Forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit—Virgil. “Perhaps someday it will be a joy to remember even these things.
We’ve been talking a whole lot lately about the “new normal.” Having been down New Normal Road a few times since someone coined the term just in time for the Great Recession, we’ve been wearing out its pavement since the COVID crisis began to affect North American schools last March.
Weirdly, though, the COVID-19 “new normal” is proving to be as malleable as a ball of wax. It means whatever the user wants it to mean in the moment. The new normal is an ephemeral narrative meant to serve its purpose in the moment as it allusively invites us to imagine what the old normal might have been, as if there ever really was such a thing. But it doesn’t add much to the discourse on its own.
Narratives have a way of outlasting generations of “normals”, a fact we can discern by looking at the names bestowed on historical eras and at the stereotypes we associate with these. The Roaring Twenties was about flapper dresses and motorcars; the Atomic Age was all duck and cover and tract houses made of ticky-tacky; the Civil War Era was whatever your regional and political affiliations want it to be, with the added frisson of hundreds of thousands of dead, maimed, and missing people. Each of these narratives has become a kind of received truth that smooths the rough, often lethal edges of experience and memory.
In each school the COVID-19 crisis has precipitated a whole raft of new practices, some adopted in the moment or planned by an administrative crash program. Many simply appeared one day, either to persist or to disappear the next. Who even remembers, or cares? So what? That was in April (or May or June or July or August).
But in three or four years, assuming the virus has been tamed and some semblance of order or at least predictability restored to the world, what will your school’s COVID narrative be? What will keep the predominant memory, and thus the predominant narrative, from being anything but a recitation of “the year that wasn’t”, or worse, the failures, stop-gaps, complaints, and disappointments?
We know that there have been plenty of the above, but there have also been good things, even great things, happening. Creative teachers have discovered ways to use familiar and even previously suspect tools to bring about new, good enough, and sometimes even better kinds of learning. Some students whose experience on brick-and-mortar campuses has been, er, humdrum have flourished in the online space. Old dogs have learned (and learned to enjoy doing) new tricks, and whole new ways and reasons to make curricular and pedagogical decisions have emerged. Given the added impetus of a wakening spirit of social justice and social and political relevancy, teachers have found themselves trying—even against the prevailing grain—to create learning experiences that have real significance in the lives of their students and their communities.
Who is recording and tracking the positives? Has your school appointed or identified an archivist or recorder to document what has been happening—to write down what decisions were made or actions taken, how these came about and who drove them, and how they turned out, for better or for worse? Has your school been thinking about the questions it should be asking, even now, in order to learn the key lessons—their forms not yet fully framed—to create from our current pandemic hell a post-pandemic program that draws on the positive lessons learned and to inspire a narrative not of “we lost, we failed” but of “we learned, we handled this, we saw and seized these opportunities.”
Of course there will and must be the larger, awful COVID-19 narrative of suffering, inequity, and loss, because these have been heavy and universal and will properly drive the story as our decade’s parallel to the tragic plagues of the past.
I truly and deeply hope that at each school someone has been paying attention and writing things down so that affirming lessons will not be lost in the fog of this crisis. The annals of the COVID era at St. Basalt’s School might yet be sifted and analyzed to help design and sustain a whole new way of thinking about how it educates kids and helps teachers build the capacities they need to do this well.
If you haven’t got this archivist, this on-campus Venerable Bede at your school, now’s the time to designate one. Maybe it’s a compulsive diarist who has been tracking these things on their own through the window of their own experience, or maybe it’s a diligent staffer or faculty member with a good memory and a belief in the better purposes of history.
We’re in a dizzying cycle of change, unasked for and generally unappreciated, and we can’t say how or when it will end. But tracking the experience as we live it and then learning from the process can help us make the best of it, to create a new normal for 2025 that isn’t just a rush to fill the vacuum left by 2020 with the same old stuff. If each school can articulate a COVID narrative that is hopeful and future-focused and not just a litany of recrimination and regret, what lies ahead will feel and work a whole lot better for all of us.
(And thanks to the late Pliny H. Hayes, my eighth-grade Latin teacher! It is a joy to remember those days!)
Want to dive deeper into the topic? Dr. Damian Bebell, Assistant Research Professor at Lynch School of Education; Boston College, (and facilitator of our upcoming course, Assessing and Adjusting Your School's Hybrid Learning: Fidelity to Implementation) joined our August 26, 2020, Academic Leaders Webinar on evaluating fidelity to mission. Dr. Bebell shared his insights on research into how schools live their missions in their programs. Damian's slides can be found here.
