Any suggestion that the past twelve months have been difficult would represent an obvious understatement. It would be exhausting to outline the scope of these difficulties across our collective health, mortality, economy, culture and global community. But, true to this site, I’ll stick to education.
Who knew the critical role technology would play in educating our kids before the pandemic forced the immediate closure of classrooms and schools? Sure, we grew attached to our computers in recent years, and we appreciated the power they demonstrated in researching topics, organizing tasks, producing documents and communicating effortlessly across vast distances. But, as the tool for instruction, one that replaces the face-to-face encounters between student and teacher that we have come to know, expect and appreciate? No way.
Yes, way. And not for a matter of weeks or months to bridge a temporary gap. No, this reality has consumed the past year of our educational system. The final months of the senior experience for the 2020 graduating class were religated to be done virtually. No prom. No senior breakfast. No traditional commencement exercises attended by every uncle and grandparent under the sun. To add insult to injury, we quickly realized that this condition would continue as we approached the opening of a new school year in the fall of 2020. Teachers were required to develop strategies of offering content, and engaging students, through a largely untried and unfamiliar platform: distant learning. Frequently to a sea of blank screens, teachers have toiled to meet their obligations for the intellectual and personal development, and welfare, of their students.
It’s been challenging. It’s been difficult.
Kids, deprived of the opportunities that they relish the most, the interactions with their peers and friends, have been relegated to “school in a screen,” an expectation that they would, or could, log on to this unknown enterprise and somehow find ways to meaningfully engage with what was being taught. The personal nature of schooling that they are familiar with, and have come to expect, is compromised. Raising one’s hand, asking a question, contributing to a discussion - the rules and procedures have changed. And the gleeful expectation of having lunch with a buddy? Sorry.
It’s been challenging. It’s levied a toll on the emotional and developmental health of many children. It’s been difficult.
It appears that soon kids and teachers may find their way back to one another as states and districts contemplate reopening schools for in-person instruction. The templates for this vary. Return to a traditional schedule? A hybrid model that combines in-person and distant instruction? There is considerable apprehension to both of these approaches. Actually, a more accurate descriptor is fear. In the midst of what we hope to be the final restrictions of a society battling a pandemic, the obvious question looms large. Is this safe? With the availability of vaccinations and public health protocols in place, is a return to schooling, as we know it ,reasonable? Is it safe? We need, rather demand, a guarantee that teachers and kids will be safe.
I’m reminded of the sage wisdom of Albert Einstein. I know I have used this quote before, and I anticipate that I will again. Every leader should have this seven word statement in a prominent location so it can be viewed daily because of the encouraging power and wisdom it contains.
“In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.”
As we remember the challenges of the past year and look ahead to what might be around the corner, we can easily name the difficulties. And that’s important because you can’t deal with an issue, problem or dilemma if you can’t call it what it is, if you can’t name it. As human beings, we’re very good at naming difficulties. The problem is that we dwell solely on that half of Einstein's equation. That’s when negativity and pessimism set in, making it impossible to see beyond the issue and leading to a state of immobility and self-imposed inertia.
I refer to this quote as an equation, which seems to be a reasonable assumption coming from a scientist and mathematician. At it’s core, it is a two sided equation:
Difficulty = Opportunity
How often do we neglect to examine both sides of the same coin?
My challenge to teachers and instructional leaders is to do exactly that. Name the difficulties and then ponder their significance as possible opportunities. Here are some examples that immediately come to mind as we contemplate a gradual return to in-person instruction.
The tools used during virtual instruction, while annoying and challenging when they are the only ones available, aren’t all bad. They have some very useful applications both in the form of research and direct instruction, as well as student practice. How can they best be utilized?
Hybrid instruction implies balance. My hybrid-powered Prius relies on an internal combustion engine to augment, and support, the electric motor. One isn’t better than the other. My car won’t run if both of these are not in synch. How can we strike a meaningful and useful balance between the opportunities for face-to-face interaction and the continued application of virtual platforms? What balance makes sense in order to maximize the potential of this model? Should these strategies be considered temporary or do they hold promise for the long term?
The virtual experience has actually been beneficial for some students. (Note, I said “some.” Nothing is good for everyone, in the same way.) For instance, think of that introverted student who would be reluctant to ask a question or offer and idea aloud, but finds participating via chat less threatening. Or the benefit of being able to go back and replay a recorded demonstration or lecture for clarity.
Rather than tossing the baby out with the bath water by dwelling on only one half of the equation, I challenge my readers to engage in the second half the problem by utilizing what I call “what if?” thinking. Get creative and imagine possible solutions to the dilemmas or challenges being faced. There are lessons to be learned. There are opportunities to be identified. The process can actually be enjoyable. And the results can be life altering.
Let’s look at Einstein’s equation another way. It would be impossible to make a lemon pie if one didn’t posses lemons. Parallel to that reality is this: opportunities will not be recognized without difficulty. In the absence of situations that challenge or frustrate us, things we would name as difficulties, there is no need to consider untapped opportunities. We tend to ease into a state of complacency when things are running along like clock work. If the status quo is producing adequate results, there is no need for creative innovation. Through this lens, difficulties are not things to dread, shy away from or complain about. They become gifts, offering the impetus to pause, take stock, reconsider and change direction. Difficulties offer the opportunity to uncover the opportunities they represent.
Consider what Einstein did not say. He did not suggest that the opportunities that may result from difficulty are obvious or that they are in plain sight and easily harvested. Rather, he simply suggests that they exist. It is up to us to discover what they may be and how they may be useful. It takes effort, commitment, diligence . . . it requires work.
Public education is clearly at a crossroad. As we look forward to a return to face-to-face instruction, we have options. We could turn our back on the challenges and difficulties of the past year and run to the familiar embrace of our pre-pandemic practices. Or, we could take stock of these challenges, learn from them and seize the opportunity to create something better. My hope is for the latter.
“In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.”