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Six months in but still early in this journey

This post was originally shared in an email on September 25, 2020. If you would like to receive my next email update, you can sign up here.

This Friday email marks my 24th email, six months into this journey. I have written every week in my own attempt to make sense of the actions we as educators need to take to support and protect students and to share with you what we discover on our learning journey. I have tried to represent the stories of the educators I work with every week, to share the lessons I learn from researchers and practitioners, and to connect little-picture stories with big-picture current events in an attempt to chart a path forward in education. I didn’t realize as I wrote each email that, together, they would become a kind of living journal of this unbelievable time.

We recently compiled the emails in one place. As I reread the full account, I see predictions that I got wrong (“self-contained middle and high school classes”) and insights I got right (“kids will see past the masks”). I see my persistent longing to learn all the lessons at once. I see my nostalgia for an “old normal” at the same time that I see my awakening to the glaring inequities in the old normal.

Overall, I am struck by three things:

  1. We have all experienced relentlessness and compounding challenges. This really has been hard on so many levels and seeing it all in one place is a reminder of how much the stress has built and layered over time.
  2. Few of the challenges we have faced in the past six months are brand new. While some of the operational constraints are different (e.g., HVAC regulations) and some of the particular debates are new (e.g., masks), the core distance learning challenges facing schools and systems — inequitable access, unclear vision of instruction, inequitable engagement, inequitable family engagement, internal communications — are long-standing. A crisis puts pressure on and exposes the cracks. This time has revealed and brought into sharper focus challenges that were already there.
  3. Teachers and leaders have powered encouraging progress in serving students better. The challenges can overshadow the remarkable advancements happening in front of us. As I look back on the past six months, I am impressed by the progress we have seen. One district leader told me this week that in the spring, 13% of his students had access to devices and internet; he now has 96% of students engaging in virtual instruction every day. Prior to March 18, more than half of his teachers had never used their Google Classroom login; now, his teachers are self-proclaimed experts in the intricacies of the platform. I am impressed by how much more we all know how to do than we did six months ago.

As challenging as this has been, the hard truth is this is all still the beginning of this journey. I expect the most difficult and consequential parts of this journey are still ahead of us.

I have three big hopes for the next six months:

  1. The challenges and stress will not let up any time soon but I hope we all learn to manage it better. This is going to be a long road and we will go further if we can take care of ourselves and our teams over the long haul.
  2. The stakes are high, especially for historically marginalized students and families. I hope we will see the risks fully and match the significance of the challenges with the boldness of the solutions. I hope we will not just tread water in a storm and cross our fingers that it will go back to “normal” but rather that we work in community to reimagine ways of interacting and making decisions.
  3. It will be harder than ever to do so but I hope we will stay in community with each other as we seek solutions, even as we disagree. Under stress, we are all far more prone to “us vs. them” thinking; during times of political strife the messages coming at us are engineered to get us to turn against each other. When we cannot be together in person it can be harder to remember our shared humanity or create meaningful relationships. But to find a path forward we need diverse voices and thinking, otherwise we risk exacerbating the problems we’re trying to solve.

Writing these emails has helped me stop and record trends and lessons and I am grateful to those of you who shared how they influenced your thinking and action. I am going to keep writing and sharing as long as it is useful to write and valuable to read, though I will shift to every other week to manage my own energy going forward. But, after a vacation next week, I’ll be back. We’ll keep going.

Here are some of the resources I have learned from this week:

Final word this week goes to the lion of education who passed away this week, David K. Cohen. David was a professor, friend, and former Instruction Partners board member. I will never forget our first meeting. We were still in the early stages of forming Instruction Partners, and his uncontained enthusiasm for the idea and perspective on the importance of “school learning and support infrastructure” gave me such a boost. His belief in the idea and our ensuing friendship gave me power and confidence and really changed my conviction in myself, the way only the best teachers can. I am deeply thankful for all he helped us learn. In a recent paper with Jal Mehta, “Why Reform Sometimes Succeeds,” David said: “The changes that we most desire are the most difficult to accomplish, but for the first time in our history one can see opportunities for progress.”

Let us live out this calling one step at a time, together.

Emily

Instruction Partners CEO, former AssistCommish for TDOE, library lover, Sunday afternoon chef and head of the Jan, Owen and Liam fan club.

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