It is now six months to the day when many of our world’s were flipped upside down by the coronavirus into a seemingly never ending cascade of changes to our lives: new normals, new-new normals, unprecedented challenges, and precedent setting opportunities. At first, we all thought that on-campus schools would have to move online for a couple of weeks or maybe a month. Next, we realized that the rest of the academic year would have to be online. And finally, we realized the 2020-2021 school year would be like no other.
Over the last six months, we’ve helped our 229 consortium schools and hundreds of other schools with a transition to distance learning and now to hybrid learning. Thousands of educators took our professional development courses. I can’t count the number of conversations I’ve had with school heads, association leaders, and academic leaders. In those discussions, I’ve noticed themes emerging; I thought I’d share them today, the start of school for so many.
It’s Like Running a Start-Up
In conversations with colleagues, I hear comments such as: “We tried this out; didn’t work. Had to try something else. That worked for a while, but then went to plan C.” We’re in a state of constant iteration. Trial, failure, another failure, marginal success, more failure, more success. Many schools are in a better position to work through this development cycle because they have implemented design thinking strategies at their school. And yet, this is different from typical design work in schools, because this situation was forced on us.
Eleven years ago, I helped to found what is now One Schoolhouse. For the first two years, there were many sleepless nights, constant second-guessing, numbers swimming around in my head trying to create a business model that would work, learning that some who I thought were allies weren’t, and developing new bonds with colleagues. I was constantly learning and growing, and I was constantly distracted by work, which took a toll on relationships and friendships. The high points are higher; the low points are lower. It was exhausting. Sound familiar?
Everyone is working hard right now, but patience is running low. Last spring, there was a palpable feeling that “we’re all in this together.” There was grace and gratitude from families who knew that distance learning is not what we set out to do. These days, grace and gratitude are gone.
We’re Changing, Fast
When a start-up is successful it changes the status quo -- what were accepted norms are no longer boundaries. We see that today, too. It’s almost as if the changes we imagined five to ten years out are now the reality today.
The successful post-COVID school isn’t asking itself, “How can we get back to normal?” It is asking, “How should we implement what we’ve learned to be different and better moving forward?” Online learning, for example, is here to stay. Schools will need to consider the extent to which hybrid options remain in a post-COVID world, asking questions like:
Colleges and universities have learned over the last ten years that just because there is a physical campus in Cambridge or Chapel Hill or Berkeley, it doesn’t mean that all learning from that university has to take place there. Successful independent schools are learning that lesson today (if they hadn’t already).
This summer, we trained thousands of teachers to prepare for a hybrid learning school year. I’m sure many teachers thought they were coming to us to learn a new technology or learn how to be better on video. But instead, they learned that hybrid and online learning is not about technology or bells-and-whistles; it’s about planning and purpose and connection and mastery--all skills and habits that are essential to good classroom teaching, too. The successful post-COVID school will help teachers transfer newly developed skills into their on-campus classrooms, transforming knowledge acquisition, assessments, reflection, and mastery for the next generation of students.
Where We Can Provide Structures, We Should
Back at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, we encouraged schools to follow three general guidelines: be calm and pause; be straightforward and clear; and create simple solutions. These tenets still hold. In times of increased stress and anxiety people cannot process information in the ways that they normally can. Systems have to be simple, and to the extent possible routines should be established.
My friend and colleague, Lisa Damour, made this point in her fantastic new parenting podcast, Ask Lisa. She notes that one of the keys to parenting during the pandemic is to offer your child incredible warmth and steady structures. For classroom teachers, it is important to keep this in mind, too. Develop a trust relationship built on each student knowing that the teacher is a partner in the learning process, using easy to follow structures that help a student navigate through a course. This summer, we advised schools to build a course template and learning cadence that could be followed across an entire school (or at least a division). These types of structures are incredibly important for creating normalcy and allowing students to find success in uncertain times.
It seems this advice, warmth and structure, can apply to ourselves, too. We need to be kind to ourselves as the pressures mount and change. And, we need routines, including and especially routines for self-care.
I’ll be sharing more thoughts in our Academic Leaders Webinar next week on September 16 at 12noon ET - recording posted below! I’ll hope you’ll join me then. Register for our webinar series here: https://bit.ly/3jVnJyC
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Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)