What 2020 Taught Me

This is the fifth attempt at this post.  Sometimes, reflecting your way out of dark place professionally takes some iteration.  Previous attempts ended up heaping frustration on top of frustration until it seemed overwhelming again – not the best way to resolve a metaphysical crisis even if it is all true.  I’m not the smartest, most upwardly mobile educator in the world, but I know my craft and I’m good at getting students to express their talents.  I’m also effective under fire and can always find a way to get back on my feet again when the going gets tough.  This year has been a test of that resilience and at times it has broken me, but reflecting on a year where Ontario education has lost the plot more than once has me thinking about a Banksy piece:

I’ve been tempted to leave education a few times over the past year for pastures less politically misdirected, but I genuinely enjoy my work, recognize its social importance and don’t want to walk away while my profession has forgotten its primary purpose in a fog of political misdirection and pandemic panic.  Education matters.  It matters even more in a crisis.  That’s a simple truth 2020 has taught me.  What else has this epically crappy year taught me?


LESSON 1:  The people running ‘the system’ aren’t focused on pedagogy, they’re focused on making it run (at all costs, even if it makes people sick or abuses their lack of privilege)

I’ve known this since I got thrown under the bus for handling my mother’s suicide too slowly, but 2020 has reminded me of systemic intent by shining a harsh light inside the process.  From taking multiple pay cuts to protect student learning in January while admin sat in empty schools collecting salary, to watching the system lurch back into the classroom unprepared in September, 2020 has shown that the most important thing to people running Ontario education is making a schedule and then ensuring it happens.  Pedagogy and equity might come up in the marketing material, but action around it is non-existent.  Threaten the schedule though and you’ll get an immediate reaction.

This came into focus in November when we watched Ontario Education Workers United’s live webcast on how to stop the ‘pedagogically impoverished‘ hybrid/simultaneous online and face to face learning model.  I’ve had a go at this unsustainable and problematic smoke screen of an approach on Dusty World previously.  There was a great deal of dissonance in listening to educational experts like Doctor Beyhan Farhadi talking about pedagogy when the system itself seems to have turned its back on it entirely.

Our absurd pandemic teaching approach reduces in-class instruction to less than half the normal face to face instructional time while making no changes to curriculum expectations because it’s important to retain the appearance of credibility.  Actual pedagogical credibility, let alone equity, compassion and even teacher burnout doesn’t appear to be a consideration unless it’s an email or newsletter – board newsletters have proliferated this year.  2020 has taught me that the system must run at all costs – even at the cost of the people it serves.

Our broken pandemic teaching models also demand that teachers be simultaneously teaching online and face to face to two different groups of students simultaneously all day every day while throwing about a month’s worth of material at students each week.  It’s doing this having cancelled face to face special education support which has led to even further inequity in the classroom.  It’s an approach that has hurt my son directly.  Listening to parents of students with IEPs begging for support and compassion is heart breaking.  I’m going to make a point of honouring that need even if the system appears to be deaf to these calls for help.

The paradigm shifting moment during that OEWU webcast was a Toronto teacher and union activist who approached the fight from a very pragmatic angle.  She said (and I’m paraphrasing), that the system is only interested in making sure the system works and if you want it to take notice you have to stop if from working.  Killing yourself to make a bad system run and then complaining about it isn’t an effective approach.  System administration will only pay attention to you if you stop the system from functioning.  I’m not sure where to take that truth in 2021, but it’s something to keep in mind if you see systemic abuse occurring and want to stop it.

The Ministry mandated full day of racism training we got in September prior to starting an unprecedented change in schooling feels more like a smokescreen rather than any kind of genuine attempt at addressing inequity.  Trot out a day of racism training (entirely delivered by ‘woke’ white women) and then execute a schedule designed to suit privilege while crushing students who don’t have it.

2020 has taught me to see actions, not words, as the real barometer of an institution’s intent.


LESSON 2:  “This isn’t elearning, it’s emergency remote learning”

A wise colleague said this in one of our earliest online remote meetings and it changed my mind about how to teach in a pandemic.  My reaction in a crisis is to display initiative and work to help people, but systemic paralysis was followed by a lurch into elearning with zero support and then a series of baffling changes of direction by the Ministry in terms of what technology we can use.


Ontario’s experiment in remote learning ended when Stephen Lecce came on one Friday afternoon and told students across the province that marks don’t matter in remote learning, which has established a culture of irrelevance in remote learning that continues.  We aren’t supposed to grade any learning that happens remotely and many teachers have given up on it entirely due to poor student engagement.  The system’s zero support is ongoing – we’ve been given no PD or even time to redesign the entire curriculum for remote learning on the fly.  The metaphor of building a plane in the air hasn’t changed, and we’re going back to full remote learning tomorrow.  How do you think that will fly?

2020 has taught me that curriculum is less important than student and staff welfare. It’s a pity the people in charge only pitch wellness emails at this ongoing mental health crisis, but as a classroom teacher my ever shrinking sphere of control still allows me to address it with my  particular students, and I intend to.  While other teachers are crushing students (especially the ones with IEPs) in a desperate quest for academic credibility in a system that’s only pretending to have it, I shall not.  This involves differentiating, which is another one of those pedagogical best practices we’ve burned to the ground during this crisis.

Some students, like myself, want to be engaged and kept busy lest they go mad with frustration!  For those students I will offer the variation and enrichment I’ve always pursued (yes, even in a pandemic), but for the vast majority less is their new normal.  For this group (which includes many teachers), being gentle is more important than being productive.  2020 has taught me that for the majority of people, when the going gets tough, waiting to be told what to doing as little as possible is the way forward.  It doesn’t bode well for a future bulging with ever increasing overpopulation in a limited ecosystem, but it’s the world our systemic myopia has brought us to.

