September 19, 2020

Stick to Our Knitting

If you ask educators to name one educational theorist from their preservice education, they’re likely to remember Abraham Maslow. Admittedly, I never thought much of Maslow but do understand his popularity. His hierarchy of needs is really low-hanging fruit – perfectly digestible in a 2-hour babysitter training class. It is as elemental as remembering what plants need to survive. Mr. Maslow has been cited often in the context of schools making the abrupt shift to the COVID-10 pandemic lockdown.

Of course we teach children and not subjects. Of course, we must protect and defend the health and safety of children. That is the minimum required of us as humans and as neighbors. There have been truly lovely and heartwarming tales of school personnel engaging in drive-by birthday parades, meal delivery, and WiFi installation in school buses. I applaud these efforts. Being kind is always a good thing.  

However, I feel queasy about self-congratulatory pronouncements about how school officials have reordered their priorities during the COVID-19 pandemic. Crisis response is unlikely to offer a prudent blueprint for education after the quarantine. I fear that the wrong lessons are being learned by those who are supposed to be experts in the lesson business. 

Sure. During “the pause,” some administrators may have temporarily exorcised their schools of the miseducative practices we have always known were wrong – standardized testing, ticky tack skill instruction, cells and bells, ranking and sorting, chapter tests, and even grading. While luxuriating in the momentary euphoria of doing the right thing by children, school leaders have made pronouncements like, “Teaching and learning are now much lower priorities.” They are proud of what they mistakenly consider a revelation since they have risen to the challenge of picking up the slack for a society that expects schools to supervise and feed children in a nation where few childcare options exist and tens of millions of children experience food insecurity. Again, I say to educators, “Thank you for your service and for stepping into the breach.”

However, concluding that “teaching and learning” are not the priority of schools, is flat out wrong. If not us, who? If not “teaching and learning,” what?

“The chaotic life in schools today is our inheritance from a century of this continual tinkering with public schools and public dissatisfaction with the result. Add something this year, add something next year, keep programs in place because of “tradition,” and you have, I will argue, the overburdened school, the school that tries to do too much – and ironically ends up not getting many of the results we care most about.”

Kralovec, E. (2004). Schools that do too much: Wasting time and money in schools and what we can all do about it. Beacon Press.

No other adults in society are qualified to educate everybody’s children. That is our role, our value – our secret sauce. When educators happily assume the role of cops, bus drivers, coaches, priests, or fast-food workers we relieve the village of its responsibility to raise its children. As a culture, we cede too much power and responsibility to schools and must assert our teaching and learning expertise. It takes a village to raise a child. In that village there are thoughtful, creative, competent, learned, and sensitive adults trusted with developing the intellect of children – educators.

Such is our value proposition. We look to be facing unprecedented fiscal cuts to public education and massive teacher layoffs. A large number of private schools will never reopen. Identifying and clearly articulating your value as an educator and educational institution is now a matter of survival. Demonstrate your value. Prepare your own proposal for cutting 10, 20, 30, or even 50% of the school budget. Preparation will make such inevitability less catastrophic. Determine alone, and with colleagues, what matters most. How can school add the most value to a child’s life?

I am reminded of my friend Etta Kralovek’s book, “Schools that Do Too Much.” Her book brings into sharp focus the massive time-wasting, misplaced spending, and under-utilized potential squandered in schools. Educators not only face potential economic calamity, but a few months of hastily slapped together “homeschooling under school surveillance” has revealed to parents what school is like. For many, this revelation is not pretty. Some parents have a developed newfound empathy for their children who “hate school.” Others will conclude that the education their students experience is not worth the money, either via taxes or tuition.

When a parent says, “I’m not smart enough to help with my second grader’s homework,” we should not interpret that statement literally. They may be saying, “I cannot believe how tedious, boring, and irrelevant this schoolwork is. Thank god I don’t have to do it.” Maslow is insufficient. Kids deserve better.

We better do something. Our future is at stake. We’ve each been given a MacBook Pro and magic carpet. We should not exchange them for a ditto machine and box of chalk.

The reckless reopening and quicker closing of schools reveals how little our society cares about kids or their teachers. Don’t believe me? In Australia during the lockdown, teachers are being required to teach online and in many cases also report to the schools deemed unsafe for everyone else so they can simultaneously “mind” the children of “essential” workers. Well, that confirms it. Society views teachers as disposable. After all, proper martyrs don’t whine about being forced to potentially contract a lethal virus.

It would be nice if schools cleansed of toxic pedagogical practices during the lockdown had the willpower necessary to not reintroduce them once the bell rings this Fall. However, I am less than optimistic. Far too many of the ”when we return” discussions I have observed start with assessment and design backwards from there. Why can’t we learn from our own experiences, even when we know that a return to the status quo is bad for children? Why wouldn’t we reduce teacher and studio stress by “looping classes for the coming school year?” Why should everyone get to know new classes and teachers just because of the calendar? Why is commonsense so uncommon?

Expensive private schools are reopening with none of the trappings that justify their value, but reopening in some places nonetheless. In some, parents have the right to risk the health and safety of their family be sending their kids back to physical school, while others may choose to continue remote learning – as long as their tuition is paid up. So, naturally such a school would assign a teacher or two to teach the students who are “learning” remotely, right? Creating a cohort of those students make collaboration possible, fosters community, and allows teachers to address the specific needs of students being taught online. Such an approach makes perfect sense and seems like a win-win proposition. So, of course schools aren’t doing that. We’ll just stick an iPad in the back of the room and stream rows of their classmate’s heads with a tiny teacher at the front of the room.

Guess what? Teaching during an uncontrolled pandemic is a giant mess. Why let a crisis go to waste without trying some new things? For a moment, it looked like all of the things teachers despise were set aside – standardized testing, grades, bell schedules, AP tests, SAT/ACT requirement, homework… If this tragic pandemic had a silver lining, it created the conditions for experimentation, alternative model building, and teacher leadership. Many teachers were literally asked, “If we got rid of all the external pressures and administrative demands that keep you from creating the most productive contexts for learning, what would teaching and learning look like? Your community needs you and trusts you to do the right thing!”

Admittedly, I began writing this article four months ago (May, 2020). I was a lot more optimistic before the President and governors demanded that kids return to school at any human cost in the name of “normalcy.”

Normalcy isn’t always better. It may just feel more comfortable. The past week featured news articles about how to punish students online and the enforcement of online dress codes. If a student can wear pajama pants to Zoom school, who knows if they’ll ever sit still in a $7 plastic chair for seven hours a day? One might easily conclude that the normal function of schooling is control, surveillance, and punishment of a captive audience. In that case, a school to prison pipeline is unnecessary. We are already there.

Many workplaces and cities will be irrevocably transformed by the lessons learned during this pandemic. Remote work will increase and business travel will decrease. Populations will shift. By the look of things, classrooms will remain unchanged forever and that’s a real shame.

And still I rise…

Those of us who know better, need to do better. If we don’t stand between children and the madness, who will? There may still be time to show the world what’s possible. Let’s assert ourselves as indispensable leaders, worthy of respect, with talent, ingenuity, and a fearless willingness to stand on the side of what is right for children. We sure could use less Maslow and more Malaguzzi! (use the google) 


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