that I don’t think have been explored enough are personality and emotional intelligence.  There are tests to measure personality and emotional intelligence but I don’t see them making there way close to the teaching profession any time soon.  All of these human, less quantifiable aspects of what comprises a teacher makes identifying or becoming a great teacher so difficult.

With all this said, there is a truth that is sometimes overlooked in education and that is that students are also human.  Those who believe teaching is a science fail to recognize that each student is unique, leaning in different ways with their own personalities, strengths, weaknesses, likes, and desires.  So when I say I’ve only seen a few great teachers in my life someone else may have been sitting in the same class with me with one of those great teachers and felt they were terrible.  And I may have been in many classes throughout my life with teachers who I think were average but someone else in the class thinks they were great.

So researchers can continue to create evaluation tools to measure the ability of teachers but I’m afraid there are some factors that will never make it on the rubric.  But I also think more teachers can be supported in ways that do allow them to become great.  While I am fairly certain this greatness will not be the result of a once a year evaluation by an administrator or supervisor, I will continue to explore how teachers can become great.

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