Thursday, August 19, 2021

Teaching (or doing anything) while the world burns

Lately I've been feeling a bit overwhelmed by all of the problems in the world. I didn't really expect COVID-19 to surge again, and it looks like the speed of climate change is also exceeding expectations. I have been surprised by the degree to which racism is still endemic in our society, and our current state of political division is truly disheartening. It's as if the world is burning in more ways than one. How do you teach (or do anything) while the world burns? 

I think there are at least four ways, but a combo of the second two is the best (and BTW I think all of this burning craziness may be the beginning of growth).

Option 1: Give up

You can always just give up and either quit altogether or emotionally check out and just go through the motions.  Lots of folks are choosing this option, and I don't blame them. There is a time to quit, especially if you're close to retirement age, but for me, now's not the time. More on that below.

Option 2: Pretend it's not burning

Denial: It's not just a river in Egypt. A popular way of dealing with difficult situations is to pretend the difficult situation does not exist. I'm not sure if we do this because we think it will go away if we ignore it, or if we think "dwelling on it" will only make it worse. Likely it's a combination of the two. But either way, it doesn't work. Problems do not go away if you ignore them. They either get worse immediately, or they fester and come back to bite you. Only by facing them can you have any hope of solving them. This is true for relationship problems, and it's true when the world is going to hell in a hand-basket.

Option 3: Acceptance and inaction

You can accept that all of these things are happening around you, but just keep doing what you love--kind of a monastic approach, I suppose. Isolate yourself. Tend your garden. Walk your dog. Enjoy your family. Teach your classes. View the world's problems like bad weather that will pass. I guess it's what I've been doing with my art and brewing during the pandemic. It's an escape, and I can forget all about the chaos of the outside world for a while. 

There's some power to this approach. If everyone did this--living simply and accepting things as they are, we'd all be much better off, I think. But it's kind of hard to pull off, and the downside is that not everyone will do it, so the shit's going to keep hitting the fan, and at some point the flames will be outside our door. So I tend to lean more toward a balance with Option 4.

Option 4: Action

You can realize that teaching (or whatever it is you do) has a role to play in helping to solve the problems that surround us. In a war, not everyone is on the front lines, and the battle against climate change, racism, COVID-19, and political division needs supply lines as well. 

We live in the information age and yet a destructive ignorance abounds--ignorance about climate change, viruses, history and racism. And one thing I learned this past year is that somehow American schooling has failed to adequately educate the nation. But it's not about facts. We've failed to teach people to think critically, quantitatively, scientifically and humanely, and we need to do better. We have a huge role to play here as the world burns.

But ignorance and sloppy thinking are just the tip of the iceberg. There's also a tremendous lack of trust in our society right now. There's also a tremendous deficiency of empathy and compassion. And there's a tremendous loss of social support, despite all of our online connections. And if we are going to fight all of these "fires" that burn around us, we are going to need more empathy, compassion, trust, and social supports. We're going to need unity based on our common humanity. These skills of empathy, compassion and building trust, unity and social supports were not traditionally taught in school, but we need to teach them now. 

And most importantly, our students need teachers that care, safe places like schools and the support of their classmates, as they watch the world burn around them. But they'll also need help because they're not going to just watch. They'll need help because they are going to fight the flames--the climate change, the pandemics, the racism and division. Because they are going to make the world a better place.

The Bright Side

So there's lots to teach while the world burns. There's lots to do. But there's also lots to enjoy, because honestly it's always a joy working with young people--they are so full of life and openness and hope and potential. And the world, burning though it is, is still so full of wonderful things to explore with them. And the journey of learning, even though it can be challenging and frustrating and painful at times, is worth it all as we grow from it. 

In fact, sometimes the burning happens inside of us, also. Sometimes the old us gets burned up and something new grows. What's it like to teach while that happens? 

Fires are a natural part of ecosystems, triggering renewal and new growth. We're teaching, or doing whatever job it is we're doing, in a time of fire and renewal. And my hope is that it will bring the same kind of regeneration to all of us--everyone of you reading this, and everything.

