What can we do now? We teach.

We have all been blown about by a myriad of feelings these past few weeks.  I have had moments of “Hurray! No more driving to soccer practice!” alongside moments of deep grieving as my children shed tears about long-awaited events floating into oblivion like dandelion fuzz dispelled by the wind.  Some moments the feelings intersected, resulting in a numbing effect. Other times they produced strong disbelief. Sometimes in the middle of the night I found myself rising out of deep sleep and semi-consciously grasping for some sort of wisdom, where is the grown-up that will tell us what is to come in the future, and what needs to be done? Then a sinking sense of fear-laced terror. Oh yeah. I am the grown up.  One of them anyway.  Thank God I’m just one of them.  

Why write except to tell the truth? Especially now.  And the truth I want to tell now is what I observed this week, this terrible-wonderful-impossible week in which faculty were asked to somehow transform their courses from face-to-face to online in the midst of caring for babies and children and displaced college students and worrying about a global pandemic.  You all did this. You did this all the while juggling with news that your spouse’s business lost a great deal of money or their hours got cut in half because of no business. You did this while you watched the stock market plummet and you worried about your retirement savings and you went shopping for your elderly parents and neighbors to keep them out of harm’s way. I asked myself again and again if it was fair to ask you to do this.  I’m not the only one.  Because let’s be honest, we can’t do the same things online we planned to do face-to-face, especially with one small week of planning under our belt and the stress of a pandemic underlying this work.  

Nevertheless, I don’t think we are wrong for plunging ahead in our course offerings. In times of crisis, we are reminded of our inherent lack of control.  In times of loss of control, we reach for the same things and ways of being that sustain us in the everyday ordinary. For me and many of you, that thing, at its kernel, is teaching.  I disagree with those that argue that we should respond to this crisis by closing up shop and giving up with triviality such as teaching/learning. Teaching and learning is at the center of our being human together. Certainly what and how we teach is necessarily shifting in this crisis. But learning, as we’ve always known it, is untethered to the four walls of classrooms. Why stop now?

Besides, when I see my children, I see a sixth grader and third grader and kindergartener grasping for a schedule, for a return to normalcy.  They are missing their friends, their teachers, the feeling of accomplishment upon learning a thing and doing an assignment. As I join my colleagues on those google hangouts, I see faculty-leader after leader after leader step out of the shadows and into the light: Have you thought about this resource? Have you considered this kind of schedule?  This platform might work for that. Remember, our students will need ways to connect with each other and us. I read that blessed google hangout chat box, that miraculous backchannel that I didn’t know I’ve been missing all my life all of our past face-to-face faculty meetings.  There, we help each other when the main speaker in the moment is busy presenting. There, we interject humor and informality and when we hear the whistling of a colleague’s tea kettle in the background, we type “Hey, Dean . . . I want a cup of tea too!”  There, we pose questions for the speaker and they invite us in to put voice to them. There, we share links and resources. There, we cheer on the speaker or presenter so they can somehow feel the warmth even when they can’t see our heads nodding, the smiles on our face, the reassurance of steady eye contact.

Don’t get me wrong.  We have all felt the strain. We have all started one task and gotten distracted by the 52 billion other tasks demanding our attention. We have suffered from  information overload. Some of us shed tears when we are overwhelmed, and some of us get irritated at each other, and some of us just shut down and retreat. Nevertheless, I have been astounded by what I have seen this week. My brilliant office-mate, colleague, and friend, Megan Whitacre, has been the epitome of everything a tech integration specialist could be in a crisis like this.  I have heard pep talks and seen tears and humanity from leadership that have pushed us all into a new realm of authenticity together.  I sent out a call to some faculty members to share some teaching/learning nuggets of gold, and their generosity was only superseded by the legit quality of the information they shared during their webinars and in their new policies , plans, and weekly approaches.  At grade-level and department meetings, our chairs and team leads have inspired all of us to coordinate, collaborate, and keep the students at the center.  I have sat individually with faculty member after faculty member after faculty member and am simply blown away with the care, intentionality, and overarching quality of the experiences that they have planned for their students next week. Faculty at St. Andrew’s aren’t in some kind of denial as they plan; they aren’t ignoring the swirl of chaos around us. Rather, they are acknowledging it in age-appropriate ways and relating it to their curricula in Science, History, English, Math, and more as we move ahead.

Julia Chadwick has said in her emails, again and again, “Innovate, Ready or not, here we come.”  But from my vantage point, this past week’s collaborations prove that we have already come.  We have already innovated. Now it’s time to be with our students in the ways we have designed.

Don’t misunderstand me.  You may not have mastered all the platforms you want yet.  Your plans will certainly fall short. Your tech at some point undoubtedly will fail.  Your students will misunderstand your schedule or your instructions or will miss your office hours and class. We will get back up and try again. 

Let me hold space for you to assert that you all worked miracles last week.  Your hours thinking and planning and attending training and asking questions this past week will serve to forge that “invisible string”  of connection for our students that Chelsea Freeman read about (The Invisible String, by Patricia Karst) in chapel last Friday.  It is continuing this connection that you have already established with your students, not the perfect mastery of all the platforms and things, that is “best practice” in online education.  If your mind is swirling with all that you don’t know, all the articles you haven’t read, all the ideas you haven’t had time to implement yet, please take a deep breath. Do this one thing next week and every week of teaching, online and face-to-face, to come: connect with your students.  Make sure they know you are there for them and there will be new things to fill their minds in the days to come. And during those moments you have carefully designed, as they watch your screen casts or attend your google hangout or fill out that worksheet, they will be reminded of this: the whole world has not shut down.  We at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School are still here, teaching and learning . . . together.

In the spirit of this same invisible string, it is more important than ever that you continue sharing together during our google hangouts, on this blog, through google chat, via email, or on this google doc shared internally for our faculty. Share lessons about platforms you love, about schedule adaptions you’ve made, new routines you’ve established. Share stories about how a student made you cry, made you laugh, made you think differently. Share how you and your loved ones are coping. Share ways that you’ve made room for self-care. Share until the darkness and uncertainty of this strange moment shrinks in the light of the love of our community. You are here. I am here. We are here. Let’s do this.

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