Friday the 13th, March 2020.
Fear of the unknown hung heavily in the air. News of a dangerous and deadly new virus circulated for weeks, seeming distant at first and then spreading closer to home with increasing velocity.
At 2:33 p.m., eight minutes before dismissal for the weekend, our principal’s calm voice broke through the schoolwide PA system, interrupting end-of-class routines: Good afternoon. As we head into the weekend, I want to share with you, that it would be a good idea to take home your learning materials. As of now, we anticipate still having school next week and not closing. It would, however, be a good idea to take home anything you think you might need, in case we are not back for a long time. The words “long time” lingered with a question mark in our minds.
Missing school for more than a few days was almost unheard of. Schools never cancel, unless they absolutely must. In Wisconsin, our schools close occasionally due to arctic temperatures and rapid, heavy accumulations of snow. The year before, an extremely unusual cold snap shut down some districts for an entire week as temperatures plummeted to -23 Fahrenheit with wind chills of -55. At the time, we thought it was an extreme, once-in-a-lifetime experience. But now, as the dismissal bell rang, a nagging question began to take shape: how long is a “long time?”
The full gravity of the announcement did not strike us until text messages from colleagues flashed across our phones. They wrote that their children’s districts had already canceled school for the next month! What!? Caught in the sea of students collecting their belongings and heading toward busses, we experienced the moment as surreal. We began to seek one another out and gathered in a small group outside room 230. The realization started to sink in that this might be the last time we’d be together at school for a very, very long time. How long – no one knew. How it would work, how we would teach, how we would function on a day-to-day basis – no one knew.
Suddenly and unexpectedly, we found ourselves in a new world.
At the time of this writing, the Covid-19 virus has infected over 60 million people and taken the lives of over 1.4 million people worldwide. It has altered the way our interconnected world operates globally and locally. In this new Covid-19 world, we were confined to our homes as the invisible virus war raged on. Fear struck in our hearts as we no longer felt safe to meet our friends, go to the grocery store, or do so many of the things we had taken for granted just days before. In a moment, life as we knew it had changed.
The two weeks that followed the initial school closing were a transition period. We would later discover that many transition periods would follow, as frequent change became the new normal.The first two weeks were, however, a planned stop.
Well, not really.
On the outside looking in, it appeared as if nothing was happening on our education frontline. However, that was not at all what was happening on the inside. School leaders were mobilizing plans and resources. Chromebooks were being distributed to students. Decisions about communication tools, protocols, and online platforms were being made. The district leaders sent a clear message to staff: Take care of yourselves. We need to be flexible, caring, forgiving, understanding, and ready to change gears when something doesn’t work.
This was going to be challenging work. We didn’t know exactly what it would look like or what to expect.
Mobilizing the staff.
The third week was dedicated to transitioning the staff to the new reality of online teaching. Weekly staff meetings, twice weekly department meetings and frequent content team meetings, supports offered by instructional coaches and tech “experts” (who were also learning new technologies on the go)… Zoom! Everything was conducted online, not in person. Prior to this time, we had never Zoomed before and here we were zooming along – getting up to speed on procedures for communicating with families and reporting unengaged students, platforms for learning, and discussions around grading.
Language not active in our everyday use quickly emerged. We began using it so much, it soon felt as if it had always been there – virtual office hours, zooming, breakout rooms, zoom-bombing, virtual backgrounds, screen sharing, essential workers, flattening the curve, shelter-in-place, quarantining, personal protective equipment (PPE), masks, face shields, pandemic, Covid-19.
Ready, Set, What?!
What happened? After an intense week of staff learning and collaborating via Zoom, students joined us for school online. Well, actually, “joined us” doesn’t quite capture what happened.
Let’s pause a moment to describe more clearly what the set-up was. Our district opted for asynchronous rather than synchronous learning. Whoa! These terms, among many others we had never needed before, were being casually used by our administrators. Realizing that our learning curve would continue to be steep, we googled the definitions and wrote them down, so we could refer to them and keep everything straight. Asynchronous, we learned, meant that we wouldn’t be meeting in real time. Instead lessons would be posted, with or without videos. Students would be able to work through them at their own pace, taking more or less time as needed, accessing them as was best for their lives… In theory, a great idea; in REALITY: it was really, really difficult.
The real-time communication we were familiar with and good at, reading students’ body language, tone of voice, choice of words to guide our next teaching moves – poof! – not possible. The quick conversation with a colleague with a quick question in the hall that could solve a problem in an instant – poof! – no longer there. Instead, we spent hours agonizing over how to create meaningful lessons that would have clear directions, that would focus on the essential learning goals, that would not cause more angst for our students who were already going through so much.
The ways we knew how to teach and the comfort we had in our surroundings, uprooted as we relocated to distance learning.
