It seems so trite and self-serving to utter the phrases don’t panic or keep calm in the midst of what has become a genuine crisis for many. Are those holier-than-thou folks right? Of course, they are, but that doesn’t make them any more insightful or any less backpfeifengesicht, a German word meaning a face in desperate need of slapping. Even in moments where the circumstances would genuinely suggest panic like being confronted by a bear or when Ken has only a sliver of life against Chun Li’s Hyakuretsu Kyaku. Panic in so many situations will only lead to overreactions and poor decisions. But telling someone not to panic in moments where genuine fear is warranted, like a mounting pandemic and global financial meltdown, is insensitive and ineffective. Saying don’t both means there is something to worry about and causes you to worry more.
So this is not intended to be a light pat on the back post. I am not the kind of person or educator who has motivational posters with a kitty saying hang in there. I am not a fan of petty acronyms like “FAIL means your first attempt in learning”…🤮. Not that the sentiment doesn’t hold merit, but the method of conveying it is overly saccharine. I am exactly a glass-is-half-empty person, but I do tend to be a stiff-upper-lip realist. I look at the glass and say it contains 50% water, 50% air and each contains a number of micro-particles and, depending upon the source of the water, could be either healing or harmful. That’s me. But in the midst of that, I have found a genuine reason to be hopeful in the midst of the chaos.
Reason to Worry
Let me be abundantly clear that even beyond the COVID-19 virus itself, there are genuine reasons to despair. On a national scale, there has been a lack of competency regarding testing. Some politicians have chosen to blame another party or blame the media, or delayed closing crowded areas. Even more, there are normal people partying during the pandemic ignoring social distancing guidelines and fighting over groceries. Beyond that, there are mass lines and crowds at gun stores exacerbating the issue on multiple levels. And worst of all are those that are profiteering from hoarding and selling needed supplies the pandemic or hawking fake cures. It all brings me back to the wisdom spoken about people in dire situations.
And psychologists have regularly demonstrated the good of individuals and the evil of groups like in the Stanford prison experiment. Those actions people are now taking are merely the side effects of a larger issue which is fear of the many deaths that are still to come as a result of the virus or the vast suffering that is to come for the most vulnerable populations in the wake of the economic aftermath. That doesn’t mean we should be screaming in the streets or grocery stores or even while quarantined in our homes. It means we should do what we can to reasonably protect ourselves and our families and also those others who are in harm’s way.
I say this from a place of personal experience. I live in New York City which has now become the hub of coronavirus cases in the United States. And I had been for the last few weeks riding the subway to work as a teacher and coach silently questioning every cougher in my room and fastidiously cleaning everything. Honestly, that last part isn’t new for me. I have been generally neat freak opposed to handshakes and hugs while distancing myself to a degree from other adults (never kids). It is only now though where it seems less anti-social. And in the midst of this, I have also seen people behave horribly with men still spitting and throwing dirty tissues on the subway floor, a man smoking weed coughing all over a playground, and hate speech spouted at Asian commuters. There was even one man on a, thankfully uncrowded, bus shouting, “It’s great, we needed to reduce the population anyway. I’m enjoying the show!” So I have seen the terrible bits of humanity. I am not blind to it. But I do see brightness on the horizon.
REASON TO Hope
While we may choose to word it differently now, but there are words from another crisis that seem to echo eloquently now.
These are the times that try men’s souls.Thomas Paine
And I’ve seen that hold true (not just for men) as people are brought to extremes out of a mix of fear and courage in the face of that fear, selfishness and sheer generosity of spirit and deed. I have seen leaders and people step up or fail in the areas of education, industry, healthcare, and general life. This seems to bring people to their extremes and some have long been inept and can’t hide it and others are shining and caring for many. I only hope that after all of this is over those distinctions will remain clear.
I’ve seen it in the continued efforts of subway workers and food service employees who are all at great risk. It is visible in the efforts of sanitation workers and cleaners keeping us safer and tailors turning their talents to making surgical masks. And more than anywhere I have seen it in the public servants who make up our health care system and our schools.
And while it is clear that the doctors and nurses are our genuine heroes on the front lines. And though they have sometimes been sidelined or have lacked the necessary protective equipment because of the selfishness of others, they persevere and ask simply that others take precautions to help them and the system become overwhelmed.
One key place where I have seen wonderful people working incredibly hard is in our schools or more accurately our new remote schools. That may be because, as an educator and one who specializes in implementing technology into instruction in the largest school system in the country, I have a unique view of this shift as it takes place. Have I advocated for much this before? Yes. Did I bring things to the attention of district leaders on how we could improve collaboration, communication, and family involvement across our vast organization? And did many of them choose to ignore me? And do some of them still get mad because my work shines a light on their shortcomings? The answers are yes, yes, and I think so.
But now as I play a key role in preparing my district and even more broadly my city’s educational response in this time, I have seen vastly more good than bad. Yes, the city, many schools, and many teachers were woefully unprepared for this. Some didn’t even have a reliable method for parent contacts. And, of course, there are concerns about equity especially amongst students in poverty and students with disabilities. Some school systems were so concerned that they initially forbade online learning. Since I almost entirely with students with disabilities, I know those challenges first-hand.
I have shared extensively how technology can help provide students with disabilities access to the world in ways they couldn’t otherwise. I have also addressed New York City’s general challenge with equity and how it might partly be addressed through technology by providing free resources for low-income families and digital translation tools for multi-lingual learners. And to its credit, New York City has a plan to provide devices to all students who need them and methods to bring wifi. I have helped raise millions for schools including a massive new grant we were about to distribute, and strangely (or expectedly) some administrators continued to fail to respond in our effort to give them free stuff. So there are leadership shortcomings that still exist.
