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Reimagining Better Schools Post-Covid

Schools reopening

Covid closures completely upended the school year. And now, as we consider heading back new year, we have no idea what that might look like.

But regardless of the form school takes 2020-21, we can and should be asking bigger questions. How can we take the lessons we've learned during these closures and reimagine schools in a better way - a way that truly prepares students and connects with them in a meaningful way?

Join us as we discuss these important questions with Dave Stuart Jr.

listen here:

read the transcript:

[Linda] We're going to be talking about how we navigate these coming months and this coming year in relationship to all that's happened with COVID and remote learning. We're really excited to talk in particular about what we can learn longterm from this.  I know there are just so many unknowns, so many questions right now, but we're going to talk about some things that you can focus on that we know will be good use of your time. I'm really excited to dive into this topic, but before we do that, Dave, do you mind sharing just a little bit about yourself?

Schools reopening

[Dave] Sure. Linda. I'm a husband and father of four children. We live in a small town in West Michigan where I also teach. I teach ninth grade world history, this year, to about 120 students. I've been doing that for 15 years or so.

[Linda] And you have a website as well. Can you share that with us?

[Dave] Yeah. I've been writing for teachers at DaveStuartJr.com since 2012. So there's more than half a thousand blog posts there that I've written, trying to make use of the work that we all do and the research and the internal struggle of teaching all the good stuff.

[Linda] Yeah. So definitely you have to check that out. We'll talk more about that later, but check it out at DaveStuartJr.com. The reason, though, that I'm having Dave on is that I followed his work for a while. You’ve got so many great things, but you wrote an article recently about thinking of this time that we're going through with this remote learning in phases. You called them phase one and phase two, which I know in our society right now, the word phases is used a lot. We're phasing things in, phasing things out. But what do you mean when you talk about phase one and phase two in relationship to school and teaching?

[Dave] Well, with the initial rollout, this was such an emergency kind of situation that I think we all were wrestling with all the uncertainty. There was a big sense, at least in my own spirit, that I've got to sit and scramble and fix, fix, fix, fix, fix my emergency remote teaching. They helped me to zoom out and gain some perspective and realize that basically now until the end of the school year- let's think of this as phase one. This is indeed sort of an emergency, figure out as-you-go remote teaching and learning that teachers are in all over around the world. There's some version of that going on, but eventually we will come back, into a more settled thing.

[Dave] I think that is phase two. What is sure to be true of that settled situation after the emergency remote part is done, is that we're going to have students at an even wider spectrum of readiness for learning and mental health. The gaps are going to be even bigger when we eventually do come back in the fall, whatever coming back looks like. So I've argued that I think right now, in phase one, we need to just satisfy, do okay at phase one, do okay by students, okay by us, okay by our families. And make sure that we're protecting some time to do the kind of research and thinking that will prepare us for phase two, because phase two is most likely going to be uniquely challenging for us and uniquely important.

handling the uncertainty 

[Linda] Yeah. It is so challenging just thinking about what the fall is going to look like. I know that the picture of what the fall might look like is changing by the week and honestly, even between the time that we're recording this episode and the time that it airs, it's probably going to change five more times. It is rapidly changing so much. So we're really not sure what the fall's going to look like. Do you have any advice on handling that uncertainty? How much time do you think we as teachers should be investing in all the what-if  possibilities?

[Dave] I think the best way that I've seen of handling the what-if possibilities is to think about what practices are likely to be good practices. Good from a standpoint of serving the students and from a standpoint of not sacrificing our teacher lives on the altar of success. What practices are likely to be good, no matter what the scenario is in the fall? So it takes a lot of reflection and thinking. I think serving our students and talking with people in our communities about, "Hey, what has worked well?" I think folks at the district level can be doing questioning like that, too. I hate to just throw the word data in there, but we do need some feedback from students and parents about, “Hey, what worked best during this emergency remote teaching phase and how can we take what worked best and streamline it?”

