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Equity Resources, Mindset & Motivation, Productivity Strategies, Podcast Articles   |   Mar 22, 2020

Schools are closed. This is our chance to reimagine them.

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Schools are closed. This is our chance to reimagine them.

By Angela Watson

One of the few teaching-related topics anyone seems to be able to focus on right now is this:

How am I supposed to teach remotely — like, right now? There’s a gazillion free and paid resources being shared and it’s taking me hours to comb through them and I keep questioning myself because I have no idea what I’m doing and every new strategy I see makes me think what I’m doing isn’t good enough and then I get overwhelmed by all of it and just think, this is never going to work.”

I want to offer you another perspective that I hope will be clarifying and simplifying and most importantly, energizing.

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This is a time in which it’s likely that schools will be taught remotely for the rest of the school year in the entire country AND standardized testing will be canceled. Could any of us have ever dreamed of that possibility just a few short months or even weeks ago?

Let it sink in — standardized testing, canceled. You can teach your students without worrying if it’s enough to get them to pass The Test this spring.

What kind of teacher might you be without that pressure?

Could this be an opportunity to return to the teacher you truly are at heart?

Because we weren’t happy as teachers when we were shoving worksheets into kids’ hands and testing them all day. We knew the way we were doing school was killing students’ love of learning and our love of teaching. We left school each day far too late, exhausted, worn down, and overwhelmed by the demands of the job.

Why on earth would we want to replicate those same practices now when we’re finally — and probably temporarily — free of them?

We’ve always said we wanted to put kids’ socio-emotional needs first, to ensure they’re feeling safe and they’re healthy and well-adjusted.

And we couldn’t do it, because we were under so much pressure to cram everything into the school day for The Test.

But now we’re in this new uncharted territory, where there is no blueprint and there are few known best practices. Sure, many schools have done remote teaching or distance learning before.

But this is not true distance learning, which is a comprehensive learning approach that takes years to develop and many months for teachers to be trained properly in. As you’re discovering, being able to teach well in a classroom does not necessarily translate to being able to teach well from home.

What we’re doing here right now is makeshift, last-minute pandemic-geared remote teaching. This is a shoddy version in which we’re building the airplane while trying to fly it.  That’s not unusual in education, unfortunately, but this time it’s at least partially justified and totally understandable. Every district in the nation right now is making it up as they go, with widely differing approaches and philosophies.

Many are giving teachers very little guidance or training at all.

And you know what? This could be our opportunity to finally get it right for kids.

I don’t mean right now, as in TODAY. There’s a very small chance that you’re going to be able to pull off high-quality, rigorous, differentiated instruction right now. If you can pull off just the high-quality part right away, you’re far surpassing what anyone should reasonably expect.

I’m looking at the bigger picture down the road. If we don’t HAVE to do standardized testing this year … and clearly we don’t, given that many states have already canceled it … if a whole school year passes and we don’t test kids and the world’s still turning, could it be possible that we don’t have to do it again? That maybe it was never necessary to begin with?

If we can put kids’ well-being first right now like we’re doing, why can’t we do that every year?

If we can let teachers experiment with different methods and have some choice over how they teach, why can’t we do that every year?

Dream with me folks. You never thought your current reality would be possible right? So why not use some of this time you’re stuck in the house to imagine something more?

Because these are unprecedented times, we have an unprecedented opportunity to reimagine systems. This is a total shakeup of every aspect of our society. The world is upside down right now and that means when we turn it right-side up again, it’s never going to look the same. And we can start envisioning now how it might look instead.

The next school year is going to be different than any other year because we’ll be compensating for the lost instruction from the end of this year. No one knows what that’s going to look like yet. As of this moment, I’ve not heard of any districts that have a proposed plan.

But what if next year looks like something that gives teachers and kids a bit more grace and flexibility and leeway, like we’re experiencing right now?

What if the challenging times we have to learn to endure together in the coming months help us imagine a more human-centered way of doing school, a way that’s more accommodating of educators and kids?

What if the “new normal” we hope to begin in the fall is based on what’s actually best for our students?

What if we let go of the worry about whether we’re doing it the right way, and accept that there is no right way?

It’s never been done. We have no path: you’re creating the path. You get to be a pioneer. You are no longer treading up the same old hills on well-worn paths that never seem to lead anywhere you want to be.

You get to try something new, with nothing and no one to compare yourself to.

