Much has already been written, and even more is certain to come, about the times we are living in right now. It feels like a perfect storm of upheaval and uncertainty, about even the things we usually take most for granted—like the long-standing institutions of schools, sports, socializing, commerce, and moving around in the world.
It will be interesting to see what comes back as it was, and what comes back in a new (and hopefully, improved) way.
When I started working from home last spring, I will admit that I liked wearing sweatpants and “commuting” to the basement in my slippers. I missed my colleagues and the energy of the office. I missed the casual conversations in the hallways and near the coffeemaker. I realized that those were the connections that were harder to recreate than the meetings that now involve screens and cameras. But this new setting became familiar, if not exactly comfortable.
Like many people, I started using my extra time at home baking. I never quite got into the sourdough or other trends that I saw on social media. I baked things that were familiar.
I started with the cookies that are my kids’ and husband’s favorites, and even included a few favorites from my childhood. I baked things that reminded me of my grandmothers. I never attempted my mom’s apple pie, because no one can make it like she does, but I baked the things I remembered baking with her while standing on a chair to reach the counter. It was comforting and familiar during a time when nothing else felt that way.
This past summer was consumed with planning for a school year that was as uncertain and unpredictable as the spring before. Where we reacted in the spring, we were then trying to plan for as many contingencies as we can generate. It never felt like enough. I found myself searching for something, anything, that would help me navigate these uncharted waters. My inbox was flooded with products and programs that promised to solve all of our problems, which was not a new phenomenon, but a more tempting one given all of the unknowns. I was certain that the answer was out there in the next webinar or article or book, and I was making myself crazy trying to find it.
I remember one conversation about our supplemental reading instruction where we talked about some teachers having to remove a number of tables from their classrooms in order to create more social distancing space. I admit that I had the thought, “but we can’t teach reading without those tables.”
Thankfully, I quickly recognized how ridiculous that thought was. Furniture does not teach students. I was making things far too difficult. I was spending too much time trying to find the answer out there. I needed to think about what I already knew.
I have been a part of school improvement efforts in many different places. One of the strongest lessons I have learned is that there is not a magic program or magic step that improves student learning. What works is a focus on the basics of teaching and learning itself.
Spending time getting clear about what we expect from our students is never wasted time. Collaborating about how we can best know if our students have learned what we expect to the levels we expect makes a big difference. I know these things. I have experienced the power of these things. And yet, when faced with this completely unexpected situation, I seemed to forget all of those things. I was grasping at any external idea when I knew in my heart and brain what we needed to do.
We cannot forget that we know how to do these things. We know how to respond to students’ learning needs, as well as how to deliver the instruction they need to be successful—using whatever furniture is available. We know how to work together to be clear about what success looks like and how to deliver the instruction and measure the learning. This is not shiny nor flashy. It’s not innovative, at least compared to how some marketing describes innovation. It is what makes a difference. I would argue that it makes a difference for both students and educators alike.
Now is the time for us to remember what we know and rely on that knowledge. We can try new things, but those things should work to serve those purposes. As for my baking, I tried a few new recipes as well as the old ones, but it was after I had the reassuring experience of going back to the things I knew well.
We as educators should not treat these new times as a time to abandon what we know, but instead, use this time to trust our core beliefs and actions more deeply than ever before. Instead of looking outside for that magic solution, let’s remember that we have that solution already. We can work together, by screen or telephone, to make those solutions a reality. It feels comfortable because it’s what is right for our students.