[Dave] So that whatever we're facing in the fall whether in-person, hybrid, or fully remote, we can bring insight into those things. Because like you said, Linda, the picture is changing so much that I think we need to plan on maybe not knowing for sure until the weeks right before school. That might be how it is. Kind of what I'm planning on is not knowing. So therefore, I need to plan on and think about what work is going to be best in all of the scenarios.

[Linda] Yeah, and as I think about it, too, it's just, we teachers love to plan. We love to know exactly what it's going to look like. So this does present such a unique challenge, but I do think there are a lot of things that we can focus on. What's going to matter, no matter what? What can I spend my time on this summer that is going to translate no matter where I do it or that I can easily adapt to all three scenarios? Spending our time on that and focusing on what's best for students, regardless. Rather than racking our minds, trying to come up with three complete plans, which I think is probably going to waste all our mental energy and leave nothing left when we do need to figure it out. Yeah, I think that's awesome advice.

[Linda] This time has been incredibly challenging. It's been horrible on so many levels. But one of the things that I think is so amazing about this time that we've had is that it's forced everybody to innovate, to try things they'd never tried before, to dive into technologies and techniques that they've never explored before. As we think towards the fall, I think so much of our tendency is going to be to focus on the specifics of, “Well, if I have to do remote, what do I do? If I have to do this, what do I do?” One of the things that I personally would really love to see come out of this is an opportunity to almost step back, like you said, and reinvent what learning should look like.

what to consider in phase two of reopening schools

[Linda] What should school look like? How do we better serve students? Asking those bigger picture questions, taking the lessons that we've learned and saying, "Man, I never tried this before. How could I incorporate this back into what ‘normal’ looks like or my routine?" So I'd love to hear from you; you've been living this every day. What are some of the insights or ideas that you've considered, or that you're even still considering and thinking about, that you hope come into phase two? Because, like you said, this was an emergency, this was just survival, but we can't do that forever. We've got to get back to serving our students in the fall.

[Dave] Right? Michael Fullan has a book, The Devil is in the Details, and he's talking about changing systems. I'm not recommending the book necessarily, but an interesting study he points out is from Heather Malin. (I think that’s her name.) She has done research on young people and their experience of purpose in school. She has some statistics that only about a quarter of teens and adolescents find school to be meaningful- find there to be a deep connection between their sense of purpose and school. There's something deeply troubling about that because human beings are wired for meaning and purpose. Requiring them by law to attend for six hours a day an experience that they find to be meaningless and purposeless is a lot of human suffering.

[Dave] So I think what this has invited me to reflect on is how, in some ways, this remote teaching is more humane in a lot of ways. I think that many students are experiencing stressors outside of their schooling and their education, no doubt. But for many of them, school is now more than ever a source of respite or rejuvenation. Learning is regaining its place as a fundamentally good beautiful human pursuit.

[Dave] I think that that's happening. I sense that that is how more of my students are experiencing school right now. So the question is, “How do we bring that into phase two?” Part of that added humanity of our education right now is that there's less of an emphasis on grades as carrots and sticks, right? There's more of a tendency toward pass-fail. And again, this exists on a huge spectrum across schools and levels. But we're, in general, prizing the learning and learning about these interesting subjects as best we can in these unique circumstances. Let's de-emphasize the grading aspect, the credit aspect, the, “you have to do this” aspect. I'm curious about how we can bring that type of a thrust into the fall into phase two.

[Linda] Right. There was almost less pressure, right? Anything we did was good. So we were able to kind of enjoy it a little bit for what it was and what it could be. Almost like a sports team that's not expected to win and they can just go out and have fun and just do the best they can.

[Dave] Yeah. Right. Focus on the game. We need to re-examine as a profession, “How do you produce optimal pressure?” Because human beings need some pressure, right?

[Linda] Right, it's not sustainable.

[Dave] Yeah. If you don't ever tell your audience that you're going to release a podcast, if you don't have a consistent publishing schedule or whatever, you're not going to produce as many podcasts. If you don't set goals for yourself, as someone producing a podcast for listeners, trying to serve teachers through this podcast, you're probably not going to produce as good of a show. You need a little bit of pressure to produce your best work. Our students do, too. But almost every single child and teacher experiences above optimal pressure when we do regular school. I think about my high school students. They wake up at 6:00 in the morning, they arrive at school by 7:30, they begin school. They sit in six hours of instruction. You've got some brief breaks and lunch periods scrambled in there.