Teaching in this new-to-us world initially felt like driving through fog, when you have a sense of where the road is leading, but can only see a little bit ahead. Everything seemed clouded in uncertainty.
This fog was exhausting! It took so much energy and time just to navigate this world. Sundays, we would each spend countless hours figuring out how to post meaningful lessons with all the necessary components to each of the classes we taught. We double, triple, and quadruple checked to make sure that our posts aligned with our lesson plans. The asynchronous format did not guarantee that further clarification would occur. Neither of us ever posted on the weekends because we felt students needed to have some downtime for self-care. Yet, we did not succeed in practicing what we hoped our students would practice. The boundaries of work and home blurred. Work happened any hour, any moment. Our family members would often interrupt with questions about their own school work. Stuffed animals “zoom-bombed” every video call. We organized, reorganized, and re-reorganized our “learning-teaching spaces.” This was the reality of our new work environment.
And what about our students’ spaces? Their reality included having to care for siblings or parents, sharing devices, a lack of quiet space, and even the fear of others “seeing” and “hearing” what their space was like. There were so many other distractions – video games, social media, TikTok, YouTube, Netflix, and the constant stream of sensationalized media that meant they had to try to determine “Fake News” from the real thing. The list went on and on. We tried to sense what they were grappling with: missing their friends, missing sports, missing clubs and organizations they belong to, missing events, especially those key high school experiences like prom, competitions, performances, graduation. Graduation.
Their boundaries between school and home blurred like ours…some students even began turning in assignments at 2 or 3 a.m.
Much time was devoted to trying to communicate, but frequently we were getting crickets in return. Why? It seemed to be due to the enormity of the situation and the many unknowns. There was the repeated realization that “We have never done this before!” With our familiar, comfortable ways of communicating gone, miscommunications happened. Often they were exacerbated by the lag in response times and grew into greater than necessary frustrations. Our mantras became: Handle this with grace. Try to understand. Keep communicating. And, especially, learn!
We learned to lead with our strengths.
We were all beginners again, both students and teachers, all of us immersed in a new world. We felt lost, as if a thick fog had dropped on us making it difficult to find our way.
But we weren’t completely lost. We carried with us our experience and strengths that would help us navigate the new situations we faced. Strengths-based collaboration was an invaluable tool on our journey. It led us to meet more frequently with our departments, with colleagues in our content areas, and with instructional coaches and leaders. We made greater gains in learning and teaching than we would have made working in isolation. We harnessed our persistence, perseverance, and risk-taking abilities to try something new and learn from our mistakes. We began to follow the path of innovation – building on what we knew and experimenting with new combinations in order to adapt successfully to new situations.
In the sudden switch to online learning, we were reminded what helps when you are a new learner in a strange world. We felt a surge of relief each time we were granted grace by colleagues, administrators, parents, and students. Colleagues took the time to listen to us and offered invaluable advice on our lessons before we posted them for students. Technologically savvy teachers repeatedly – re-peat-ed-ly – explained and modeled how to use tech tools effectively. Hearing how to do something once was not enough even though we were highly motivated to learn. Simply receiving a link to a how-to video wasn’t the right kind of help, instead we needed each other’s expertise, wisdom and generosity. Each of us was a novice learner in certain areas, so we shared learner-to-learner, growing and adapting to this new language and culture. We found our way – together.
We learned to innovate.
Despite the uncertainty of the world, we learned that we are capable of adapting to new environments by drawing on our strengths. We are discovering that this Covid disruption to the way we have always done things grants us an unprecedented opportunity to rethink and redesign education. It certainly has brought home to us the urgency and importance of creating new ways to build on the strengths of today’s diverse learners in order to prepare them for tomorrow’s world. As teachers, we are always taking students into new worlds, be it new content, new social settings, new grade levels, new school settings, or new ideas. As we prepare to design and deliver instruction going forward, we want to draw on the new insights we ourselves have gained as we faced and adapted to the sudden and unexpected disruption.
Most importantly, we learned how powerful empathy is.
The most profound lesson we learned came from recognizing first-hand the essential connection there is between empathy and growth. We were jolted back into experiencing the world through the lens of a novice learner. We gained a renewed understanding of what it means to be a student, to be constantly navigating new content in settings outside familiar environments. We were reminded just how exhausting and challenging it can be. And yet you keep moving forward, propelled in great part by the generosity, grace and patience of others. Seeing our students show up, full of trust and hope, inspires us to design and deliver instruction with deep empathy so that we can guide them in the life-changing process of learning.
Carley Goodkind and Beth DeGuire are high school language teachers outside of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. They reflect on their experience and insights gained from the Covid disruption to school in the spring of 2020.