Don’t even think about looking at other teachers and comparing yourself unfairly to them — how do you know what they’re doing is better? We don’t know how this thing ends yet. Your simpler or less elaborate or more low tech solution might be exactly what your students need right now.

And if it’s not? That’s okay, because how could anyone on earth really be prepared for this? How could anyone possibly know?

You’re going to do what great teachers always do, which is to try something with your kids, observe how they respond, and iterate from there. That’s it.

What if you do something, and it totally confuses the kids? Well, you’ll do what you always do: you’ll explain it a different way or offer clarification or provide a bit more scaffolding or give them more opportunities to practice. If it still doesn’t work, you pivot a little bit: you try something else and see how that goes.

This is the daily work of a teacher. You know how to do this — you’ve been doing this. You know how to watch what’s resonating with your kids and what’s missing the mark and adjust accordingly.

And the best part is, the expectations and the stakes are so much lower right now. There is soooo much more grace than usual: there is more tolerance for tech issues, and mix-ups, and unclear assignments. No one’s unexpectedly popping into your living room with a clipboard to observe you.

This is a time to finally prioritize the whole child and the whole teacher.

This is an opportunity to ask our kids, “How are you doing?” and actually have time to listen to the answer.

It’s a chance to say to our students, “We want you reading and playing and creating and resting the majority of your day. School’s only going to take up a few hours so you can focus on the other things that are important in your life.”

This is a time to let go of all of our previous assumptions about what we “had” to do with kids and reimagine new and better ways.  You do not need to have most kids in most situations right now working 6+ hours a day on school work from home.

Maybe it took you 30 minutes to deliver instructions face-to-face because you had to keep stopping for kids’ who asked to sharpen their pencil, intercom interruptions, behavioral issues, and more. And now you record a video of the lesson and it turns out to be only 15 minutes: the kids watch it when they can during the week. That’s one simple example of how something that stretched out over a long period of time in your classroom would require far less time from kids at home. Look for opportunities to let go of your assumptions about how long things are “supposed to take” or filling arbitrary amounts of hours with busywork, and stay focused on assigning stuff that’s really going to move the needle for kids.

What is MOST essential for your students right now? Do fewer things, better.

In most situations, kids do NOT need more academic work right now.

Let’s look at the big picture. This is a devastating blemish on their childhoods. They’ve been robbed of their opportunity to see their friends and play on the playground and walk across a graduation stage and pass their crush in the hallway and all the other special things that happen in school. Their parents are likely scared and possibly unemployed.

Teenage students might lose their jobs, too. They might be babysitting younger siblings or otherwise taking on far more responsibility at home. They may be sharing devices. It’s springtime and they want to be outside and they can’t do anything they love and they’re trapped in their house with family members that may get on their nerves. Or far worse, they may have lost access to their safe place or safe people, whether that be at school or some other place they’re now sequestered from. They may be hungry. There may be a whole host of unmet needs that are a much higher priority for them than turning in your quiz on time.

So the last thing they need in the middle of a global health crisis is to have 6+ hours of school work to complete each day, especially if it’s from a ton of different teachers who all have different expectations and philosophies and workflows.

Keep your remote learning simple. When you get overwhelmed with the options, ask yourself, What would it look like if it were easy? 

Encourage your students to think about all of their needs: eating well, sleeping, playing, relaxing, exercising. Their mental health is critical right now, and you may actually have MORE opportunities to focus on that now than you did when you were trying to teach a regular day in your classroom. If your district’s giving you any leeway or decision making at all here — and the awesome part is, many teachers have more autonomy now than they did previously in their classrooms — exercise that autonomy, and focus on the whole child.

And you know the other awesome part about this? It means you get to focus on the whole teacher, too.

You’re a human, and you have many of the same needs the kids do. This is your chance to prioritize meeting those needs. If nothing else, you’re gaining back whatever time you spent commuting, and for many of you, there’s far more unstructured time in your day than you could have ever imagined during the school year.

Sure, things may be chaotic at first as you adjust to teaching remotely, but this is probably the most control you’ve ever had over your own time and schedule as a teacher. Don’t waste it. This is hopefully a once in a lifetime occurrence. This is our one big shot to throw out all the things we were told we “had” to do with kids and reimagine a whole other way of teaching them.

Big sweeping changes don’t happen very often, especially in bureaucracies. There are folks who have been trying for 20 years to encourage teachers to utilize more technology and flip their classrooms and record videos of their lessons, and they may have only made an incremental change in their schools. And now, voila! Overnight, it’s suddenly top-of-mind priority for everyone in the building.

