CHANGE IS AFOOT WHETHER WE LIKE IT OR NOT

“We have more to fear from the opinions of our friends than the bayonets of our enemies.” Politician turned Union General Nathaniel Banks, in plea he couldn’t abandon an untenable position.”
Shelby Foote, The Civil War, Vol. 1: Fort Sumter to Perryville

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
James Baldwin

 

It’s a few minutes before 9 AM. The wife is heading towards the bedroom, which has now become a classroom, to begin teaching her first class of the day. The kids are sequestered in their room, beginning the log in process for another school day. Myself, I fill another cup of coffee and settle in to begin my workday. Ours is not a unique scene, as similar routines transpire all across Nashville.

Three weeks ago Metro Nashville Public Schools kicked off school via distance learning. To say it’s been a painful process is been an understatement. It’s required long hours by teachers to try and fill gaps left open in a skeletal plan designed by district administrators who haven’t taught in a classroom in years. Parents have had to adjust work schedules and child care options, often with limited resources. All of this playing out in front of the backdrop of a global pandemic.

Success has been very slow in coming, frustrations continue bubbling forth, but victories are being won. More than once around our house I’ve heard cries of “I can’t do this”, “I hate this stuff”, “What the hell”, and that’s just from me.

But yesterday, as I sat at the computer doing my work, sounds filtered through the bedroom door of my wife teaching, I realized what a great teacher she is. Never before have I been afforded the opportunity to bear witness to her skills. The same holds true for the skills of her peers that teach my children.

My son bops out to grab a yogurt between classes, “Just grabbing a snack,” he says.

“What’s next?”

“Social studies.”

“How was ELA?”

“Good. We have to start a book. So I’m going to start that Awesome Friendly Adventure. Can we play catch at lunchtime?”

“Maybe, let me see how much work I get done”, I reply.

A few minutes later I ease the door open to check on my reclusive daughter. She’s got her headphones on and is engrossed in a science lesson. Without looking at me, she throws up a thumbs-up sign as a means of shooing me out the door. Smiling, I ease the door shut and go back to work.

As I ease back down at the desk, I realize that we’ve settled into a new routine one that is providing me with previosly unavailable opportunities. And while it is not stress-free, nor optimal, as of yet, I kinda like it.

If this were a normal school year, we’d all be going a mile a minute. The kids racing to get to the bus to take them away to school. My wife heading the other direction to begin her classes. After-school time would be filled with activities and household chores. Evenings and weekends would find me en route to my own job assignments. It wasn’t uncommon for us to barely squeeze in a half-hour a day of quality time due to outside obligations. The new rountine provides us with unprecedented access to each other. I can’t tell you how appreciative I am of being afforded that access.

There’s a lot to still be worked out and I expect even more pain during the transition. I suspect businesses are also going to need to adjust their expectations. Pre-pandemic, many were already recognizing the benefits of being more flexible in both scheduling and compensation.  There is no reason for me to believe that going forth, grants, and federal funding will not be made available to help parents navigate the new paradigm shift. The bottom line is that things will ultimately improve for everyone.

For right now, I’m appreciative of MNPS’s efforts to keep children and teachers safe while allowing us to reconnect as a family. Time will tell how effective virtual instruction is, and I’m sure there will be plenty of debate about its viability. Like everything else, it will be ever-evolving. The distance learning of today, won’t look like the distance learning of next month, and by next Spring things will have evolved even further. Just imagine the landscape a decade from now. It promises to be a crazy ride, but sometimes we have to stop and enjoy the unintended consequences that arise from change being forced upon us.

Like the serenity prayer says,

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and wisdom to know the difference.

AN ANNOUNCEMENT ABOUT AN ANNOUNCEMENT

With any painful transition, there comes a question of, “How long are we going to do this before we revert back to the comfortable method?” Distance learning is no exception.

Calls for kids to attend school in person have continued to grow even as new diagnoses of COVID continue to be reported at an alarming rate. Word on the street is that members of Nashville’s COVID Task Force, and the Mayor’s office, at the urging of the city’s business community, have been quietly applying pressure on Dr. Battle to change direction and at the very least begin offering a hybrid plan that includes f2f instruction.  As best I can tell, that pressure accounted for MNPS releasing an ill-thought-out press release earlier in the week that promised to announce an update on next Tuesday.

I say ill-thought-out because I can see no benefit to such an announcement, and it only serves to distract. From the beginning, Dr. Battle promised that any plan would be subject to ongoing evaluations and that adjustments would be made as supported by existing data. Furthermore, she pledged to give 2 weeks’ notice before implementing any change. As far as I know, nothing has changed in regard to those promises and so, since the original announcement said MNPS would be all virtual till, at minimum September 8, it could be expected that an update would be soon forthcoming, but until then, the focus should remain on the current path.

