Teaching in The New *NEW* Normal Might be Great

About five years into my career as a teacher, I discovered that there are aspects of chaos that I like, even love. The part I like the most is that when there is some sort of storm around my school, whether sociological, economic, personal, climatic, political, public health or whatever the people who have control become distracted and I can experiment with my teaching in ways that sometimes give birth to important shifts in my thinking about teaching and teaching practice.

For example, during one such crisis, while my bosses weren’t looking, I tried something. I announced to my students that they could choose their own homework one night per week. This was so effective, that I unilaterally changed it to choose your own homework every night. By the time my boss realized I was doing that, he he couldn’t stop me. There was too much success attached to it.

Teaching in the new normal has been and is very difficult, but teaching has been so hard for so long now — harder than it has to be. This pandemic has taught me some things about teaching and learning. Remote teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic, showed me, for example that social and emotional learning are more important than and necessary for academic achievement.

Our current situation might be like this — imagine the world is a snow globe. Now picture a giant hand lifting that snow globe and shaking it up, hard. The snow is everywhere. The little houses in the plastic village are covered in white flecks of fake snow. They are temporarily upside down, and all the little people living in the village are confused, distracted, scared and bracing for the next impact. The mundane aspects of their days are no longer important, because of this catastrophe. Some things they thought were so important, don’t even register now, because people are dying, losing their jobs, their savings, their homes and can’t be together.

I do not wish to in any way, minimize this disaster. COVID-19 has killed hundreds of thousands of people worldwide. Many more have lost jobs, become disabled and the grief is horrific. But, when the snow globe is all shook up, we (the real educators) have a window of opportunity to make some changes in “our” (Yes. It is ours.) education systems that are positive and necessary, if we can tolerate the chaos. Some of us are asking questions now, including:

  1. What changes do we need to make RIGHT NOW? AND
  2. How do we take advantage of this moment to make those changes before the snow settles in the bottom of the globe, allowing the bureaucrats to take control again, corporations to profit again and politicians to co-opt our agenda and message again?

Because in many places new cases of COVID-19 are dropping, schools are opening up in various ways, so we have been discussing what parts of “the new normal” we want to hold on to and what parts we want to let go of in the new “new” normal.

We have a working list of what we know we need and what gets in the way now. My friend, Danielle, even has a name for this mental activity, because she has been doing it for weeks now. She calls this sifting. This is the mental practice of sorting what we want to keep and what we want to throw away. Aren’t we all sifting to some extent? Have you heard yourself say things like, “When this is all over, I am going to drive my car less.” and “I can’t wait until this is over, so I can visit my old friend in California (or wherever) and give him/her a big hug. We don’t see one another enough.”

So, what do we need more and less of in schools in 2020?

Care

Social justice

Racial, gender, ethnic and economic equality

Social & Emotional Learning

Teaching about Social Justice

Inquiry-Based Learning

Student choice around pacing

Intrinsic Motivation

Experiential learning

Project-Based Learning

Flexibility around curriculum

Creativity

Student voice

Mindfulness

Students’ and teachers health needs

Performance-based assessment

Work/life balance

WE SHOULD DE-EMPHASIZE:

Force

The Compliance Model

Grading

Testing

Routine

Rigor

Common objectives

Common planning

Common assessment

Outcome-based education

Micromanagement of students and teachers

Hyper-structured Evaluation Models for students and teachers

Using Punishment and incentives

Scopes & Sequences

Tradition

Structure

This is not a zero sum game. Our schools can have both social & emotional learning and academic achievement, but first we have to STOP and look at the little plastic village with this pandemic as a backdrop and see what we have been doing for the past 30 years and ask Which is more important?

Schools have become less caring, less human, less fun, less exciting and less about real learning for teachers and students. They have been managed by educators less and less. People who have no experience in education, no background in schooling, and zero training in teaching have been calling the shots for too long. Think Arne Duncan, Betsy DeVoss and Jim Peyser. And learning is inherently fun and exciting, when it is not forced by people from outside of the education dynamic, people with their own political and economic agendas. Not ours. Well, they are distracted right now.

  1. Visualize what we need and want in education 2020.
  2. Do not cave in to the poisonous voices that say “That will never happen,” even if those voices are from inside.
  3. Create opportunities for dialogue among teachers. We need to talk about the change to make it real.
  4. Find the common ground among us. We don’t have to agree on everything. We just have to focus on what we generally know we need in schools today.
  5. Exhaustively Communicate our new vision to each other, to parents, stakeholders, administrators and anyone else who will listen. That’s what the politicians do, and it works.
  6. Start (in small ways at first) making decisions and then acting on them that move us in that direction. Walk the walk as much as you can.

If you are a teacher who has been teaching remotely, who doesn’t know what is going to happen next, and you are nodding your head right now, think about it this way: Maybe we get to decide what happens next, because THEY certainly don’t have a clue.

John Brown runs Teacher Leadership Network. TLN is a community of professional educators committed to opening a dialogue about what learning can be in the 21st century.

Clinical Associate Professor of Education at the University of Massachusetts and host of Teacher Talk.