Think Again About Schooling

Reading Time: About 4 Minutes

Her voice rose as she spoke, cracking slightly on the last word. ” I’m juggling working from home, video conferences, wonky internet, planning meals, making sure we all get some exercise and being my kids’ teacher. I can’t do it!”

He struggled too, uneasy about his layoff. “I have no idea when I’ll get back to work. Even though I’ve plenty of jobs to do around our place, I can’t get motivated. And when I log on to the school’s learning platform, I can’t tell what’s happening and if the kids are where they should be. This is hard.”

Parents, guardians, caregivers and teachers worry about our children and what the future holds for them. This global pandemic has us all even more on edge. Now we wonder if the kids will be alright having had to stay inside for weeks. What does it mean that little ones are now using words like pandemic in their imaginative play as they warn each other to stay apart? How will they do in school if they’ve had to miss two or more months? Will my child fall behind? Will they be OK?

Parents* are also wondering about the worksheets, the exams and the comprehension questions. What happens if my child doesn’t finish them? Do they lead to learning? Am I a bad parent if I can’t sit beside my child and help them?

Over the years, educators, pundits, and politicos have written much about the purpose of schooling. Some people point out the quasi factory model of education that we still mostly follow in schools. You know, the desks in rows, punch in punch out mentality, strict adherence to bells and minutes of instruction. There are plenty of educators who have innovated within this structure, however, the sifting and sorting of students has continued. We assign grades at the end of each block of learning time, and those grades have become a proxy for success in life.

Listening to Gretchen Rubin‘s latest podcast, which included a parenting segment with Dr. Elizabeth Schwarz, resonated strongly for me. In their conversation, Gretchen and Elizabeth ask what is important about school. You can listen to the full discussion, but in short, their answer is socializing and learning to learn: “The actual material is not so important.”

We are in a time in Ontario, when grades don’t matter. For once, if Alex doesn’t complete that Math worksheet with 24 multiplication questions, it won’t really make a difference. Samira won’t have to write a final exam where she answers 15 multiple choice questions about the structure and behaviour of matter. Blair won’t need to finish the comprehension questions on that passage from Homer.

I’ve believed for years that grades shouldn’t be necessary and that we do a disservice to children, teenagers and adults by insisting on this ranking of their learning. If we believe that the purpose of school is to learn, that it’s for “students to learn and grow to their full potential in a diverse world” as my district states in the mission statement, then the focus should always be on learning, not on the grade.

So what’s the answer for now? While the pandemic threatens all of us, there are also opportunities. I wonder how learning can look without some of our formalized structures. Parents should feel good about all they’re doing to love, take care of and learn with their kids. Talking about family and our place in the natural and artificial world, preparing meals together, doing some home projects, caring for pets, or going for walks in the neighbourhood mean valuable time with family and also time to learn how to learn. Educators are helping by posting provocations, interesting questions, or problem solving challenges instead of pages of questions and worksheets.

We don’t need to worry so much about our young people keeping up. We need to worry about how they socialize, imagine, play and think.

*When I use “parents”, I mean parents, guardians and caregivers.

Leadership and Learning under Lockdown

Reading Time: About 4 minutes

In the beginning, I was smug about being an introvert. This “stay at home” thing would be a cinch. I like spending time on my own: thinking, reading, watching, writing. I look forward to the end of the day when I walk up the steps to my front door and enter the safety of home. My best weekend has always been one with no plans.

Image by Karolina Grabowska from Pixabay

The first few weeks were fine. Working from home was an adjustment, but mainly I felt as if I was supporting others in this difficult time of physical distancing. I read, I thought, I watched, I wrote. Then something changed.

I started to feel disconnected, at odds with myself and missing others. I had an uncomfortable few days where I felt rudderless. My interactions and decisions with work colleagues and those I supervise weren’t very positive. This wasn’t me! It was disconcerting because I’d been so confident that I was fine.

The stay at home order has turned our lives topsy turvy. There’s a huge range in how people are experiencing it. For some, fear and uncertainty about work and family add tension. For others, caring for elders and children, along with the upset to routines, feels overwhelming.

