It was that kind of day. Parents and teachers know the one: the day before the holiday break. The day when all grades are due, when the students are cheering for a reprieve from their classes and when holiday celebrations are upon us. When I talked with my colleagues, they said they are hopeful for the new year, they are glad to wrap up the semester, and all of them—yes, everyone—said they are emotionally, mentally and physically exhausted.
In a webinar in which I was a panelist this week, I was asked to name one word which inspired me to reimagine my profession this year. Although I could have answered that question in so many ways, the first word that came to mind was “collaboration.” When I said it, I got some quizzical looks. Most teachers view that word as a tired or overused concept in professional development. This teacher doesn’t.
Collaboration has been the core of our survival as educators in 2020. I have seen collaboration as the light at the end of the tunnel, the resource available in a flash and the calming second voice in the midst of a technology outage. I have seen the concept shine more than ever this year and I think that it will allow us to reimagine the educational landscape now more than ever. Sometimes we just need to take a risk and try it.
Sometimes collaboration means trying something new to give a different experience to the students we are teaching. We teachers always have to think outside the box to provide innovative experiences for our students. But this year we've had to do that even more. With shifting expectations, constraints, and yes, sometimes even freedom, engagement in the classroom is not up to a single teacher: It takes a team.
I am inspired by the teachers, community members and students collaborating across computer screens to build amazing experiences that promote critical thinking in students. Whether it is virtual tours, a guest speaker, an opportunity for an online learning challenge, or something else, the new and more extensive collaborations I see in our teaching and learning are amazing! And yet there is so much more that we could do. What would happen if we truly harnessed the power of innovative learning, stopped following the page-a-day learning model, and opened up the world of inquiry more often?
Sometimes collaboration means that school systems and structures need a revisit and a redesign—one in which teacher-leaders have a direct seat at the decision-making table. Once again, during this time of COVID, we are seeing leaders who are not in the classroom making decisions for people who are. This is totally unacceptable when lives are at stake. Some people will laugh at that comment, but too many lives have been lost—and many of those lives were teachers'.
All stakeholders should collaborate in deciding what actions should be taken for the safety of students and teachers and for the development of mechanisms for teaching and learning in uncertain times. I am inspired by the teachers across this nation who are collaborating with their school districts to bring success to our students and districts in 2020. Wouldn't it be wonderful if school leaders actually did this when times are uncertain and stressful, instead of only when they want to? And let’s be clear, I am not talking about a representative voice. I am speaking of a true set of collaborative team members who work together regularly, equally, and with a problem-solving mindset.
Sometimes collaboration means the chance to bring the “Make and Do” idea to the classroom. Teachers, schools, community partners and clubs across the country realize now more than ever the importance of the “Make and Do” concept in education. Teachers have been saying this for a long time but now, in the face of overwhelming screen time, it is more critical than ever.
The learning that happens away from a computer or television screen is critically important and there are beautiful examples of how that learning is happening. Maker kits, coding activities, Lego challenges, architecture challenges, sketchbooks and home experiments are surfacing again to provide the hands-on activities with which we all (not just students) crave to learn. I am grateful to see the spark in my students' eyes as they share the things they are making, exploring, and doing with their hands and brains right now, and I am inspired by the innovative thinking and collaboration among stakeholders to make this happen with limited access to resources. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we took this opportunity to commit to increasing education funding to make this happen for all students in the future, pandemic or not?
Sometimes collaboration means throwing out the old professional development design model of “you sit and we will deliver” and start fresh. How? Start with one great idea, flesh it out within a team of people, and use the team’s fully developed idea to inspire reflection on our practice as educators and the changes we need for the future. Why should an educator sit through professional development or training sessions he or she is not engaged in?
I am inspired by the new models of professional development I am seeing in the time of a pandemic, models that deliver flexible learning sessions, discussion forums and resources that are easy to take home and implement in the future. I saw this process in action this fall with the National Teach for Equity Convening, hosted by the National Network of State Teachers of the Year and the National Education Association. One small idea, lots of brain-trust, a crowdsourced resource list created by master educators and partners as an amazing takeaway. Teacher-leaders at the helm of large group talks, small group discussions and back-channel discussions for everything in between. That was one inspiring educational day! What if we continued to think about innovative ways to deliver professional development to inspire rather than to bore, to empower rather than to tell?
As are many educators across the nation, I am hopeful for the new year, one filled with hope for a return to the classroom, but also with hope that the lessons gained from virtual learning are not forgotten. One where collaboration with all stakeholders is implemented. One where a clear educational vision at the federal, state and local levels helps bring teachers and community members to the table effectively, to help reimagine what education looks like in the future and, at the same time, to fight for the funding it needs.
I am exhausted, but that hope helps me keep an eye on the future, while at the same time remembering those individuals who inspire. In this pandemic year, there are more of them than anyone can count.