You don’t need to spend a lot of time on social media or chatting with friends to learn that American teachers are in a bad place right now. School is starting everywhere, and nowhere does it look or feel like “school” as we knew it a short year ago.
It’s the second leg of a grief trip for educators. Last spring teachers lost and had to mourn the remainder of a year that had been full of the usual promise, right up to the proms and graduations that never happened, or happened only as sometimes clever, always bittersweet ersatz versions of familiar, uplifting rituals that for teachers are a celebration of youth, the future, the hard work of kids, and their own faith in their work and in themselves.
This time the loss is deeper. Yes, the familiar rites and rituals of a new school year are now masked and shielded, but so is the whole enterprise of teaching and learning. What lies behind the mask of next week or is distanced into October and November? Are the holidays of November and December already a write-off?
And what of teachers’ actual work? Schools spent mountains of administrative and staff time over the summer crafting elaborate plans to make campuses “safe” and learning “normal.” Embedded in each 25 or 30-page plan focused on assuaging the anxieties of parents and guardians was the implicit dismantling of routines and cultures that, if not intentionally designed as such, had become psychic home, the comfort zone, for teachers and students.
Schools that did not cast a wide net of teacher participation in this planning did so, as is emerging, at their peril. The effort to make school feel normal, though masked and distanced against the backdrop of a deadly disease, could at best only hold out the promise that some kind of teaching was going to take place on campuses—campuses that look and feel nothing like the places from which teachers and students dispersed in March. This is the largest-scale change any working teacher will ever have experienced, and yet this upheaval is touted not as that but as a return to the familiar.
It is not familiar. Nothing like this has ever happened before. At least schools and teachers and families have some familiarity, however unwanted, with fully remote learning. But no one has been asked before to teach students simultaneously in the classroom and at home; no one has had to plan for in-and-out cohorts of learners. This is change on a cosmic scale, new practices and expectations whose full import for the lives of teachers cannot yet be fully tallied.
Academic leaders, although you yourselves are caught up in this paroxysm of change, you need to reach out to and support your teachers. Whatever control you had in designing this new year for your school, for considering contingencies, your teachers had less, and as much as they wanted to come back to school and see actual students, they are discovering that they are still living in a world of ineffable loss.
The first step is to acknowledge this loss, its scale and its many manifestations. Acknowledge, too, the fear that all the elaborate planning may turn out to be just a stopgap, or at least recognize teachers’ uncertainty about whether what is now in place is sustainable.
Teachers are not okay right now. They’re caught in a world of change, and they need to be helped through the process. The situation we’re in may not be predictable, but the stations of the cross that educators everywhere are bearing represent a definable cycle. Familiarity with this cycle and a reflective understanding of each stage can help people process what’s happening and help them emerge, if not unscathed, strong and resilient.
And you know what, O Academic Leader? You are in this cycle, too, and your efficacy as a leader is impaired until you take the time to reflect on what’s going on.
At One Schoolhouse we’re trying to help. Rather than solace, though please know that my thoughts are with every leader, teacher, and kid in every school, we can offer tools and ideas for moving forward. To this end we’ve put together a one-week course for academic leaders that uses the change cycle as an analytical and action frame for creating stronger, more empathetic, and more effective supports for teachers. Learn more about this course here.
But start by delving into the anxieties and concerns of your teachers. As educators we’re all in the same boat right now, and whether it feels like a lifeboat under competent command or a Roman galley about to ram or be rammed by an enemy of unreckoned power is up to our academic leaders.
Peter Gow became the Independent Curriculum Resource Director at One Schoolhouse after a forty-plus-year career as a teacher and administrator. Peter is a prolific writer and presenter and author of multiple books on independent schools and independent school teaching and leadership. Above all, he is passionate in his belief that connection and collaboration are essential if independent schools are to live up to the promises made in their statements of mission and values and fulfill their public purpose.