As I sit here and contemplate all the things that have happened over the last few weeks in the world, I find my mind naturally wandering through time; it’s in my nature. I am a person who all at once understands that time is an illusion whilst simultaneously spending a great deal of my time floating around in it, reminiscing about (and sometimes regretting) the past, admonishing myself for the present, and giving too much power to a future that I can’t control. If you are like me then these words are especially for you, but you must have ears to hear them. I am not going to regale you with huge visions of the future; there will be time for that at some point, and it will be hugely necessary. What I instead would like to do is to present you with some simple truths that I think we could all use as we go forward.
1. The school year is over; it wasn’t enough; that’s okay.
I spent an inordinate amount of time the other day thinking about all 92 of my students. I laughed thinking about the funny ones, I seethed thinking about the ones that went out of their way to get under my skin, and I lamented that I didn’t have just a little more time with those frustrating but lovable underachievers; I’m certain I could have turned them around. Then, I sat and really got on my own case for the better part of a half-hour. So many things were said, so many little whisperings from the little demons that we all love to bury and pretend don’t exist. I admonished myself for the days that I maybe didn’t get enough sleep, so I was just that little bit less effective, or for the days that I let too much time slip away during whole group instruction, or sloughed off that needed parent phone call, or the million other little human mistakes that I made and will continue to make every day of my natural life. I admonished myself and started to believe the twin lies that I somehow could have done so much more and that being robbed of the fourth quarter of the school year was somehow all to blame for the ways I fell short. But let’s get real, any mistakes I was making in the first three quarters I was going to make, in some capacity, in the fourth, as well. Everyone makes mistakes; everyone gives less than their best on some days, no matter what principals and central office administrators and super-teacher Twitter feeds might have you think. Not only that, what so many great educators never see because of the crab-pot-type world we inhabit is that your failings are so minor when placed in the greater context of what your presence and relationship to those kids meant and will continue to mean. The underachievers will always underachieve, until the day they don’t. I know because I was an exceptional underachiever. Their lives will be better, in some small way, because you stood in the breach, showed up each day, and gave the effort, even on your bad days. It may not have been enough time, but it was time, and that time mattered.
2. In the present, you are still you, and that holds a world of possibilities.
Let’s face it, no educator worth their tote bag has yet seen a plan for continuing schooling in the absence of actual school that even remotely does the profession justice. It’s important that we have a little grace in these moments and remember that when something is unprecedented, part and parcel of the word is the idea that there really is no good plan for these things. Mike Tyson once said that everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face; this totally qualifies. What’s also important in these times is that educators don’t lose their sense of self. I have seen far too many people cast adrift by this whole situation because so much of their identity and sense of self-worth is tied up in being a classroom teacher. But one of the great lies that we love to tell ourselves, especially in Western society, is that what you do is who you are. Nothing could be further from the truth. It took me a long time to admit to myself that maybe I really am pretty good at this job and an equally long time to figure out that I’m good at it for all the “wrong” reasons. I didn’t get a degree in education (I almost didn’t get a degree in anything); I abhor reading books about methods or educational theory; I giggle to myself whenever someone uses the word “pedagogy” in a sentence with a straight face; I think you get the picture. What I instead learned was that my willingness to take the sum-total of my life experiences — my 1.8 high school GPA (Go Falcons!), my unabashed love of skateboarding, punk rock, professional wrestling, and ridiculous movies, my fascination with spirituality and the human experience — and to put them on display with total honesty in my classroom are what make me successful because they are what makes me the authentic me. This is the time for every educator really to reach inward and to re-establish your connection to the authentic you — the person you were before you sat up grading reams of student work every night and had a perfect outfit in your closet for every spirit day. It’s worth it, and it will help you when you get back to your classroom because…
3. It is never going to be the same again; and that’s where the fun starts.
I’m just going to rip the Band-Aid off here; the next few years, and possibly the rest of your career, are going to be wildly different from what you have previously known. In the short term, it's going to be pretty spartan. Field trips, gone. Extra supplies, nope. Support staff — let’s get real, that’s going to be like asking to borrow a dollar, getting turned down, and asking for five instead. Beyond that, the present situation is letting anyone who has been seriously paying attention see the man behind the curtain, so to speak, when it comes to things like educational standards, standardized testing, instructional delivery methods, and a host of other things. What that means it that it is going to be increasingly difficult as time goes on to return to the way things were before. For a certain subset of us, it will be impossible. But here’s the good news. Things not being the way they were before means that there is immense freedom and possibility in creating an entirely new future. For some, that could mean taking the opportunity to fill gaps in the curriculum with more inquiry and exploration. For some, it could mean finding time to reinvigorate your focus on empathy, equity, and empowerment in your classroom. For some, it could mean fully embracing student and teacher passion as a guiding force for all learning decisions that are made in your classroom. The point is, the uncertainty of the future shouldn’t be viewed as a void, but rather as a portal to a whole new world. Because here is what I know, and what has guided me throughout my whole journey as an educator. The value that your classroom has to a young mind has only a little bit to do with your written curriculum or the standards that guide it. If you ask me seriously to provide you with timestamps of when I learned certain little factoids in school, I wouldn’t be able to tell you. 38-year-old me cannot name any of the characters from A Tale of Two Cities, guilty as charged. I also cannot remember how to factor a polynomial or tell you any significant detail about the different stages of geologic time. What I can tell you are names, names like Yano and Bandy and Smith, names of people who looked at an underachieving kid and told him that he and his creativity held value in the world — in the absence of all the machinery that tends to govern our daily lives in the classroom. You have the potential to become one of those names. There is great power there; it is a power worth exploring.
So, there it is. This is what the times that are in front of us look like. I know that there is a temptation right now to try to take everything that has happened, is happening, and will happen and try to give it some sort of permanent place in the cosmic order. There will be time for that. Right now, however, I think it is time just simply to stop, to embrace the simple, and to take the next steps as they come.