Aside from the obvious differences in our daily lives – no travel, no social gathering, no hugs – there are other subtle differences. Everything takes longer. We can’t pop in to say hello and solve a quick problem. We don’t chat in the hallway or office kitchen. We have a view into colleagues’ homes (and loungewear!). Screen time is mentally exhausting. Skills and solutions we’ve relied on to get work done don’t work in the same way. Life feels more raw somehow.

And yet, this unique situation that we’re living through presents an unprecedented opportunity to know ourselves better. Why not ask yourself these questions:

  • What do I need that I never realized before?
  • What have I always taken for granted in how I influence others or get things done?
  • How might I find ways to do things differently?

Strong leaders know themselves: how they prefer to make decisions, how they synthesize information and which modes they use to communicate. They know what they’re good at, and what they struggle with. In a recent conversation, a trusted colleague shared how this time has reinforced how much they value the daily routine and structure of work. This thinking is leading them to a deeper understanding of their leadership.

I’ve discovered that I need daily interactions with others. I enjoy meetings (who knew)! I crave thoughtful discussions about human behaviour, ideas, and learning. I miss the synergy that can come when people work on a problem together. One of the reasons I love my work is precisely because it offers so many moments to think and talk with those who think like me and, more importantly, those who don’t. It’s an essential part of who I am as a leader and how I influence.

I need to create these kinds of interactions while working at home. It’s not impossible with video conferencing, phone calls and 2 metre distant porch or front door visits. But it needs attention, just like every other facet of leadership and learning. I’ve started to use the camera much more in video conferences so I feel more connected with whom I’m meeting. I’m beginning to plan for deeper conversations.

I hope all leaders will reflect on what they’re uncovering about themselves. We are all trying to survive right now. It might be possible to bring forward these lessons once we’re back together so we can also thrive as leaders.

My Secret: Adjusting to New

I wish I’d brought my ball chair home from the office. It’s pleasantly bouncy, keeps my posture upright and my core engaged. I like it a lot. It may seem like a small, insignificant wish in the global pandemic, nonetheless, I miss my chair.

My “home office” is set up on a collapsible table we usually use for picnics, covered with a beautiful blue tablecloth that my mom made. It’s wedged in a small upstairs room, alongside bookcases and phys.ed equipment and one of my collections of shoes (don’t ask). I’ve added my “I’m not Bossy, I’m the Boss” sign and important office supplies like my staple free stapler and the particular black Sharpie pens I like best. I brought up a dining chair from downstairs. All in all, it’s pretty comfortable. And yet, after two weeks of working from home, my lower back is killing me. Oh for my ball chair.

Of course, I’m very happy to still have a job, especially a meaningful, interesting one. The work I’m doing every day supports others in this truly challenging and extraordinary time. Even so, there have been surprising adjustments I’ve had to make working from home.

In Better than Before, Gretchen Rubin writes that one of the keys to happiness is knowing yourself. I’m using my hard won self knowledge to decide what to do when so many things are new. I know that to be happy, I need a regular routine that structures my time so I can be productive. That means I’m getting up at the usual time, doing some exercise, having a shower, doing my hair (so important!) and getting dressed. I’m “shopping my closet” and putting together outfits. I even cleaned off the soles of some of my shoes so I can wear them inside and feel more put together. These actions may seem trivial, but they’re more than that. They let me take a little control over the only thing I can control. I feel more like myself.

Once I’m at “the office” in my little room upstairs, working equals most of the day spent online and on screen. Figuring out virtual meetings and a new workflow is more exhausting that I thought possible, and even though it’s going well, my brain is drained. Articles about working from home advise people to take regular breaks and lunch, with a walk or something active to recharge. In the last two weeks, that’s become very important. I’m telling colleagues that I’m on lunch and encouraging them to do the same. Setting boundaries ensures that no one part of my life takes over another.

And here’s the secret: what’s really getting me through this new world we’re living in are all these small things. These strategies I use and other little celebrations like a happy wave in a virtual meeting, the sight of encouraging words chalked on a sidewalk or a friend sending me a wonderful Elizabeth Gilbert quote. Not to mention the comfort of a good book that lifts me above the everyday.

I think I’ll be OK without my chair.