[Dave] They do that 180 days out of the year and they often attach extracurriculars and sports and homework and home responsibilities and jobs on top of that. We're training our young people to live these really frenetic and frantic lives. I'm hoping and praying that parents and students and educators and policy makers are thinking and really examining right now, “What are we trying to do with education?” Of course we, as individual teachers, can flavor the things that we provide for students in our classroom. We can have an influence on the system just from a classroom level. But I do also hope there's some momentum for some more humane changes to education and phase two.

[Linda] Yeah. Let's talk a little bit about what an individual teacher could do. I'm sure there are some policymakers out here and I hope that they're considering these things. But as an individual teacher, sometimes you feel a little bit helpless to control policy, but I would think that everyone's trying to figure this out right now. So this might be actually an opportunity where teachers can speak up and share some of their experience and give feedback to their principals. Is that something that you might recommend- teachers actually reaching out and sharing some of their thoughts in this regard?

[Dave] Yeah, of course. I think speaking truth to power is really important. I think it needs to be done with humility, respect, and acknowledgement of the fact that teachers aren't the ones ultimately responsible for producing or enforcing policy. So there's a little bit of “honor the authorities'' thing, when we report that these are some things I'm noticing that I really think we ought to think about asking the administration. How could I help with exploring how our students in our building experience school? Do they find it to be purposeful, meaningful? What did they discover during phase one? How might we as a school, listen to our students' discoveries? I had a great student tell me the other day, "I hate the social part, not seeing my friends and being with everybody. I hate that. But one thing I like is, I'm kind of given what I need at the start of each week and I'm allowed to build my own schedule and do what I need to do to get that done."

[Dave] I don't know, Linda, the exact way that we as individual teachers can implement that beyond talking with administrators. But I think we can start having these conversations with our students and, those of us who teach younger kids, with our students' parents. Because another important part of this is that parents are more involved in their child's education now than they probably ever have been. So this is the time for conversing with all the stakeholders about “What do we want education to be?”

[Linda] I think that's such great advice because as you're bringing this up, my mind is immediately going to, "How could I do this? Or how could I do that?" I think that stepping back and gathering feedback is really, really important and it's important too, because everyone's experience is so different during this time. Some people are thriving in some areas, some people are just hanging on. Some people are missing people. Some people are overwhelmed by all the people in their family. Some people have tons of time. Some people have no time. It's crazy how different it has been. But different things resonate with different students and it’s important to hear their thoughts and parents' thoughts, like you said. And then once we listen, we can step back and ask, "How could I do this?"

[Linda] “Could I give my students the week's work at the beginning of the week and give them more freedom with that?” Sometimes even small accommodations like that- “Why can't I tell them at the beginning of the week what's due by the end of the week?” I could do that. That's no problem. Sometimes they're bigger, more involved things. But sometimes really small tweaks can make a really big difference too.

[Dave] Yeah. I love the idea of small tweaks because those are often more sustainable for us as teachers. I'm a big advocate for teachers doing fewer things, but at a higher degree of quality, the things that matter the most.

[Linda] Yeah, absolutely. Has anything else kind of come out in your conversations with students and parents that you're excited to explore more or try out next year?

[Dave] I would say another aspect of this has been interesting to me. I write a lot about human motivation from the perspective of five key beliefs. One of the beliefs that tends to indicate that a person is going to do the work given to them in an educational setting is when they sense that they belong. That their identity matches with that specific work. So if I've given my students a writing lesson and I've given them a task to practice that skill,  if my students think of themselves as writers, they're more likely to be motivated to do the work. That's the idea behind the belonging belief. Well, I've spoken with teachers over Zoom from Cambodia to California, to the town that I live in. Everyone is noticing that there are a percentage of students who are exhibiting more motivation than ever right now.