Making an announcement about an upcoming announcement does nothing but disrupt the focus on the task at hand. The wording of the announcement left many speculating that a decision had already been arrived at, and would be communicated after the wording was massaged into a palpable form. The response has been an increased amount of gossip and speculation. How many people, both parents and teachers, understandably semi-checked out after Dr. Battle’s announcement because they decided, why work this hard when next Monday an announcement would be made that f2f instruction would begin again?

That’s not meant as a slight to anyone, just acknowledgment that this undertaking is indescribably hard and nobody wants to invest in extra work that’s not going to be applicable in 2 weeks. Despite the intense difficulty, I would argue, now is not the time to abandon ship. Now is not the time to make a change in a plan that has already taken a tremendous toll on the district’s educators.

The managing of resources is an important component in managing a project. There is no more valuable resource for Metro Schools than it’s educators. As I’ve repeatedly stated, but it can’t be overstated, the last month has been an unprecedented challenge. In my opinion, though we aren’t quite grasping the big picture. Too many of us are looking at the present circumstances as a harder version of a familiar trope. Education writer Peter Greene per usual provides a brilliant but flawed illustration that is rooted in truth but also misses the whole picture,

Reopening schools during a pandemic is new only in the degree of severity. For a teacher, it’s all too familiar. You’re changing the flat tire on a bus loaded with kids, in the rain, and they’re hungry. A big shiny Lexus pulls up next to you, and some politician or bureaucrat lowers the window and hollers, “Boy, that looks tough. I admire your hard work and dedication.” You ask if he could make a phone call for help, or get out and lend a hand, but he doesn’t seem to hear. “Well, hey, good luck to you,” he says, rolling up the window. “I’m sure you’ll make it all work out.”

The part that is missing is the re-invention of public education. We are not just trying to re-open schools, we are trying to do in a way that in the past has only been done on a limited scale. Look around MNPS, and it’s quickly revealed that the number of educators with experience in distance learning could comfortably social distance in a small auditorium. Of those with experience, none have it on the scale that MNPS is now implementing. That means some of what we think we know has to be let go, and what remains reapplied. That’s tough under the best circumstances, but is imperative under these trying times. The good news is thatr by all accounts it is taking place in varying degrees across the district.

The current challenge for educators brings to mind that faced by legendary jazz musician Chet Baker. Baker was an international superstar and at the top of his game when a growing heroin addiction led him to attempt to but drugs from a stranger in San Francisco. The encounter resulted in Baker being beaten by 5 men. A beating that cost him several teeth and contributed to the loss of his embouchure, due to his requiring dentures.

Baker had to completely relearn to play the trumpet, it was an arduous process but one that ultimately successful at. While I’m certainly not comparing MNPS to a heroin addict, the task before them is not dissimilar from Bakers. Like the legendary trumpet player, the lessons of the past will have to be coupled with a new way of doing things. In the beginning, there will be lots of discomfort but eventually success will arrive.

It’s also worth noting that Baker initially rejected the idea of re-learning his trade. He took odd jobs working in gas stations and supermarkets before the realization set in that he had to return to his passion. A teachers calling is every bit as strong as that of a musician, and as such I’m confident that many will find the needed balance between past and present.

The reality is that schools will never again look like they did in 2019 and ultimately that’ll be a good thing. There is a passage in the new James Lee Burke novel, A Private Cathedral, that serves to illuminate the present circumstances for me. In the passage, Burke is speaking of New Orleans music and perhaps the city itself, but his words are applicable on a much grander scale.

“I also realized that the re-creation of my generation and era in the form of Isolde Balangie and Johnny Shondell was an innocent fatasy and a fitting tribute to the New Orleans Sound. The piano keys tinkling with a fragility like crystal, the throaty resonance of the saxophone, the muffled rolling of the drums, the coon-ass and Irish Channel accents of the vocalists, all of it echoing as though recorded in an empty college gym, all of it leading one day into Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound – this was the era that I always believed was the best in our history. But it was gone, and to mourn its passing was to demean it. The ethereal moment lives on it the heart, so what is there to fear?”

As we move forward it is imperative that before undertaking the next phase of re-invention, there is a cost evaluation and an inventory of resources. Time has to be given to let accounts replenish before undertaking the next step, otherwise, people are just being set up for failure.

History has shown that teachers will rise to whatever challenge you throw at them. But I raise the question that I’ve raised in the past, just because you can ask, should you?