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Justice over achievement
Image via
One of my big takeaways from COVID-19 is the importance of equity. Our society, including our educational system, has been built on a model that values overall achievement over equity. In other words, as long as you are enabling your top students, or at best, most students, to achieve at high levels, you are doing a good job. But this is wrong. I've been wrong. I have historically had it backwards, idolizing human potential and achievement and neglecting equity. Here's what I'm learning:

1) Prioritize equity: Better to live in a just society than an advanced one. If forced to choose between a just society or school and a high achieving one, choose just.
2) Don't teach or test in a way that disadvantages some students.
3) If that means the quickest won't progress as fast because you can't support those who are less ready, then that's how it will have to be until we can get better at supporting and challenging everyone. "Do no harm" is the guiding principle.
4) Challenge every student, but not more than they can actually handle. Set the bar high. Let them try. Then adjust it, always trying to challenge them and inch it higher.

So how can we actually do this in the COVID-19 world?

Let's take a look at the primary hinderances kids are dealing with, and some possible solutions.

Access to technology

Problem: Many students of low socio-economic status lack fast, stable internet or computers. This can lead to an inability to participate fully in Zoom calls, especially if webcams are required.

Possible solutions: Don't require webcams. Provide asynchronous options for learning, and extended deadlines. Bring these students in to school, in-person and full time, if possible.


Problem: Many students have home environments that are not conducive to participating in live classes. Some are caring for siblings. Others have distracting activity all around them. Others may be embarrassed to show their homes or families.

Possible solutions: Same as above, plus multiple opportunities for learning and success. In other words, mastery-based learning. They need flexibility. They need to be able to take or submit an assessment when they are ready, not on a deadline. They may also need extra academic help and social-emotional resources and instruction.

ADHD, sleep issues, low conscientiousness, low SEL skills

Problem: Many students attempting to learn from home are hindered by a lack of non-cognitive skills: the ability to get up on time, stay awake during class, manage their sleep, schedules, and tasks, stay focused, manage depression or anxiety, etc. These things prevent them from accessing the curriculum.

Possible solutions: Same as above, mastery-based learning, with a focus on explicit instruction in social-emotional learning and 1:1 SEL support. Instruction, assignments and assessments that target SEL skills separately from content skills.

Lack of readiness

Problem: Many students lack the pre-requisite academic skills and knowledge to access the curriculum.

Possible solutions: The mastery model. Extra academic help and support. 

As you can see, I keep coming back to the mastery model. I think it's really going to be the only way forward if we want to keep standards high and value equity. The impact of COVID-19 is going to ripple out into the coming decade, with students entering each successive year less ready than they would have been--and less equal. COVID-19 has disproportionally impacted at-risk students, so we can unfortunately expect gaps to be wider. 

Moving forward, we can either be driven by the fear of losing some imagined edge or status as a individuals, schools, country or society, or we can be driven by compassion and a desire for a just and equitable society. 

2020 was a unique and challenging year, and it's been hard to accomplish much, but one thing we can do is learn. Unfortunately, in our society we have a history of valuing some people over others. We have the opportunity to learn better and change.

Thursday, January 7, 2021

A mission for 2021

 New year thoughts: “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger?” and a mission for this year. 

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Thoughts on 2020, education, and evolution as we head into the holiday break

Every morning while I'm shaving, I listen to a motivational playlist I made on Spotify. This morning, Tom Sawyer by Rush came on. Funny how music can do this, but it kind of snapped me out of a rut I had gotten into in my mind over the past few weeks. 

This year has been a survival-mode year for many of us, me included. But I tend to forget that things will change for the better--we will adapt. New and better systems will evolve.

It is events like this that drive evolution. The theory of punctuated equilibrium says that biological evolution happens in fits and starts, driven by major events. Our culture and our systems are evolving. And our educational systems will evolve. 

And while the cognitive load has us all down for the count right now, our eyes need to be on that prize of new and better ways of doing things--ways that will be more resilient to future disruptions like these. 

