Freedom from Fear
As we have had literally hundreds of conversations and other interactions with academic leaders this spring and now into the early summer of this plague year, we at One Schoolhouse continue to be inspired by the deep, deep desire of educators to step up and do the hard, hard work required to finish up the 2019–2020 academic year and plan for the next. Through successes and failures, experiments that have worked and others that haven’t, and the multifarious frustrations of students, families, and colleagues, school folks have carried on.
Through it all (so far) we’ve encountered a few new terms: quaranteenagers, sync and async, and social distancing, not to mention COVID considerations, COVID contradictions, and COVID casualties (in multiple, generally tragic forms). And hybrid, a word that in my life once meant abundant crops of corn and then cars with some electric power available—and that now means education that can switch back and forth between online and on- campus. For us at One Schoolhouse, hybrid is not just a term of art but a term of hope, predicated on our belief that on-campus learning will be back, and not just back, but better.
One of the strategies that we’ve been recommending to schools is to take this opportunity to do some difficult work around aligning their curricula to their missions and values. Nothing we’re suggesting is new: analyze your aspirational and foundational statements and work backwards from this analysis to build a learning program that will prepare students to take the school’s ideals out into the world. What seems new is that we’ve offered a schema for this learning program: a set of standards to guide teachers in designing, building, and teaching this mission- aligned curriculum built for their very own students in their very own schools.
We believe, strongly, in curriculum built around goals for learning and understanding and not around the exigencies of content coverage. And we believe that such a curriculum, mediated by mission and values considerations, can liberate teachers and teaching. We believe that such curricula foster cultures of teaching and learning that give more than lip service to the actual lives of students. Within such cultures, real-world considerations—of relevance, of social justice, of insistently urgent current issues—may take their places in classrooms not as “tangents” or distractions but as central to the learning and teaching enterprise.
But enough about what we believe, because we have also become aware of a special kind of challenge facing school leaders and academic administrators, a challenge that has been around all along but has been revealed in some of the responses we have encountered to our recommendations.
Will our school survive or not? Will less than stellar performance in the dispersal to distance mode this spring plus uncertainties around the return of international students and the nature of the new school year’s opening—on campus, online, on hold—spell doom for the institution itself? Will the school become another COVID casualty?
Fear of faculty.
Teachers have busted their humps since learning went home in March, and for many the struggles to adapt have ravaged their sense of competence and confidence. The looming necessity to make far more fundamental adaptations—by following the One Schoolhouse recommendations, for example—has put many already disheartened teachers in a hard, fearful, and defensive place. Being asked not only to spend a summer of regrouping and preparation but also a summer of learning and re-learning is a heavy, heavy lift. And some teachers are inclined to dig in their heels.
Add words like “standards” to the conversation, and some anxious teachers begin to unravel. Recommend ways to streamline and regularize communication to reduce student (and family) confusion and stress, and the unraveling accelerates.
Many of us at One Schoolhouse have led faculties through a process of change. One of our past administrators, Lorri Palko, is now a consultant on change management, and she has offered a webinar for us on the challenges of change during the current crisis. Change, like grief, is a process with certain predictable stages, and it can be led and managed in ways that minimize disruption and distress. It’s not easy, but it can be done.
The changes of the summer of 2020 are epic in scope and substance, and as we work with school administrators and instructional leaders, we encounter fear in various forms. Fear of faculty predominates in our how-to conversations, and we have heard expressed in many ways and in various degrees a deep anxiety about having to adopt practices that might infringe on a faculty’s traditional “autonomy” as well as teacher creativity and individuality. These anxieties, when expressed, are often code for “We are afraid to ask our faculty to make any significant changes in
any aspect of their practice.”
We have to look to school cultures to fully understand this. We know that in far too many independent schools— despite or even in opposition to the waves of change that have been sweeping through schools in the past three decades and the clear and even strident calls for more forward-thing curriculum and assessment that takes into account new understandings of how children learn and grow—past practices have insulated faculties from the imperatives to change and develop. I have been asked to come to schools to present to and sometimes work with faculties that had remained more or less untouched by the hand of professional development for years.
But no school can be insulated any more in the age of COVID-19. If we've allowed "professional distancing" from unsettling new ideas to get in the way of doing better work here and there, let us embrace the reality of social distancing and its causes and meaning as a potentially powerful albeit sometimes painful impetus that might move us all forward.
It’s not just the usual doom-sayers who are pointing out the existential threat to schools posed by COVID-19; we’ve already seen closings happen. Schools that have been teetering on the brink have gone over the edge, sometimes for demographic reasons that may have been inevitable. Even so, now there is danger for every school.
The present opportunity: being fearless.
There is also opportunity. We are all too well aware of the degree to which pandemic isolation and dislocation has pushed us as individuals to anxious reflection, and I am sure I am not alone in the internal vows I have made to be better about this and that. (Whether I keep all these vows will be another story.) Schools, too, as collective bodies of spirit, belief, and hope, need to start doing the same kinds of reflection.
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Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)