Pandemic Lessons

June 30, 2020 | Notes from

I used to be a teacher, a principal and even a superintendent in the world of education.  For a portion of my career, my work was with First Nations communities.  I still feel that my developmental work with over fifty First Nations setting up early school boards and seeing them manage and run their own schools was a gift for me as an educator. 

June was always the end of our year, not December and it was always a time for reflection and taking stock.  I can imagine that this june we will see some pretty big conversations across the country. 

I know I can’t possibly have an insider’s knowledge these days and would not claim such, but I have a little elder knowledge and I would love to throw it into the June school end conversational mix. 

Progressive educators at the Teachers College I attended back in the 60’s challenged us to practice individualized instruction

Are you kidding me … we were to make time for each individual kid when there were 28 of these little time bombs ready to go off at any minute? I do remember, however, one lovely Grade Four teacher who, faced with 28-time depleting and self-distractive kids really wanted to try for the individualized moment.  Her genius was to create a tool, a practice to make it happen.  Setting aside ten minutes on a calendar, at the same time each day, she slotted in every kid for ten minutes sessions … once every 28 days of the year … the magic ten.

If you do the math, not my thing, you see that each kid probably got less than six of these one on one sessions a year.  She never changed the calendar.  Every session was sacred and not to be bumped.

They made a film about her work.  When they interviewed the kids, all they talked about was those few amazing times when they had that teacher all to themselves…the magic ten minutes. 

I have no idea if teachers today, in a classroom setting, have that sort of rigor about giving their kids scheduled and sacred individual conversational time.  So, in a time of no classrooms, I have been thinking about what a wonderful little silver lining this pandemic has offered teachers and students. 

Before I go there, I would like to inject a little shout out for the possibilities some analog thinking in a digital world.  Let’s compare email and the telephone …

The dominance of the digitized print form (email) and the subsequent loss of the analog voice form (telephone) came about in 1969, ironically my first year of teaching.  I love the wit who once imagined that if Alexander Graham Bell had invented email in 1876, for 93 years all we would have used would be textualized email.  Then in 1969, the telephone gets invented. The excitement ripples around the world …” hey, here is a way we can actually talk to each other from a distance.”  Funny, but interesting … 

So back to that Grade Four teacher … her brilliance was in her instinctive trust of the value of voice conversation.  She could not imagine that magic ten minutes being real in just text or print.  I wonder if todays isolated teacher might feel the only real possibility right now is to maximize the internet connection. Apparently, the curriculum work is doing well digitally.  However, I am just as interested in the non-curriculum relationship and connection of teachers and students. 

Through an analog lens, I wonder how many kids got a ten-minute phone call from their teacher every week just saying, “hey kid how is it going and how can I be of any help?” 

I imagine that every kid today would go crazy for the phone to ring and it was their teacher … a teacher who just wants to talk to you about whatever is on your mind today, not what she needs from you today for the new electronic program and your ongoing math issues. 

We all have complained about new ideas and practices.  The biggest complaint is always, “I don’t have that kind of time …” 

Well … we do now. 

I believe this generation of kids will be telling their grandkids about this pandemic like the stories my grandparents told me about 1918. 

Imagine them telling their kids one great story about the teacher who would call them once every week for so many weeks.  They would say that the teacher would talk to them because they wanted to …  not because there was curriculum and math to be done. Ten minutes of real relationship building and management. 

God bless those teachers who did this for the last three months and a question for those who did not … why not, lord knows you had the time and they really needed to hear your voice, one on one as much as they needed your texts and zoom calls to the group. 

By the way, I have asked a number of kids if they got one or more calls from their teacher during this time and I have yet to hear of one … 

The second possibility was the chance to bring back some of the fine arts possibilities into kids lives … This would require teachers to reach back into the community for some help.  These days there are thousands of painters, poets, musicians out there who want to help.  Let’s find them and with the flick of the Zoom, get them connected to your 28 kids.  It doesn’t have to be fancy lesson plan stuff just a connection between and artist and your kids. 

Perhaps a drawing session, perhaps a poetry improv slam online or a 15-minute basic ukulele lesson.  The important thing is to connect kids with more than just their teacher and their curriculum work.  Have an online field trip … we can bring the beekeeper, the chef and the farmer right into your world of 28 kids thanks to your facilitation and creative energy. 

And finally, we may be missing a really fine third possibility by forgetting about the parents.  I have been talking to parents who have been floundering.  The teacher had a huge opportunity to do a little adult education as well.  These poor parents are not at all sure if they are giving as much help to their kids as they would like. 

So … what if every teacher had taken 60 minutes on every Friday afternoon to get the parents and kids on the Zoom and the teacher gave a one hour tutorial on how to help with math, how to encourage writing, how to do better research, how to get more pages of reading and so on. 

Today’s teacher in a virtual world can do much more than teach … she can be a kids learning coach (possibility number one), bring the outside world of beauty into each child’s life (possibility number two) and become a real support for at home parents as they navigate the critical 12 years of trying to assist their child to do well in school … 

I have always believed that teaching has been far too one dimensional … just about teaching.  I now believe that a great teacher has at least three dimensions.  Great teachers know how to teach kids (teaching skills), great teachers know how to support kids (coaching skills) and great teachers know how to engage kids (facilitation skills) 

If these three pillars were in balance in classrooms, I believe we would have kids in more balance in their lives … 

So thank you to all the teachers and kids out there who did their part, dug deep and hung in … we know one thing about September and that is we know nothing about September … what we do know is that the world has changed and the world of education has changed … 

I would love for these modest three things to be a part of a continuing schools conversation as we look down the road to September.  These three things that could make a difference upon re-entry … 

Have a great summer!!