[Dave] It's kind of like what you said- there's this huge diversity of responses to the situation. So obviously some students who were doing really well in school prior to the closures are now floundering. In some hard cases, they've sort of dropped off the map and we're on the phone trying to figure out what's going on. But there are others, and this seems to be a consistent pattern, who were really struggling with motivation during regular school pre-closure. And now all of a sudden they're really engaged and they're asking questions and participating in producing really good work. I think what's probably happening is that for many students, regardless of what type of school a teacher teaches in, school is kind of a scary place, specifically the social context, even if we as teachers do a really good job of creating a safe space.

[Dave] I think this is opening my eyes to the fact that there are some students who don't feel at home. They feel a sense of threat from the school environment. Maybe they're just so worried about being embarrassed or they're so worried about not knowing an answer and what people will think. This is taking that away and allowing these students to  focus on the learning. How can I have students who have just experienced this emergency remote teaching reflect on themselves? What was better for them as learners during the closures and why? What was better for them before the closures and why? And to take that knowledge and basically discuss and write about how this knowledge of ourselves can equip us no matter what learning in 2020- 2021 looks like. No matter what it looks like, how can we use this knowledge of ourselves to do the work a bit more wisely?

[Dave] Because we want our socially anxious students to know how to deal with social situations. I want that for all of my students, but I also want them to understand, "Okay, it's not necessarily that I'm a bad learner, that I'm stupid. Social situations make me nervous and anxious. This is a part of me. I want to explore that this year and wrestle with that and figure out how I can improve in that area. But also capitalize on my strengths. The fact that digitally I'm really comfortable participating more in class." So that's another area that I'm curious about exploring because I'm just getting more and more passionate about this idea that the education system has some deep problems with the way we currently do it. As somebody who really values the image of God in each one of my students, I often struggle with the pain that the system places on my students.

The Biblical Perspective

[Linda] Talk a little more about that.

[Dave] Well, I mean this is a Christian podcast. That's right?

[Linda] Yes. Not everyone who listens is a Christian, but we definitely go there. 

[Dave] Okay. Well, that's awesome. I love that because it's a type of knowledge that I think offers unique insights into the world. I've reflected a lot during the past couple of weeks, about Jesus of Nazareth. Christians believe he was the wisest person to ever live, like God personified. He was perfect. And yet He almost never tries to change systems. He's not railing against the Roman government or saying we really need to switch from this to that. He's so focused on the individual humans in front of him and trying to teach them in a way that they'll hear which results in a variety of teaching approaches.

[Dave] I've wondered, "Why is that?" Because the longer I teach, the more I see that  the system that I teach within is really contrary in some ways to the things that I most believe. Like I said, the individual worth of a child is really important to me. I think sometimes school communicates the exact opposite thing. It says, “You don't care about school. You don't like school.” The implicit message a lot of times is there's something wrong with you; you need to get with the program because this is how the world is and you need to adjust. I don't believe in giving students a total pass on being demotivated. I want them to understand why they're demotivated and learn how to manage their own motivation.

[Dave] But I also don't like the idea of them getting a message to either get with the program or go away because we don't value you. So I think that what Jesus is teaching me lately is, it's possible to live and work within systems that are broken and still try to do really good work or this affirming of individual value. Work that is loving, at its core. I'm just kind of wrestling around with that and thinking about that during this pause in regular teaching, because, I guess, it puts the issue a little more front and center for me every day.

Schools reopening

[Linda] Yeah, you're so right. I don't know if this is exactly what you're referring to, but I've wrestled with that question, too, of “When do you rise up and try to change a system?” The Bible talks a lot about submitting to authority and submitting yourself to injustice and all these things. And then it also talks about seeking justice. Where is which one? I don't know. This is not an answer, but one of the things I've discovered is that the Bible talks over and over about seeking justice for others and submitting to injustice for ourselves. Meaning anytime that we are in a position to offer justice, mercy, kindness, to create a system for others, for those in our care, we are called to do that.

