Saturday, April 11, 2020

A Real Emergency in Education- Crisis As Opportunity...

Let's face it, to some people everything is an emergency.

A Chinese symbol for crisis is made up of two parts:
danger and opportunity…
Crisis as Opportunity (wéi ji) 

Danger – originally pictured as a man on the edge of a precipice
Opportunity – a reminder of the seemingly small but important opportunity that can come out of danger

There is controversy surrounding the symbol above and its interpreted meaning, but that's for other people to worry about. For the sake of the point I'm making, I believe as interpreted, the idea behind the meaning of the symbol above is very important. How it's further interpreted in practice is exponentially more important.

A Taoist story tells of an old man who accidentally fell into the river rapids leading to a high and dangerous waterfall. Onlookers feared for his life. Miraculously, he came out alive and unharmed downstream at the bottom of the falls. People asked him how he managed to survive. "I accommodated myself to the water, not the water to me. Without thinking, I allowed myself to be shaped by it. Plunging into the swirl, I came out with the swirl. This is how I survived."
Emergencies are often what we make of them. 

I can't tell you how many times I've had to address the emergent situation that someone dared to park in someone else's regular parking spot in our staff parking lot. 
  1. a serious, unexpected, and often dangerous situation requiring immediate action.

I have come to understand that based on the definition of emergency above, that there are no emergencies in education. Of course, there are serious issues and incidents we teachers need to deal with regularly, but I think it's all about context, really. Whether something is deemed an emergency in our schools depends more on our subjective perspective toward it as opposed to whether it's actually an emergency. When we have a plan in place to deal effectively with challenges, we should be able to turn them all into opportunities.

In any typical reality, there would be much to think about for teachers at this time of year. They'd be revisiting transition plans for their students, (perhaps one for themselves also,) reflecting on the learning that's taken place and what has yet to be covered, talking to kids about their goals and how well they've been met to this point and basically considering all those other things that have to be done before the end of June. It's a very busy time of year for all teachers, and some are overwhelmed by it on an annual basis.

This year is different. The global pandemic caused by COVID19 is most definitely an emergency across the globe affecting literally every populous on the face of the earth. Teachers and school personnel are now confronted with something that is actually an emergency, and it has been very interesting to witness how they're responding. 

A colleague and I have been discussing what we've observed over the last month and despite generalized criticisms of the model, we agree that the Seven Stages of Grief  (I split them into groups of 4 and 3,) offer an interesting heuristic model to analyze and help understand what has happened to teachers in the world of COVID19:
  1. SHOCK & DENIAL- Not surprising, teachers, like everyone else couldn't believe what just happened. The virus was spreading throughout the world, but for the most part "not in my back yard" seemed to be the order of the day, and then bam, schools were shut down and teachers were given the option to stay home, online school platforms were hastily created and then...                                                                                                                                                                 
  2. PAIN & GUILT- Pain and guilt set in. Three days after kids were told not to come to school and that online platforms would need to be established for them, this stage of the process was palpable at my school. Most staff members were still coming into the building for regular operational hours, only those that were sick in some form were told to stay home. There was a tangible degradation of our collective state of mind that day... things were definitely sinking in, and it wasn't a pleasant day.                                                                                                                                                                                                                            
  3. ANGER & BARGAINING- In short order, the pain and guilt felt that the third day seemed to turn in a different, but related direction. People started to vent and say things like, "I'll never complain about having to come into school again once this is all over and we can just get through it."                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     
  4. “DEPRESSION”, REFLECTION, LONELINESS- Then teachers and school personnel began to make individual choices to work from home, some out of necessity related to their own compromised health, childcare challenges, etc. and some just because they're understandably afraid to leave the house given the intangible nature of much of the news (noise) surrounding the pandemic. It's just really hard to know which are the credible sources and who to trust and listen to regarding the threat.
  1. THE UPWARD TURN- it didn't take long as teachers and paraprofessionals at my school began feeling more comfortable with the ways they were able to support kids from our school. Believe me, they have and continue to go way beyond what would be considered adequate in this regard. They are coming up with new ways to help keep kids and their parents connected to our school, a place where they feel safe and supported, and unfortunately at our low-income serving school, where they got fed every day, had school supplies provided for them, gained access to digital learning devices, etc. We're seeing the beginnings of their hope manifestation, I know this because the standing still stages of affective reflection and questioning above (stages 1-4) turned into tangible action... what HOPE is all about.                                                                                                                                                                                                                        
  2. RECONSTRUCTION & WORKING THROUGH- Systems are being conceived daily, teachers are learning new ways of providing effective learning opportunities for kids at home. I'm seeing school personnel working overtime at my school to support each other, their students, their parents, but especially the kids who are at home alone because their parents still have to go to work, and those without food, school supplies, digital resources, etc. We have staff members delivering things kids need to their homes and leaving them on the curbside for pickup, making themselves available online so kids can check in with them throughout the day, patiently supporting parents who are struggling with how best to support the learning activities at home, etc. It has been inspiring in so many cases.                                                                                                                                                                                                                      
  3. ACCEPTANCE & HOPE- Every day in an increasing degree of frequency I'm hearing school personnel at my school, whether from home, online, within the building or otherwise make statements that cause me to believe that we've collectively accepted what's happened, understood that it's beyond our control and begun to take action that displays hope for a reality that when this is all over we'll be more cohesive as a group, more connected to what's important in learning, and more grounded about our role as educators.
I believe that after this is all over our teachers, educational assistants, paraprofessionals, and parents will be drastically more skilled in knowing how to do things differently, and in some cases better, as they pertain to effective teaching and learning. Out of necessity is born possibility. Our purpose is very clear during these challenging times; we need to take care of our students and their families to the best of our collective capacity. Interestingly enough, there's another heuristic that helps make sense of this...


