Where Do We Go From Here?

A laptop displaying a video conference between 12 multi-cultural people.

The 2020-2021 biennium is one to forget, or is it? Yes, it has had its challenges, as stated in  From Seed to Apple, a collection of stories from fellow Washington State Teachers of the Year: “especially during this challenging time of a pandemic, our historic reckoning with racism, the devastating impacts of climate change, toilet paper shortages, murder hornets, failed sourdough starters, endless masks debates, round-the-clock Zoom meetings, and (possibly) the end of pants.” This has no doubt been a challenging time for everyone, but I can’t help but wonder how this will reshape our future.

I have been a high school special education teacher and football coach for 13 years. If there is one thing I have learned, it is to expect the unexpected.  I can sit here confidently and tell you that I NEVER expected what happened on March 17th, 2020 when schools across Washington State shut their doors. At that moment, like all educators across the state, we began to as Jeff Utecht would say, “Reimagine Washington Education.” This was no easy task and at times not very effective.  As educators we hear the phrase “meet students where they are.” This pandemic has forced us at times to literally meet students where they are.  This includes: location, specific times of day, socially, emotionally, academically, technology skill-wise, and many other ways. Undoubtedly it has been tough, and I believe we are all ready for things to return to the good old days. Before we do, I ask that we reflect on the education days of old and evaluate what we have learned about our students and our education system during this unique time.

Let’s first think about how our students interact with technology.  There is no doubt that today’s students are living in an ever-changing world of technology and applications. An example of this is my son. He is 5, and we recently learned he needs to use an app just to build Legos because they no longer come with paper booklet instructions.  The Covid-19 Pandemic and the introduction to online learning has forced educators to meet students in their world and engage them in new and interesting ways.  Through Zoom meetings, Google Classroom, Screencastify, Google Slides, Kahoot, and Twitter, I have seen my colleagues engage students in new and exciting ways.  I have seen students who struggle with traditional paper and pencil assignments excel when able to show their learning in new ways.  It is important for us to think about our standards and be flexible in the ways we allow our students to show their learning.  I do agree that there is still a time for traditional paper and pencil. My hope is that we realize and remember that our students have technology skills we may never have, and if we give them the opportunity to use those skills, they can truly amaze us.

Before the closure of school, online learning was viewed by many as an alternative experience for those students who could not successfully complete the traditional school path. After working with an online curriculum this year, I believe that this once lowered standard can become a great asset and opportunity for our students. One of our biggest struggles, especially in a small school, is the diversity of our elective classes.  Oftentimes students take an elective course not because they are interested in the subject but because it is the only class we offer.  This year I have seen students who are interested in the culinary arts take three different culinary classes that otherwise would have not been available. With the availability of online programs, students have been able to take classes like career development, fire science, construction, and criminal psychology. This tool, when utilized correctly, can offer experiences to students that would have not been possible in the pre-covid school setting. Students who are invested in their learning, both in the traditional setting and online setting, have a greater motivation to meet our high expectations.   

One of the biggest aspects that was highlighted during the closure and restructuring of our school was the importance of school culture. Assemblies, spirit weeks, field days, class competitions, athletics, and school dances were oftentimes viewed as distractions. We learned quickly how important they are for educating the whole child and adding to their overall experience. These non-academic events play a huge role in the social and emotional well-being of our students. As I sat in on numerous school board meetings this past fall, my heart ached listening to our student body representatives discuss ways to create class unity in a virtual setting.  I also witnessed firsthand the emotional toll the uncertainty of school athletics took on our student athletes.  As schools begin to reopen, I hope that we can remember the importance of our students’ social and emotional well-being and how school culture plays a vital role in the education of our youth.     

Before the start of the 2021 school year, the traditional school day was somewhat predictable across the state with few districts deviating from the norm.  School was to take place sometime between 7:30 am and 3:00 pm, Monday through Friday, and span September through June with a much-anticipated summer vacation. As we reopen it is important for us to think about if this is what’s best for our students and colleagues, or is this just what we have always done.  I do not know the answer, but I do know that for many of my students they have been able gain employment, help their families, and experience new things that otherwise would not have been available in the traditional school setting.  I have also seen students’ grades and work improve since switching to a three-period day from the normal six period day. In the high school I work at, we have begun discussing the benefits of a block schedule. Before we go back to what we have always done, I encourage us to evaluate our school day and ask questions about what we learned during this unique time.   

I am encouraged about the future of public education and will be the first in line as we welcome students back into our classrooms on a regular basis.  As we navigate out of this difficult time and rush back to quote un quote normal, I urge us to look at where we started and to learn from our struggles and successes.  If there is ever a time to make systemic changes in our public education system, the time is now.  I am proud to call myself an educator and look forward to what will come next.