And while many schools have suddenly jumped on the new citywide G-Suite and O365 learning management systems for 1.2 million students and 80,000+ educators, there is a reason that blanket approach was never used in the past. There are many students, early learners and those with cognitive and/or physical disabilities, that would not be easily able to utilize those places for learning. But I’ve helped provide resources and training on other methods to make it as meaningful as possible. And I will be sharing more on remote learning in special education soon. And beyond that, the city has Regional Enrichment Centers for the families of essential workers and those in need.
Don’t get me wrong, there is no small number of terrible humans who have become teachers. There are far too many people in the profession for that not to be true. There are, of course, the blatantly terrible and abusive ones who need to be called out. There are the lazy ones who complain about anything expected of them beyond showing up who ask why would I ever work after 3 pm while simultaneously complaining “why should I work my regular schedule”. There are the ones who seem to hate the students speaking only of why any effort will fail. And there are those who cannot even fathom why an administrator could even be allowed to know what they’re doing. There was even 1 teacher railing about the evils of technology and how we need to listen to Alex Jones and not the CDC or “fake news”. I only had raised eyebrows for that. And then there are the administrators who have long been overbearing and see their power slipping or the absentee sit in the office admins who are ill-equipped for this moment. Yes, I have seen all of these people so far, but I tell you I am still very hopeful.
I am hopeful because those people have been the minority. There are still small caustic groups where hate fuels hate, but they are overshadowed by the many amazing educational acts I have seen. I have seen a growth mindset on display across the board, and I have been buoyed by it. There are those who have been reasonably lost and been forced to adjust quickly and they are. There are those with questions deeply seeking genuine answers and there are those questioning how the system has long been. There were those overly stressed, but, given a little time, quickly adjusted because they recognized their students’ needs.
There are those who recognize the importance that mindfulness and social-emotional learning will play for our students and staff in this time. There are those who teachers desperate to see their students and give them a virtual hug in these tumultuous times. There are those who were independent and have stepped in to lead their organizations when their leadership faltered or lacked the requisite knowledge. There have been so many wonderful online educator communities that have been supporting each other structurally and emotionally through this. And then there are those exemplars like my peers in the #NYCSchoolsTech crew who have been coordinating and guiding and just being all around rock-stars for years. But it is even more obvious now as they/we lead training and create curriculum and build entire digital schools from dust.
And that effort has been exhausting for me, but invigorating as well. It is because there is hope in those changes. And I’m hopeful logistically. Digital and online learning can allow for a wide range of possibilities that even improve equity by opening up new options for course opportunities and overcoming teacher shortages. There are wonderful digital creation opportunities and the allowance for self-guided learning that could actually improve instruction. No more is the hovering teacher simply lecturing and giving answers. No more is the teacher just pouring content despite us leaving the information age or providing rote practice without a purpose. Students are allowed to struggle some on their own as they are imbued with the 7 Cs of 21st-century learning. Differentiation is digitally possible as students create videos, visuals, and design projects to demonstrate their mastery and are intrinsically motivated. No longer are we doing math wrong.
I have seen roles change as paraprofessionals (teacher aides) are leading, due to their skills, the technological response in their schools while some teachers, who are less skilled, will focus on content rather than the method. I have seen cluster teachers (content areas like arts, STEM, and PE) and related service providers digging into a variety of resources to continue their work.
If fairness were the main issue, maybe I would whine about leading many of my district’s and city’s efforts at training and facilitating these changes while working a ridiculous number of hours. But ain’t no rest for the wicked, as they say. Ultimately I’m glad I’ve developed the skills to help my fellow educators, and I’ve genuinely been amazed and excited by their focus on learning and growing (rather than dividing). The inactive and ineffective will be seen clearly, but amazing educators like Rob Roszkowski (who I noted commented too) are also standing out now more than ever.
I agree there will be added strain and early learners, students with disabilities, and impoverished communities will be the hardest hit. But this was learning (for students & teachers) that was always going to be both difficult and necessary. But now we are doing it collectively with built-in support and built-in incentives. I could whine right now about the number of teachers and administrators leaning on me, but ultimately I’m glad I’ve developed the skills to really help my fellow educators. And I’ve genuinely been amazed and excited by their focus on learning and growing rather than the dividing and siloing that is sometimes the norm. The inactive and ineffective will be seen clearly, but amazing educators like Rob Roszkowski (who I noted commented too) are also standing out now more than ever. I have hope and see that the teachers are growing and getting better. The schools are connecting more. And ultimately I believe students and our future society will be better for it. And that’s what really matters.
Normally any major changes in a system are slow to come. There is always push-back from people who have grown comfortable. That is true in school, in businesses, and in society as a whole. Moving the ship of culture can not be done quickly as it’s likely to cast you overboard. Take the example of Amsterdam’s fire chief who attempted to end the toxic, racist culture embedded in the system and was nearly murdered for it. The one time those rules change though is in a crisis. Now is a chance to repair the shortcomings of our society and its inequity. Now is the time for the health care system to be rebuilt better. Now is the time for schools who are loathed to change to be pushed into more meaningful methods of reaching students. Those opportunities should bring hope, but they can also be easily squandered if our educational, political, and societal leaders don’t have, or refuse to be pushed into having, the proper vision for our world.
So I’m not inclined to look backward, and I am well aware that I am lucky to be younger, healthy, and continuing to work. And I recognize that is currently not true for so many others. I recognize the darkness we all currently find ourselves in, and I know that even in my own family I have a brother whose business is closed and faltering and a father who is highly at risk. I know that several of my co-workers are already ill and in weakened conditions. And I certainly have many concerns that are not being addressed by those in power nationally or more locally as well. But there are those who are rising to meet this moment. And though I am not given over to sentimentality or motivational posters. I find myself inclined to make this one. And that’s why I have hope.