Unprecedented. That’s the word here. And that means there are hidden unprecedented opportunities.

Our world is changing dramatically and very quickly, with life-altering news breaking every few hours, it seems like. So this is the ultimate chance to NOT plan every little detail and try to just go with it, because how can you or anyone else possibly anticipate what life will be like for our kids and families a month from now?

Stay focused on your students as PEOPLE and show up for them in authentic ways. Share your thoughts and feelings, let them know you miss them, check to see how they’re doing. Find small moments of connection and let that be the heart of your day.

Let that be the thing that gets you out of bed when you’re discouraged. Let that be the thing that drives you in your instruction far more than academic skills.

What kids need right now is that connection with people who care about them, a sense of normalcy, someone they can count on. They need flexibility and understanding and patience. And after 6-7 full months in school with your kids, you know them well. You know what they need better than I could ever tell you. Trust your gut and follow your intuition.

Listen to the kids, and give grace to their families, who might be panicking about their children falling behind and driving you bananas or on the opposite end of the spectrum and so preoccupied with physical and financial and mental survival that helping with school work isn’t even a possibility. Everybody is doing the best they can with what they’ve got right now. Relationships first. We used to say that all the time in school but now we have to actually live it.

We’ve gotta get through some hard times and trying to be business as usual isn’t going to cut it. Reassure these families you’ve got their back and you’re there for their kids and doing everything you can to help them end this school year strong. This isn’t about trying to please them all because everyone’s going to want something different right now. This is about being human: allowing them to see you as a real person who’s doing your best in very difficult circumstances, and extending understanding and patience to them as fellow humans who are also doing their best in very difficult circumstances.

Center the socio-emotional well being of your students and families and yourself, first and foremost. Be the teacher you dreamed of being when you first started the profession, before you were demoralized and worn down, back when you had a clear vision and a sense of your calling.

Be the kind of teacher you always hoped you be. You already are that teacher, by the way — you just have to release yourself from all the baggage that keeps you from showing up.

This is a unique moment in time in which nearly everything we were told is important is falling away, or shifting, or disappearing. We’ve built our entire school year around preparing for a test that’s not even happening now. We took for granted that our schools would always be there, that the problems we were facing would never disappear in an instant, to be replaced with entirely new and previously unimaginable ones.

All of our norms, both in school and in society, are shifting constantly. This is a period of total reinvention. You can redefine normal in a way that works for YOU and your students.

What if we let go of the longing for a return to “normal” and instead reimagined a better way?

What if we remind ourselves that the status quo wasn’t actually working for either teachers or kids, and see this disruption as a precious opportunity to create new systems and norms?

Use this chance wisely my friends. In all of the tragedy and loss we’re experiencing and that is still to come, there are so many gifts, as well. This is a gift of more time at home, more time for rest, more time for intentionally strengthening connections and bonds with those we care about — including students — because we can no longer count on casual regular encounters to happen automatically.

This is a time of intentionality and purpose and reimagining. Old limitations are falling away and new possibilities are emerging.

You’re about to discover new things about teaching and learning that you can take with you throughout your teaching career and use even when face-to-face instruction is possible again.

These challenging times are deepening your practice and pedagogy, widening your skills as an instructor, and offering you the opportunity to reimagine every aspect of how you use your time for teaching and how you use your time for yourself.

You can do this, I promise. It’s not going to be easy, it’s going to be worth it.

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Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Angela is a National Board Certified educator with 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach. She started this website in 2003, and now serves as Editor-in-Chief of the Truth for Teachers...
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  1. Very powerful and informative article that elaborates on the pros and cons of remotely learning across the country for teachers and their students. Most essential for students is getting at least 1-2 hours of remote learning a day with the opportunity to go on other educational sites to enhance their knowledge of learning as it is being monitored at home and school.

  2. YEEESS!!! The timing of this article was perfect.
    I’ll do my best, giving myself and families LOTS of grace.
    Thanks as always Angela !

  3. Beautifully articulated and so, so inspiring. There is nothing obliging us to return to “the way it was before”. We can hold onto the things that worked, and leave room to add in new ways of learning that we discover in these unchartered waters. Thank you very much for writing this!

  4. Just absolutely fantastically & thoughtfully written. So inspiring. I will BBC share it as much as possible.

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