In virtual church this morning, we read the verse from Isaiah 50 that says "The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher." As a lifelong educator, myself, I ponder that quite seriously. Do I believe that the tongue of a teacher is a gift and talent I have been given? Yes, and I believe it is also my responsibility to use it for good and not for evil.
I have watched so many educators deal with turmoil this past year with grace and courage. What kind of courage? Some people have criticized schools and teachers for not wanting to "get back to work". Just what do these critics think teachers have been doing for the past year? I assure you that eating Bonbons is not part of that equation. "But teaching online has to be easier. You can do it in your pajamas" spout some of the critics. Pajama bottoms or not (well, don't take that phrase out of context----stick with me), teachers have had to learn (and teach their own students) an entire new way to conduct the business of school. From learning and implementing new digital tools (both quickly and with fidelity, I might add, so to minimize wasted time that should be used to teach and learn), to dealing with students and parents who struggle with getting on Zoom in the first place, to going back to school face to face one day only to be told "Nope, we have to go back online---we have three cases of COVID in our building", it is enough to make a teacher's head spin (and maybe even spit out pea soup in the spinning).
What can these critics be thinking? I wonder to myself and aloud to you. Imagine trying to corral 28 Kindergarten children into their seats, when some are still really YOUNG Kinders, and trying to keep them focused on you while you teach at the front of the room. You must constantly use proximity to remind them to focus on the board or on the other student who is speaking. Now, change the game: the Kinders are no longer in the classroom. They are on Zoom----some with absolutely no adult supervision, because, well....Mom had to go to work. This is not a myth I'm creating---this is real life that I have witnessed through watching teachers and student teachers teach all over the country. The students who have the capacity to maintain some semblance of attention while the teacher has them identify words that rhyme with "dog" hold up white boards or write on virtual white boards. Those who don't quite possess that necessary maturity are essentially in the outfield picking daisies. Seriously, they are seen petting their cat that walks between them and the computer; they are heard yelling at their brothers or sisters; they are trying to listen while someone in the house has loud 70s disco music blaring in the background (you can't make this stuff up); and you are trying to teach while all this is going on!
Without ever deviating from their primary purpose of keeping students' learning first and foremost, these teachers have given up their "free time" (that is a misnomer, by the way, as most teachers do not possess free time) to talk with parents about how to turn up the volume on their computers or to work with students with special needs one-on-one as a classroom setting on Zoom simply doesn't cut it for some students' learning abilities or to adapt lessons that are meant to be taught in person but have to be quickly adjusted to virtual learning.
How about if we all remember that teachers have been given a Goliath sized task, and they, like David, have a small slingshot in their hands. But they are making it work, trust me. I am blessed to see it happen on an almost daily basis, and it makes me so proud to be an educator.
Is COVID wreaking havoc on education right now? Yes, COVID is real and affecting people all over the world. I'm so grateful vaccines are becoming more readily available. Dave and I are both getting our first vaccines this week. But it will be awhile, I am guessing, before school looks the way some critics think it should look.
How about if we support teachers and educational leaders instead of criticizing them?
How about if we focus on solutions rather than being constant naysayers?
How about if we use appropriate language and words on social media instead of calling one group of people horrible names just because they might not believe the same things we do?
How about if we model for the children growing up right now how to have civil discussions without using foul language?
For me and my house, we will choose to eliminate any posts on social media that use foul language (I always try to remind people that using such language simply shows a lack of vocabulary----of all the words in the English language, you still revert to cursing?), and I will forever remind my connections that we are trying to do the right thing and stay positive about solutions.
I work with many student teachers, teachers who are getting their master's degrees in Educational Leadership, as well as with teachers and administrators in districts all over the country. To say I am blessed to get a peephole view into the "life" of education on a daily basis would be a massive understatement. The one common theme I see in so much of the work I do is resilience. Resilience was a major topic about which I studied when I was getting my master's degree in counseling. In a much newer version of his work, Frederic Flach (2004) talks about how resilience "describes the psychological and biological strengths required to ...master change" (p. xvii). I have always said that I love change. In fact, about every seven or eight years, I have begun or at least added on a new residence, job, responsibility at my same job, etc. There are certain points in life in which shifts occur. Flach calls these times of shift bifurcation points. Those might include marriage, death of a spouse, parent or child, new job, retirement, etc.
