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The past several months have been filled with surprises, challenges, bewilderment, wonder, and stress. Our regular routines were disrupted. We were asked to engage in teaching and learning in new ways that often have felt awkward and out-of-balance.

We were asked to engage with our students in new ways while reassuring them and continuing to support their learning. Many of us discovered that students who previously seemed unable to manage themselves, manage their time, and focus on their learning suddenly became energized and flourished in the new environment. Meanwhile, some of our most conscientious students floundered in uncertainty, panic, and worry about meeting expectations and staying on pace. Through it all, we searched for strategies and activities to serve student learning needs in the absence of traditional spring testing. We focused on the skills and concepts most important to the learning of our students without the strict adherence to prescribed daily lessons and the formal curriculum. In many ways, the balance of teaching and learning shifted toward a primary focus on learning, along with coaching and mentoring through the learning process.

Our relationships with parents also changed, as they often became on-site support and we provided guidance and coaching to them. The idea of full partnerships with parents took on new meaning—and a greater significance. We came to appreciate and depend on parents in new ways, and many parents came to better understand and appreciate the role we play in the learning and development of their children.

Now we are facing the transition back to face-to-face learning—but…

Now, as we approach the transition back to face-to-face teaching and learning, we are not the same, and our students are not the same. In fact, a lot will change from when we closed schools because of the virus. Many of our students have learned how to use new tools to support their learning. They have developed new skills and experienced greater learning independence. And, we too have gained important input and insights about our work and how to engage and mentor students. We have also learned much about ourselves when facing the unknown and needing to find ways to adjust and succeed.

There is much from this experience we will want to take with us when we return to our school. There are adjustments we will want to make in the ways we engage in face-to-face learning. However, there also are assumptions and practices we will need to leave behind.

Consider five assumptions for abandonment as students return.

Assumption #1: Students will be ready to learn what we are ready to teach. It is true that even before the hiatus, not all students were in the same place with their learning or ready to learn the same skills and concepts. However, the experience of remote learning left some students further behind while others may have accelerated. The learning gap likely will be much larger than it was in the past. As students return to the classroom, we need to be ready to meet students’ learning needs “where they are” rather than where the curriculum or pacing guide may say they should be. Now is the time to get ready to match our teaching with what students are ready to learn, not just what we may be ready to teach.

Assumption #2: The rules and behavior expectations we had for students before school closure will automatically fit now. As students return to school, they come with learning experiences in widely varied environments. Some students will have developed habits and discipline that make some traditional rules unnecessary. Others may struggle with the return to a more formal environment because they have been largely independent for months. Now is a good time to ask ourselves what rules and expectations are really necessary and useful—and which need to be discarded. We might even engage our students in conversations about the structures and expectations most important to support their learning and their health. We need to leverage the learning and skills students have gained during their time away and not automatically revert to old practices that may no longer fit.

Assumption #3: Learning only happens in response to formal teaching. The traditional structure of schools assumes that instruction must precede learning. Yet, during the time students were away from formal school, you probably designed activities to have students discover insights and learn from experiences that did not include a formal lesson delivered by a teacher. Rather, some lessons may have featured a follow-up discussion to sift and sort through what students learned. As students return to our classroom, we need to capture and leverage those experiences to help students continue to develop learning skills and strategies that are not always dependent on someone providing full structure and ready answers. 

During the hiatus we had the opportunity to reflect upon what students really needed to learn.

Assumption #4: Our first and most important responsibility is to teach content. As noted earlier, one of the opportunities present during the experience of remote learning was the absence of the pressure to prepare students for formal spring tests. Meanwhile, we faced the challenge of engaging students in learning how to learn in a new environment. We had the luxury of focusing on skills and concepts important to learning success, but learning was not fully confined to highly structured, dictated content. We had the opportunity to ask ourselves what our students really needed to learn. We might even have asked students for their perspectives and priorities. Certainly, as students return to school, we need to be sure that they are exposed to and learn the content described in the curriculum. However, we should not lose sight of the importance of life and learning skills that help students make sense of the content and appreciate its utility and value within the context of more universal skills and perspectives.

Assumption #5: Families will hold the same expectations of us and themselves in the learning process. Out of necessity, families have had to play a more active and influential role in their children’s learning during this time. Predictably, they developed a new and greater appreciation for the work we do and challenges we face. Yet, they also developed skills and insights that might be leveraged to support their children’s learning as school resumes. It is a mistake to assume that parents will necessarily be comfortable returning to the role they played before the interruption in school. The opportunity to form new and more powerful partnerships with parents is present now. If we ignore or immediately return to where the relationships were prior to school closures, we risk losing the magnificent new advantage that exists now. We also may find that some parents might feel unappreciated and resentful that their potential to contribute goes untapped and unnoticed.

The time to plan what to keep and what to discard is now.

            As educators, we need to be aware that within every crisis are many opportunities. We also need to recognize that with every hardship, some achieve to new heights. Some students seem to find energy and hope and uncover ways to adjust and perform at new levels. At the same time, other students falter. Our task is to pick up both of these types of students and take them as far as they can go. Remember, both can learn—and both will need our help.

            We need to understand, students will all be different than before—just like we are. We are both a result of our experiences—past, present, and anticipated. One thing is certain: The vast majority of students know they need us, and they will be glad to be back in their school with us. We need to be ready for their arrival.

The art of life lies in a constant readjustment to our surroundings.

Okakura Kakuzō

Thought for the Week

Simply pulling a strategy “off the shelf” or defaulting to the most recently read article or staff development session topic may not generate the results we seek.

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