Education in the Eye of a Hurricane

By Katie Le
May 15, 2020

“Just one more question!!” Tyler, a third grader at Cunningham Park Elementary School in Vienna, Virginia, rushed toward his screen, grabbing my attention. We had already said our “goodbyes.” Having run past our allotted time, students were all late for their next classes. My cursor hovered over the icon that would end the session and send us into darkness. The group of us, each in our own little cell, looked at him through our monitors.

“If the world is ours, can we change it?” He asked.

Yes. And We Must.

My small group of students, including Tyler, meets online because all schools have been closed now for nine weeks and counting due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since the first day of closures, students have been provided with asynchronous learning resources both online and with packets mailed to their homes by the school district. A few weeks later, teachers, after a whirlwind of training, kicked off direct instruction online. Through a combination of synchronous and independent learning, we have pieced together instruction that attempts to meet the needs of our students.

The new needs. Not the old ones.

You see, since this pandemic ended face-to-face instruction, there has been a natural and profound shift in what is seen as a student “need” in education. In a world where public schools are held accountable for meeting children’s needs, this shift in definition is monumental. It could be the gleaming silver lining in the clouds brought on by a pandemic frequently and aptly referred to as a hurricane. A paradigm shift that could catapult essential change, as long as educators are not blind to the potential of igniting a natural revolution in learning.

Accountability Drives Learning.

For decades, since the adoption of the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB), public schools have been punitively judged through high-stakes standardized testing. The zen focus of accountability on a once-a-year assessment with potential dire consequences resulted in a tragic misalignment of instructional urgency. With threats of losing funding and more looming, it became essential that above all else, students passed the end of year tests. Period.

What’s fascinating is that the sudden closure of school facilities brought on a wave of urgency to meet authentic needs of students, that wiped superficial testing practices off the educational map. End of year mandatory assessments were canceled universally almost immediately. When the chips were down, the fallacy of the testing culture was exposed to make room for three true essentials that must be met for children: food, connection, and inspiration.

First, feed the community.

Immediately, school systems across the nation recognized and addressed the crisis faced by students who suddenly had no school breakfast or lunch anymore. With incredible efficiency, tents popped up where food was handed out curbside, buses started delivering meals throughout communities, faith-based and private organizations lined up to start food pantries, and individuals bought up store gift cards to mail to families in need. Tentatively and with care, the community was fed.

Next, establish connections.

As school systems scrambled to post learning resources online, a major push began to get access to all students for those resources. Teachers figured out which students were without computers and handed out laptops to them. Technology specialists drained the supply chain of MiFi’s in order to get students online. Specialists used their personal phones to hunt down students who would, without their tenacity, have been swept away in the storm of the pandemic and never heard from again. Slowly but surely, we are continuing to get more and more students connected.

Most of all, inspire.

The third phase of educating students was live, synchronous instruction. Teaching -in a completely different format and setting- nonetheless, teaching with a twist: no standardized tests to take at the end. To policy-makers, the absence of state testing may equal the removal of accountability and, therefore, motivation. In fact those policy-makers who champion standardized testing in public schools have been proven wrong. We are finding the opposite.

When surveyed, the staff at Cunningham Park report they work harder and for more hours than normal now, in the midst of the outbreak. When offered a menu of online trainings and instructed to choose one, overwhelmingly, teachers attended all of the trainings. The next day, they show up for virtual planning meetings having nearly mastered the new technologies because they had practiced them on their own time the night before. Teacher contact logs indicate attempts to connect with students well outside their expected hours of work. They meet as teams so frequently and efficiently on their own, normal weekly meeting protocols have been dropped because they have not been needed to ensure productivity. In short, teachers are more driven to find ways to inspire their students to be scholars without the antiquated regime of testing hanging over their heads. Why?

So they won’t lose their children to the wilderness of the storm.

Authentic Purpose Raises the Stakes.

Suddenly, teacher accountability is real and the bar to achieve is higher: keep them coming back. Inspire them to want to virtually return to us every day. Motivate students to continue learning even when they aren’t in school, even when the teachers aren’t there.

Connect. Inspire. Engage. And make them understand they matter.

The poet, Atticus, wrote “Watch carefully, the magic that occurs when you give a person just enough comfort to be themselves.” In the absence of false measurements, we are seeing authenticity and purpose emerge. There is evidence that students’ intrinsic desire to cultivate knowledge and understanding is igniting. And the harder it is for students to reach access, the more teachers compel their learners to see relevance in lessons so they want to jump hurdles to learn. It is an easy and natural shift in thinking that profoundly improves the quality of education -simply align accountability with what is authentically urgent. Are children nourished with food? Do they effectively have access to connections for learning? And do they return to us again and again, hungry for knowledge, yearning to take the next step, engaged as scholars?

Yes, Tyler, we can change the world. And we must. Because the world is yours.