Gratitude In The Disruption

It was late in the afternoon, long after the last bell, when my mentor reached deep into the back of a filing cabinet, pulled out some old files that looked like they hadn’t been touched in a decade and touted triumphantly, “I never throw anything out. Education is a pendulum, constantly swinging back and forth. If you stay in the game long enough, what is new will become old, and then come back to being new again.”

The old adage of education being a pendulum has proven true in my years in education. Programs are replaced with new, “innovative”, highly researched programs, sold to districts as the cure to whatever problem they may currently be facing. With time, the program becomes outdated, and the pendulum often swings far in the other direction, being replaced by a philosophy that is in opposition to the last set of beliefs. The phonics of yesterday are replaced by the whole language of today, only to reemerge as the phonics of tomorrow. A workshop model for literacy instruction is replaced with an anthology, only to return to a workshop model. The belief that math is best taught in a hands on, experiential way, later losing traction to a mastery of facts, “drill-and-kill” approach, returning to the experiential hands on approach after years of timed math tests and basic fact practice. Plans change, philosophies evolve as research examines the changes in education, and the pendulum swings. Gently to and fro, never truly off course, just a gentle sway.

Then came March of 2020. Overnight, our gently swaying pendulum, rocking back and forth on its axis, was flipped upside down. Gale force winds entered the scene, sending our pendulum flying left, right, over the axis, and in all directions. A system that had spent decades swaying back and forth, was now finding itself swaying in circles. At the helm of this crisis were teachers, forced to make changes in real time, as the world around them collapsed.

The rate of change in education is not known for its lightning speed, but overnight an entire field was finding that what worked yesterday would not work today.

Now, as we approach being a quarter of the way into the 2020-2021 school year, I find myself questioning if we, as educators, should try to find gratitude in the disruption. What if, when the world settles down, and COVID is under control, we realize that what’s best for children is not a system that sways back and forth? What if we discover that this gentle sway has lost many children in its path, children who don’t function in a to-and-fro pattern, but rather perform best going side-to-side? What if, some of what we are doing now, is what’s best for some kids?

In this world of virtual teaching we have been forced to learn new technology and find new ways to communicate with both parents and students. Overwhelmingly, I have heard from both parents and teachers that a virtual Back to School Night was preferred to the traditional method, allowing a streamlined presentation and not requiring parents to find babysitters for a short evening information session. In the classroom, using technology to connect children with their peers and teachers has allowed some children a reprieve from social challenges that dominated their focus when in a brick-and-mortar classroom. While a fully virtual learning environment won’t work for many children (mine included!), it does work for some, and perhaps the end result shouldn’t be to just ignore what we’ve learned during this and return to the same-old-same-old.

Educators can be slow to adapt to change. Most teachers are proud of the work they do and find the approaches they take to be successful. So why, if they are meeting the needs of the children, would they need to change the whole system? Perhaps, if nothing else, 2020 has shown us that life is unpredictable and what we take for granted as constants, like a classroom full of children, can be swept away from us in a moment's notice. Even without notice, without training, without programs aligned with these changes, the show must go, so educators faced the gale force wind of change, head on, and made it work. Because change can come at any time with little to no warning, the need to change has become ever so important.

Perhaps, one day, we will look back on 2020 not as the year that broke us as educators, but as the year that started the process of rebuilding us.

We will not rebuild in the same format, maybe our pieces will go in different places and cracks in our foundations that we always assumed to be strong will be permanent, but perhaps we will rebuild in a way that allows the passing of time to take place in a fashion that is not a pendulum, but rather an evolving atom of progress, with ideas going in all directions, centering around the key nucleus of our focus: children.

I’m grateful that in 2020, as unpredictable as it has been for educators, one thing has stayed constant, and that’s our focus on the children. Let’s break the pendulum of education, and come out of this crisis stronger, with children as our center, and the permission to explore education in all directions, not just gently swaying back and forth. Progress is not made when we constantly travel the same path. It’s time to allow the storms that have thrown us off course to guide us back to finding a new and better way to work in a system that has never pivoted far off its path before.

Stephanie Cardoso is a fifth grade teacher in Edison, New Jersey. She is the 2014 New Jersey State Teacher of the Year Finalist, has been named a "Teacher who Makes Magic", and has been honored on ABC World News as the Person of the Week.



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