I overheard a phone conversation my wife had recently. She was using the speaker feature, so I was able to hear both sides of the discussion. The other party said: “I go back to work next week.” The person making this proclamation is a public school teacher, well Into the longitude of her career. I heard the words. I also heard the subtext of the comment. It was not made from a place of excitement. She didn’t sound thrilled or exude even a modicum of enthusiasm. Her statement was one of fact, it was her truth. It represented her cautious obligation, the realization of her professional commitment, her resolve.
How many teachers , administrators and school support staff are looking forward to the week and days ahead with joyless resolve? I would sadly guess many. I understand and respect their attitude. These are not joy-filled times. But, today, they must refine the definition of “resolve” and raise it to another level.
Without question, the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year will be nothing short of weird for everyone involved. Will we be in-person, remote or some hybrid combination? Is the system situated to do a better job of “distance learning” with some months of preparation and planning, or will we fall into the underwhelming results of last spring’s experience? How do we address the significant concerns of safety for all students and staff, while maintaining a forward momentum of academic progress for all of America’s children? And speaking of all children, how do we assure educational equity when some kids experience the privilege of home school “instructional pods” while others need to prowl their neighborhoods for a somewhat reliable internet connection to even consider the instructional expectations they face?
It’s all about resolve.
Let’s take a look at that word, “resolve.” It’s complicated and can hold many meanings. As a verb, “resolve,” in its most benign sense suggests settling. A problem or dilemma can be “resolved” by adhering to certain remedies or treatments. Within this definition, teachers and education professionals may acquiesce to prescribed responses, perhaps even labor union talking points. We’ll do what’s required. We are resolved to perform the duties of our assignments. Nothing less, and nothing more. “It is what it is,” to quote the current occupant of the White House. This is neither adequate or sufficient in satisfying the obligation of ones commitment to be a public educator.
More forcefully, also as a verb, “resolve” is the act of deciding on a course of action. And, as a noun, it represents a firm determination to do something specific, to subscribe to a course of action. Now, that, is the resolve I’m talking about!
What can each individual do? What can be done collectively? Given the odd and unprecedented circumstances that we face as we approach the 2020-2021 school year, what is it that can, and must be done, in a collective resolve to effectively and adequately educate our kids? They are counting on educational experts to blaze the path forward: one based on the resolve of doing something specific, rather than succumbing to an attitude of complacency.
These strange and unprecedented times require levels of leadership and professionalism reminiscent of other challenges. For example, just over a decade ago we faced significant challenges due to the trickle down effect of the great economic recession. We struggled then with the opposite of social distancing. With constrained staffing allocations, my scheduler and I were resolved to keep classes below forty-five students per section in the core academic classes. As ridiculous as that sounds, it was a specific, targeted action we could take in response to the cards we were dealt. Was it easy? Did we like it? No, to both. How about the teachers - did they embrace that reality warmly? Absolutely not. Some folks groused about it loudly. I’m sure the staff room lunch conversations were toxic. (I stayed out of that caldron of resentment.) But, eventually they came to realize that we faced a temporary “new normal” based on circumstances beyond our control. In the end they all did what they were there to do, what they signed up for: the education of the kids in front of them, executed to the best of their ability even though our spacing was more like to six inches apart instead of six feet. I was very proud of their professionalism and their resolve.
Here we are faced with another circumstance that, while frightening, challenging and dreadfully annoying, is largely beyond anyone’s control. But, there are things within their control. Profoundly and simply, what do we do with this enormous bag of lemons? There are, of course, the usual responses, typical minimal levels of resolve: make lemonade, bake lemon pies. But, these are unprecedented times. These are times that require stealthy focus, absolute creativity and an unwavering commitment to the overarching challenge facing every public school educator: how do I provide to each and every one the education kids deserve?
I cannot profess to be an expert, or to offer any fail-proof remedies for what educators are about to face. We can all take solace in the recognition that we’re in good company. No one has stared down a monster quite like this one ever before. That said, I can suggest some resolutions that I would carry with me if I were about to engage a new crop of students in the fragile enterprise of learning while navigating quicksand. Perhaps these may offer some support or guidance to those that will soon be faced with this challenge.
I resolve to place the needs of my students ahead of the demands of the curriculum.
I resolve to actively listen to the perspectives and experiences of my students, and to consider these insights in the construction of learning activities.
I resolve to support the curiosity of my students and to utilize this as an instructional resource.
I resolve to allow my students to cultivate their creative instincts and interests, and to allow their creativity to be central to their learning experience.
I resolve to openly acknowledge that I share with my students their feelings of insecurity and unease with the circumstances we face. Further, I resolve to communicate with my students that we will muddle through this uncertainty together - successfully.
Finally, I resolve to establish a culture of possibility and exploration, blunting the impact and concern of what is traditionally considered failure.
The current landscape will look different from any time before it. Good. It should. It must. That’s what resolve within the context of innovative leadership requires.
I believe in the abilities of my former colleagues. They will figure this out. They have before. After all, they are consummate professionals. It’s what the present circumstances require. It’s what kids deserve.