Projecting away from the stages of grief that our people have been going through, it appears to me that they've adopted a recalibrated focus on providing care based on Maslow's hierarchy of human needs. It would appear that our hope is being manifested through the purpose of making sure our students and their families have their needs met starting with the basics of food, safety, security, etc and extending all the way to the top of this model with facilitation of activities designed to help kids feel fulfilled and actualized. 
  1. PHYSIOLOGICAL- As I said, the staff at my school have been very active in making sure social supports are in place for our families ensuring kids and their families have food, shelter, etc and in some cases, they've been delivering food and other basic supplies needed themselves.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    
  2. SAFETY- Staff members have been connecting through phone calls, virtual meetings, online platforms, video conferencing, etc to ensure kids feel safe and supported during the day, especially when they are fending for themselves because their parents have to continue going to work. They need kids to know that we have their backs.                                                                                                                                                                                                         
  3. BELONGING- Staff at my school have gone above and beyond to create online platforms that keep kids coming back to a place that is familiar in the sense that it's related to and aligned with my school's culture and ways of doing things. They've established bilateral forums for kids to communicate with each other and with their teachers, and they've done a tremendous amount of work supporting parents who are typically very new to online forms of learning support.                                                                                                                                                                                                        
  4. ESTEEM- Staff at my school have provided online opportunities for kids to achieve access and a sense of accomplishment by designing learning activities that they can successfully navigate at home in online contexts. They've been very careful not to overwhelm students and their families during this challenging time.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 
  5. SELF-ACTUALIZATION- Staff at my school have been more than willing to acknowledge that kids need to be given latitude to create new ways of displaying their learning while abandoning out of necessity almost all forms of traditional lessons and school expectations. This has taken them out of their comfort zones to be sure, and that in and of itself has helped teachers become more self-actualized themselves honestly, and it's taught kids that there are always many ways of doing things and that creativity is the essence of getting things done during times when things are not as they typically are.
I also believe that all of us will look at "emergencies" in education differently once the pandemic is over. A car parked in our spot for a day is not a burning building, an emergency room alarm, a drowning swimmer off the pier, or a global pandemic.

We who work in schools are privileged every day to come to a safe and comforting building where people feel connected and effective learning takes place. If any part of that is perceived as an emergency, then shame on us.

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