[Linda] I'm not saying to be a doormat, I'm not saying to suffer abuse. I think you need to be careful with that. But the Bible talks a lot about suffering, about when we suffer wrongfully to rejoice in that, to count it all joy when you suffer. It says it over and over. As teachers, I think when God gives us the opportunity and the platform, especially in our own classroom with our students, like you said, we are to love them. We are to seek what is just and right and good for them where we have the authority to do so. But like you said, there are some places where that's out of our control and sometimes we want to resist that control, right?

[Linda] We want to be like, "No, I want to be in control of this." But that's where we need to submit. If God gives us an opportunity to speak into that, then we need to be bold and take that opportunity. But when He hasn't given us that spot, then we need to recognize God's sovereignty and that He has put us here and He can change their mind. We can pray and we can seek justice and love and opportunities where we are. I think you're right. I think there are so many opportunities right in front of us. And sometimes we miss those because we're too busy worrying about the things that aren't in our hands.

[Linda] Like you said, there's so much that a teacher can do, with your own students in your own class. I love that thought of helping students reflect and learn for themselves. “What helped me? What hurt me? How can I mitigate those things that are harming me? How can I maximize the things that helped?” I think all of that is just wonderful.

[Dave] Yeah. I mean, it's interesting that Jesus chose as His strategy for loving the world to teach a small group of students. You know what I mean? That's the fundamental pattern of what He did during those three years and I think it was a really smart strategy. It wasn't just, “Well, I guess I'll go with this.” I think it was intentionally selected. If I just teach a group of people, a group of learners really well, teach them what life is, what it looks like to be alive, then that'll end up producing a lot of good.

[Linda] Yeah. He poured into those disciples more than anyone else. And then they changed the world.

[Dave] Right. Yeah. So I take a lot of solace in that, knowing that there's going to be things to bring us back and in phase two,  I suspect there will be things we wish would have changed that won't. That's just a safe assumption. And when we have to come to grips with those, I think you've given some good guidelines about where we advocate and raise our voices and where we just focus on our "little classroom" with our little group of kids compared to the tens of millions in the country and just do good work.

take time to think!

[Linda] Yeah. Wow. Thank you so much. We could go on and on here, but I think it's kind of funny. We almost raised more questions than answers, but I think that's part of it, right? You have to start by asking the right questions. So I hope you teachers, as you're listening to this, that you'll walk away with maybe planning some time in your summer to just stop and just think, to let your mind wander, and to just absorb and relax.

[Dave] That will be really good. Yeah.

[Linda] And see where it takes. Try to focus less on worrying about what form learning will take and focus more on how you can inspire learning no matter what. So those are good words. Anything else you want to share with us before we wrap up, any final thoughts?

[Dave] I think that you've really nailed it. There's a tragic under-emphasis on the productive teacher act of just thinking. We're constantly doing. The internet is just another place that spawns all these things that you have to do as a teacher. This is where a lot of our mental problems come from, our struggles, our deep existential pains, come from this thought that good teaching looks like doing, doing, doing, doing, doing, doing, doing. I love what you said, maybe take some time this summer to literally just take a walk and think.

[Linda] Yeah. I hope you guys will. I hope you'll come back and share with us what you come up with. Before we go, Dave, can you share a little bit about where teachers can best connect with you and your resources?  Anything else in particular they should check out on your website?

[Dave] Sure, you'll see the blog there and you can subscribe to my newsletter. I also have a book called These Six Things: How to Focus Your Teaching on What Matters Most. It gets at what I believe are six key areas that are just as relevant during phase one, as they are to phase two and as they were to teaching before the closure. So that book might be helpful.

[Linda] Well, thank you so much, Dave. I really appreciate it.

Next steps

If you want to read more on reimagining schools next year, Angela Watson's Cornerstone for Teachers has a great article titled "Schools are closed. This is our chance to reimagine them."

Are you struggling to balance work, school, and your life? You might be thinking, "If I'm asked to do all these new things next year, how am I ever going to have time for my family?" Angela Watson's 40 Hour Teacher Workweek club is the answer! Angela will help you become an amazing teacher for your students all while having time to keep yourself healthy and to care for your family as well. 

teacher time saving

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Schools reopening

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