A few come to mind for education: more authentic assessments that can't be cheated on, rigor that goes beyond memorization and simple application of concepts that can be googled, a focus on social, emotional and other so-called non-cognitive skills, a renewed focus on technical and vocational skills, and a focus on those ideas that really light kids fires--ideas that can compete with (or join forces with?) video games.

I think the same idea holds true outside of education. The past year has shown us all some major weaknesses in how we do things. Will we evolve? I think the answer is a definite yes. The only question is in what direction.

Change, after all, is the only constant in this world.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

A few important numbers to remember this Fall

This Fall, as we return to school, here are some numbers I want to try to remember. Maybe you'll find some of them helpful, too:

0: Zero. This is the number of things that I can actually control. These days it seems like we're all balancing on the edge of a precipice. But it's worse than that--we're falling. But really that's how it always is. There's always this illusion that we're in control of things, but we never really are. And this feeling of needing to be in control creates all this anxiety. There's this cool saying attributed to Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche: "The bad news is, you’re falling through the air, nothing to hang on to, no parachute. The good news is, there’s no ground."  So my goal is to relax into that feeling of falling. In this case, it means remembering that my job is just to do the best I can for the kids. It means focusing on their needs, challenging them while supporting them, and just enjoying my time with them this year. 

1/2: One half. With the hybrid schedule, new safety protocols, new online learning platforms, and just rampant stress that we and our students are dealing with, I figure if we can cover 50% of what we normally do, we are doing really well. And that's OK, because there are more important things to focus on this year, like how our kids are doing emotionally and socially. And we can never require more of them than we can fully support. I put this into practice last week. I started creating a plan for the first week on our new learning management system. Then I realized it was based on a normal year, so I went through it and cut at least half of the stuff out of it and pushed it to the next week. 

1: One thing. What's the one thing I want to accomplish this year if nothing else? This principle is based on the classic book by Gary Keller.  For me, it's that I will not give up.  I will not give up trying to reach and support every single student I have.

2: Two months. I read once that you really can't expect to sustain a high level of intensity and motivation for more than a couple of months at a time. Motivation goes in cycles. We all need periods of rest and deloading. Normally, that roughly fits with the quarters of the school year. But this year, many of us will be starting at the end of a cycle, having been working hard and stressing all summer trying to plan for an unpredictable fall. But that's OK. It just means we may need to start in a deload phase. Our students probably need that, too. And we will all need periods of deloading throughout the year.

3: Three things at a time. As I've gotten older, I've realized I can only maintain focus on about three big things at a time before I start getting stressed out.  This means I need no more than about three big goals to accomplish on any particular day. For example, the first day of school these might be: 1) get to know my students and their needs, 2) support my staff as they start their school year, and 3) troubleshoot and adjust my hybrid instructional approach as needed. There's no doubt there will be other big, worthy goals that want to get done that day, and I may get to them, but they will have to wait in line.

4: Four days. I think exercising four days per week is a realistic goal starting out this fall. I'd like to do more, but we'll see how everything shakes out. These could be gym sessions or hikes with Teddy, and they include the weekends. Exercise is a huge stress relief valve for me, but it's a flexible goal and can be something to toss overboard when higher priorities need attention. It's not something I should stress about. 

5: Five-minute journal. There's this cool little app called the Five Minute Journal. It reminds you in the morning to write down three things you're grateful for, three ways you'll make today great, and one affirmation. In the evening, it reminds you to write down what went well today and what would have made today better. I'm not very good at doing it consistently, but it helps when I do.

7: Seven hours. I always shoot for at least 7 hours of sleep per night, and I do whatever I can to make that happen. It's a priority. But if it I have a bad night, I need to try not to worry about it. It means I cut myself more slack the next day.  Here are some tips if you have trouble sleeping.

10: Ten minutes a day. For the last several years, I've been trying to spend at least ten minutes a day doing mindfulness meditation. I started with this book on mindfulness by Williams and Penman. Some days are better than others, and in general I am not very good at it. They often turn into 10-minute stewing and problem-solving sessions. But that's OK. It's been good for me. And I'm sticking with it this fall for sure.

How are you preparing yourself mentally and emotionally for this fall? I'd love to hear!