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Reaching the Finish Line

Every school year is a marathon. Teachers and students alike started well-rested, full of plans to set new records, achieve “personal bests”, and explore new possibilities. Like any trained runner, you set your pace, make needed adjustments, and settle in for the long haul. Then comes March, the Heartbreak Hill of the school year. If you are a teacher, particularly in northern parts of the US, March is the worst month ever and it takes sooo long to get through it. It is truly an uphill battle.

You and your students are tired, and you are beginning to run out of steam. March always seems like a painful extension of winter; there are no holidays and no finish line is in sight. It is the time when first-year teachers often question their sanity, motivation, and ability to reach that finish line. They have reached their 20-mile mark, and, in marathon jargon, they hit the dreaded “wall”, tapped out and barely hanging on. It is all uphill and there is no sign of the end. Their coaches and mentors know this is the time they need lots of support and cheering on; veterans know that April will bring the final quarter and planning for year-end milestones and events. But March 2020 was different - all teachers unexpectedly became first-year teachers as they were moved out of their classrooms and into a new learning environment. And no one could predict what the finish line looked like or where it would be. Teachers are committed and they are well-trained; they will all get there as best as they can. The big question is will they be ready to do it again? And how can we be sure we are all better prepared for the next challenge?

Teaching and learning are complex processes. Many parents are seeing that firsthand as they watch education happen in their own homes. Good teaching is an artful blend of what needs to be taught, the curricular content or standards, and how it is taught, the pedagogy. Teaching demands a dynamic blend of knowledge, intuition, and innovation and it takes years of training and experience to get good at it. What looks easy is a well-balanced blend of detailed preparation and continuous improvisation. Teachers are “on” all the time as they search for clues and feedback from their students. The lesson plan on the page never fully calculates what will happen when it goes “live” in the classroom. No experienced teacher expects the printed curriculum to be the same as the enacted curriculum; we all rely on feedback from students to make learning as robust and engaging as possible. Veteran teachers have a well-developed and extensive toolbox – but very few of us had the tools for this new challenge. This March both our plans and our improv skills were spun totally sideways.

When I work with teachers to make Engineering a part of their curriculum, many are often struck by the relevance of the Engineering Design process to their own challenges, both professionally and personally. Most of the problems we face in life are ill-defined or messy; they are quite different from the linear, convergent scenarios found in textbooks. And if there ever was a messy or wicked problem, it is the COVID19 crisis. The impact on education has been breathtaking and teachers are living it every day. They are in response mode, not planning mode. And it is terribly hard to develop a robust solution or execute a good plan in the middle of a crisis.

Problems are defined or delimited by constraints (limitations) and criteria (goals); successful solutions start by understanding that design space. Teachers work to meet learning goals despite limited resources, time, and a host of other factors. In March, the constraints changed dramatically but in some cases the criteria or goals have been slower to change. No one had to time to really look at what that meant at first, but it is coming into focus as time goes on. The feedback from these teachers interviewed by Larry Ferlazzo of EdWeek makes it obvious that when how you teach is so drastically altered, there needs to be a corresponding change in the expectations or goals. This new design space for learning forces us to develop new criteria as we work within new constraints. As one high school teacher put it “In a distance-learning context, in which we can achieve far less overall, I need to identify what I do best and stick to that as a focus.”

"This shift for me was less about academics and more about the learning of new skills and ideas they are acquiring during this time of isolation.” ESL teacher

“ After the first full week, students and teachers were overwhelmed. I read through reflections and saw one student write, "I'm so stressed ... I feel like I'm drowning." Once I read that response, I did what I should have done from the start: ask the students what works best for them.” High school teacher

“In the classroom… I can glance at each of my students roughly once a minute and catch movements and subtle mood shifts instantly. When I am screen sharing my Kindle app? Not so much. And even when we are in gallery view and I can see their faces or icons, I have to look away from them toward the camera to give the impression I am looking at them. True eye contact is impossible, and that underlying emotional connection that usually infuses my classroom feels tissue-paper thin.” Middle school teacher

In Engineering, once you understand the design space and you have better scoped out the problem, you explore what has been tried and what might work. Social media and the Internet are full of examples of educators doing just that in real-time during the implementation of this new way of learning. Much of what is going on now is a form of rapid prototyping as teachers explore new ideas and try new approaches in order to see what works in terms of keeping students engaged and learning. And they are doing it while trying to be tuned in to the needs of anywhere from 25 young learners to 100+ teenagers. Teachers are testing and learning an amazing amount right now and they are doing it in real-time. All good engineers and practitioners know that it is the ability to analyze multiple options and modify them that leads to an optimized product. Tapping into our creativity when faced with new challenges and constraints is often what drives innovation. But that requires time to reflect, time to sort through feedback and results, time to re-visit that design space, and time to think creatively. Teachers do not have that time right now. They and their students are just trying to reach that finish line.

As teachers are struggling to close out this school year and make it to the finish line, many around them are planning what the next steps should be. Everyone needs to give these teachers some space and time to recover. The last few months have shown us two things: (1) we cannot predict the future and (2) we can engineer new solutions. Teachers may be very tired, but most remain convinced that they can meet whatever challenges lie ahead. Students are depending on them to be able to do that and those students are what drives good teachers to be their best.

A survey of teachers, administrators, and policy makers indicated that only a small percentage (15%) of teachers want to extend this school year and that two-thirds of them favor starting with the planned next grade curriculum in the fall. Teachers want this to be over and they trust in their ability to adapt to the needs of their students. They know that students have learned important things during this time. They and their students are ready to move on. The past few months have given educators countless insights into what works and what does not. They are more aware of this new design space that education will need to fit into. They have seen the impact of changing constraints on expectations and criteria. The next iteration will be more robust, and it will allow for more effective learning experiences as we inevitably blend online and classroom learning.

As we move into May, the finish line is finally starting to come into focus for teachers and students. Everyone who has made it through these last few months deserves to cross it. They deserve and need that feeling of being done, of having accomplished something that seemed impossible. After having some time to rest and some space for reflection, they will all have the creative energy that is needed to engineer a better solution. But, first, take some time to imagine how much energy it takes to keep going when much of your planning has been upended and expectations are unclear. Right now, we just need to appreciate and be in awe of all that teachers have done as they adjusted course to reach that finish line.


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