There seems to be a little bit of a misconception out there, that re-opening schools for f2f will just be a turn of the key and a welcoming of children. Nothing could be further from the truth. In order to successfully create a hybrid model – a necessity because not all children or teachers will be willing to return – there will be just as much work required as there has been in the last month. In other words, we’ll be saying to teachers, and in some cases parents, “Thanks for that pound of flesh, can you now turn around and give us another pound from the other side?”

I firmly believe that the prudent way forward is to focus on improving distance learning while providing adequate time for planning on how to add the f2f component. We shouldn’t radically change things without providing the proper means for implementation. If we’ve learned nothing else from this past month’s foray into virtual school, can we at least take that lesson with us?

There has been a considerable amount of disagreement over whether children can safely return to school during the current pandemic. While safety is a concern for all, some also raise concerns that they feel should receive equal consideration. For smaller districts, incurring fewer cases of COVID, it’s a more viable argument than it is for larger urban districts. Nothing makes that distinction clearer than a look at recently released data from the state showing the number of COVID cases across the state for children ages 5 – 18. While over the last 2 weeks, most counties are reporting numbers in the low double digits – in some cases single digits – cases in the larger urban districts are running in the triple-digit range. Keep in mind those numbers are being generated while schools are closed.

In my opinion, the numbers alone make the argument for extending the current model until at least the end of the first quarter, or maybe even the semester. Let smaller, more flexible districts try and return to business as usual while we focus on improving things for the future. What’s the benefit of opening in-person schooling only to have to shut down again in a month? Consistency and stability are the hallmarks of a successful strategy. Yesterday Nashville’s Mayor Cooper announced that professional football and soccer games will take place sans fans in the stands. Which begs the question, if you can’t have fans at sporting events, how can you have students at schools?

We already know the level of risk that Governor Lee and his doppelganger Commissioner Schwinn are willing to take. All of their input continues to take the form of suggestions, instead of mandates. Supposedly this is out of deference to local authority, yet they are all too willing to write legislation that dictates to local districts what and how they’ll teach, as well as how they’ll serve their neediest kids. Time over time they demonstrate that it is control, without responsibility, that they desire.

Nowhere was that more evident than in yesterday’s announcement allowing LEA’s to declare teachers as essential employees. Instead of creating a state mandate, Lee deferred to LEA’s, “The decision is the district’s and if they make that decision, then we have given them guidance that we believe they must follow if they choose to make that decision.” Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn and Public Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey then followed up in a letter to school districts obtained by The Tennessean Tuesday with further instruction,

“Districts that opt to implement the (critical infrastructure) approach for staff must implement additional measures to mitigate COVID-19 risk and notify TDH and the Tennessee Department of Education of such CI designation.”

In other words, y’all make the decision and take on the responsibility, but once you do that. we’ll tell you how to do it. It’s a move that allows lots of plausible deniability. An odd move from a man who represents a political party who prides itself on the assumption of personal responsibility.

I’ve stated over and over, that we are currently experiencing a paradigm shift in public education. Ultimately it’ll bring a shift in power, with teachers and parents rising to the top. Parents will more than ever will be able to demand and receive an education vehicle that fits their wants and desires. Opportunities for teachers will only grow through the establishment of pods, micro-schools, and learning communities. As the shift progresses, I predict the level of discomfort will shift away from teachers and families onto those that once controlled how education was delivered. That ain’t going to sit well with everyone.

Some are waking up to that reality, and in response are doing everything they can to make sure we return to “normal” as quick as possible. A move I believe is doomed to failure. You know the old saying, “How are you going to keep them down on the farm once they’ve seen Paris?”

Opinion writer Sharyl Attkisson summarizes things nicely in a recent piece for The Hill,

It can be difficult to recognize a generational sea change when you’re in the midst of it. But it’s not hard to imagine that we are in one now. For better or for worse, we are on the precipice of education reform in America and unintended social ramifications — not as a result of planning, agreement or legislation, but through something that is proving far more powerful: forced necessity because of the coronavirus response.

We’ll see what next Monday brings. But hopefully, it’s an announcement that takes into account the tremendous sacrifice and labor that MNPS’s teachers have already put forth. Hopefully, it’s one that puts families and teachers first, and the appeasement of politicians and the business community secondary. Hopefully, it is one that sees the whole picture and not just a small slice of the pie. Hopefully it is one that sets the district up for future successes and not just temporary wins. Now more then ever, vision is imperative.

No matter what the announcement next Tuesday, one fact will remain, there is still a tremendous amount of work to be done.



Categories: Education

1 reply

  1. It’s been amazing watching teachers do their thing and watching the kids be so engaged.

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