2020 has taught me that pushing broken people only breaks them more, so I won’t be doing that even if the system demands it.

This is indeed emergency remote teaching.  It isn’t a ‘new normal’ and we shouldn’t all be waving flags proclaiming, ‘I got this’.  What we should be doing is looking after the children in our care, supporting their families and our colleagues and making sure that everyone is alright instead of pretending that everything is business as usual.  We can always learn what we missed on the other side of this.  Meanwhile, we’re getting strident ‘you have to provide blah blah minutes of synchronous instruction online‘ directives as we return to our second bout of emergency remote teaching.

There are too many system-people hanging on too tight that need to unclench.  I realize that this is being driven by a sabotaged Ministry, but enforcing it makes you complicit in it.  I’m going to look after my little patch (even the ones with special needs!) and push back if my student wellbeing first approach isn’t deemed appropriate by the powers that be.


LESSON 3:  Most people just want to be told what to do, even in a crisis…

My first instinct in a crisis is to show initiative and try to act in a way that helps, but the system thinkers don’t want you doing that, they want you to fall in line and do what you’re told.  This is problematic for me as my raison d’ĂȘtre in teaching is my agency as a teacher.  When the best I can hope from the system is benign neglect I can get a lot done in my immediate space, but when the system is in crisis it insinuates itself into my classroom and this is infuriating.  If I wanted to give up my idealism I’d go into management.


I’m able to do what I do in the classroom because I have agency.  One of the reasons I enjoy classroom teaching is because I have the latitude to make decisions that aim at the highest ideals and see them through without having to water them down.  In a crisis it seems that systems clamp down on individual agency and demand compliance.  My issue with that is that I’ve never done the bare minimum, always do excessively more and my students benefit from that in many ways.  I refuse do my job in an online lockstep of systemic expectations, especially if they’re designed for marketing a fiction of a full school experience during a pandemic that is preventing exactly that.  I have no interest in misleading people, most especially my students.


Not all teachers are above-and-beyonders, but I gotta tell ya, the vast majority are.  You’d be hard pressed to find a single teacher in my school that doesn’t do extracurriculars and work on the weekend.  Given some latitude they’ll do more than the minimum simply because they are professionals.  2020 has taught me that I don’t necessarily want to leave the classroom, but I would like to work for a system that recognizes my professionalism and honours it instead of treating me like an errant child.

Many people want to be told what to do and wait for that direction.  You’d think that would change in a crisis but it seems to intensify.  I’ve occasionally had leaders who recognize my need for action and honour it, but they are a minority.  I suspect this is a control issue for most.  Many people find invasive and systemic control a comfort, but for some it feels like strangulation.

Reading Matt Crawford’s latest book, Why We Drive, this fall while I was getting waterboarded at work taught me how to differentiate to students in a crisis by recognizing the need for human agency in an increasingly automated world.  Some people need clear direction and eased expectations while others want to exercise their agency and do something to help.  I only hope that the people running things recognize that.  We could get a lot more done if the doers weren’t being strangled by system lockstep thinking; we need to do much more than we are.

***

We’re about to step back into emergency remote learning after the mid-winter break, which hasn’t been much of a break at all.  Everyone looks grey, stressed out and exhausted.  We are probably not even half way through this pandemic marathon but I’m not about to let it diminish my professional scope.  My classroom will recognize that my students might be providing daycare for their siblings or working to support parents who have lost their jobs.  Others may live in rural locations with spotty internet or might be trying to do remote learning on ancient or poorly working technology that they only have occasional access to.  The school system likes to ignore these issues while sternly demanding full days of remote synchronous instruction.  I’m not going to demand that because I have no interest in maintaining a vicious government’s fiction of business as usual in the classroom.  What I am going to do is help where I can, give each student what they need to feel like they’re achieving something (anything) in this crisis, and make sure the ones who want to do more have the tools and material to create the agency they crave at a time of forced helplessness.  If everyone wakes up the next day feeling recognized and enabled then that’s a sound pedagogical goal.

Personally?  2020 taught me not to throw myself into the massive gap between the system’s failure to do what it should and what my students need, because it’s unsustainable.  I’m not helping anyone if I hurt myself trying to make up for the lack of vision demonstrated by the thousands of people ‘above’ me on the org chart.  I’ll read my Tao Te Ching and follow Lao Tsu’s advice and withdraw when my work is done.  2020 has taught me that the system will happily let me burn myself out attempting to resolve its shortcomings.

To hold and fill a cup to overflowing Is not as good as to stop in time.
Sharpen a sword edge to its very sharpest, And the (edge) will not last long.
When gold and jade fill your hall, You will not be able to keep them.
To be proud with honour and wealth Is to cause one’s own downfall.
withdraw as soon as your work is done. Such is Heaven’s Way.


2020 also taught me that the education system’s academic focus is a fiction we all tell ourselves to justify its existence, but it’s actually much more foundational than that.  The deeper truth is that the system should be less about curriculum and more about equity and inclusion.  Public education is one of our best tools for socially enabling everyone to become their best selves.  If we approached this pandemic by differentiating our expectations and working from a place of compassion and inclusion instead of fake academic integrity we’d do more good and teach students about things that genuinely matter, like kindness.  Ultimately, education should be about recognizing individual needs and enabling students to express their best selves, the rest is paperwork.

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