But I also believe there can be spiritual bifurcation points. One for me was my decision to quit drinking. I truly had a spiritual tap on my shoulder that said, "If you want to ensure you retain your marriage, career, lack of moral bankruptcy, integrity, etc., it might be wise to stop doing what you are doing". I grew up in a home in which alcoholism ran rampant. My mother went into a treatment center when I was 9 years old and was a recovering (we never say "recovered") alcoholic the rest of her life, until she passed away in 2005. My dad may never have said he was an alcoholic, but instead said he was "just an old drunk". My own recovery didn't require me to lose a home, a car, a license, a husband; but those were all "yets". If I had stayed on the path I was on, I might very well have ended up with any of those consequences. As a child, life wasn't picture perfect, by any means. But lots of people had rough childhoods. Why do some people come out of those bifurcation points in jail, with misery, or even having committed suicide? Why do some people come out of those situations with only minor scrapes and scuffs on their knees? Flach says it has to do with that resilience that can be helped with a few characteristics, two of which I always like to talk about and focus on. In order to come out of a major traumatic situation without it causing lifelong destruction to one's self, two factors might be:
*a relationship with a mentor of sorts (someone who has your back and believes in you)
*a sense of humor
I have been so very blessed in my own trajectory of growing up (still in process, by the way) to have mentors too many to count or to thank. These mentors have come along "just in time" in many cases (a 5th grade teacher, Claudia Edgerton, who saw that I needed a relationship with her just as much as, if not more than, I needed to learn about fractions. She wrote me little notes that acknowledged the difficulty of being a child of recent divorce and all that entails. While there have been so very many others in the 40+ (let's just leave it there, folks----just move along) years since then, I'd like to focus on that one, as it relates to our role as educators. In working with my graduate students, I frequently hear things like, "I wish I had a principal who cared about me as a person". I also have had student teachers who appreciate the connectedness they feel to their cooperating teacher and to me. They say it helps them feel like they can talk just as much about their growth areas as they can their developing strengths. Some of my workshop participants talk about how they wish they had a principal who would talk with them instead of simply talking at them. In other words, they want the relationship piece.
For all you educators out there, who teach pre-school to doctoral courses, I am not talking about being friends with our students. On the contrary, I tell my graduate students, "I don't mind if you are really mad at me for being tough on you when I grade your papers. I would mind, however, if you left this course thinking your writing was appropriate to become a school administrator when it is not. I wouldn't be able to sleep at night if I didn't help you become the best educational leader you can be." Sadly, too many students tell me that they have always gotten every single point on every single paper up until the course they are taking with me, and it is a shock to see the specific feedback (not always stellar) written directly on their paper. I cringe when I hear students (with whom I talk to on the phone or on Zoom calls to establish that relationship, because they won't care a bit about what I have to say if they don't know how much I care about what they know when they leave me) tell me they have never had a professor write on their paper. Wait,...what??? How can you learn from your mistakes if you don't know what those mistakes are?? I love hearing the words similar to "Thank you for caring enough to be tough on me. I knew my papers weren't great in my last class, but the professor didn't say anything so I got used to being mediocre. You've made me realize I don't want that for myself, and I don't want it for my own students or the teachers who I will end up working with when I become a principal."
Every once in a while, I have students drop my course, stating they didn't know it was going to be this much work. While it makes me sad, I take great solace in those other students who start out the first week of class, mad as hornets about their grade on their first paper; talk through the requirements and high expectations; and then come out of the course, writing me thank you notes that bring genuine tears to my eyes. Some of those students are "forever" relationships; ones that ask me to help them with resumes; ones that ask me to watch them teach, virtually, and model what a reflection conference should look like, etc.
Every single day, teachers of today are being asked to change in ways that truly have become bifurcation points for them. Digital learning for Kindergarten students is a strange, exotic bird that requires a new type of food, feeding schedule, etc. And so it goes. But I see so many resilient educators and educational leaders who not only are demonstrating the ability to "roll with the punches" but are also even able to do it with a sense of humor. The stories they tell me about how their students, after only seeing them on Zoom, see them in the grocery store and say, "Wow!! You are tall!" (because height has no meaning on Zoom) or the fact that the line of 2020 is likely going to be "You're muted. Take yourself off mute"---those stories are what keep us sane and ready to handle new changes that come our way. Resilience....I pray you have some measure of it.
Just for today, I would ask that you examine when your major bifurcation points have occurred, how you remain resilient, and how you can be a source of strength for others.