We return on Monday… At 8 o’clock, as is the case every week, we will open the doors of our schools. On Monday our students will eagerly enter their classrooms again, and for a while motivation won’t be a problem because they’ve missed us a lot. On Monday even we teachers will gladly grab books and chalk, but tablets not as much. On Monday there will be no normal hours; we will have time to talk and smiles will surely last a little longer on our faces. Which Monday? I don’t know. There are no certainties about when we’ll return to classrooms as normal. In each corner of the world that Monday will be a different one on the calendar. But I’m sure it will be a Monday. And then, the ‘new normality’ will arrive. But will it be a ‘Better Normal’? Will we be able to turn this crisis into an opportunity to make the profound changes that our educational systems need? Or will we repeat the old mistakes again and find that the only novelty will just be the use of masks and alcohol in our daily routines?
In these past few months, as educators, we’ve lived through many unexpected experiences that have put the foundations of our underfunded systems to the test: teachers with significant professional deficiencies, excessively dependent students, obedient in front of ancient practices, politicians obsessed with the control of bureaucratized processes, families that show little involvement in children’s real education. Nevertheless, we’ve learned some important things:
- Perhaps the most obvious is our improvement in the use of technology. We’ve become skillful, and above all, confident in the multiple types of virtual communication, and we’ve discovered how to nurture ties with our students and with each other through meetings in the ‘cloud’. We’ve also learnt what the right to internet access means in order to reduce the socio-economic gap that results in educational discrimination.
- We now know the personal environment of each one of our students better, the circumstances in which they live, their limits and shortcomings, and the quality of their affective relationships with the adults with whom they live. We can no longer hide inequality and its dire effects on academic failure.
- We know ourselves better and we’ve discovered important needs: we’ve tested our own personal balance, our emotional management, the experience of loneliness, how to fill leisure time with creativity, coping with losses and distance, resisting monotony and frustration, self-regulation of our desires, irritability, impulses and obligations, or our serenity in the face of uncertainty and constant precariousness. Yes, we’ve had to draw from our inner life and our maturity in order to sit down every morning with a patient smile in front of hundreds of emails and screens. We’ve seen that our best students haven’t always been the ones with the greatest amount of technological resources. They have been the ones who have also been able to put into practice all these inaptly named ‘soft skills’ and which have ironically made them tougher.
- We’ve reduced consumption, pollution, free movement, or shared drinks with friends and neighbors and in this way, we’ve been able to give up the unimaginable, in favor of shared values with many strangers, and recognized with roaring applause, the sacrifice, generosity, and solidarity in the millions of anonymous gestures and commitment. In a once in a lifetime exercise of ‘unlearning’, we’ve changed behavior that seemed unchangeable for the greater good, and we’ve learned to set our priorities according to different circumstances.
- And we’ve ‘stressed’ our educational systems to the maximum, in a long inescapable process of questioning each aspect of our schools: how inconvenient, impossible or burdening traditional assessment can be, the long and repetitive curricula, the large number of hours consisting of mechanical teaching and obsolete methodologies, the disappearing relevance of tutoring and counselling, the importance of physical exercise and mental health, the relationships with families, the economic sustainability of schools, the enormous lack of infrastructure and resources. And we haven’t been able to avoid reflecting on the ends and not only on the means. That has been good. It has been proven that routine is not invincible.
Teacher and philosopher John Dewey said that ‘we do not learn through experience, but by reflecting on that experience’, and I would like to add, ‘and by making good decisions based on what we’ve reflected upon’. This requires a collective and shared effort of good judgement to decide what to keep and what to change in each educational context. We never innovate from scratch; we draw from our experience, from our personal and institutional careers. Our reaction to the crisis, both at a personal and an institutional level, has depended on several factors such as:
- The strength of our teaching staff, who already worked as a team, and who are used to sharing resources, helping each other overcome their shortcomings, who learn from each other, ask for advice and discuss the best way to help each student. A strength that draws from a clear, inspiring, committed and courageous leadership that supports each team. A support that’s delivered like sap to each individual and each school role.
- The quality of the interpersonal relationships with our students, which has made them trust each one of us, weaving connections and allowing them to feel comfortable asking for help, and which above all has allowed us to anticipate everything that prevents them from growing. Form tutors, counselors and mentors were the real protagonists in the first moments when they had to contact and make a diagnosis of the economic, emotional and academic situations of each of their children, and the good ones have done it well, others not so much.
- The organizational flexibility of all aspects of the teaching and learning process. If we already had experience in adapting the curriculum, interpreting it with creativity, finding connections for interdisciplinarity and, above all, distinguishing the essential from the secondary, it was now easier to reorganize the subjects of our focus. If we already understood evaluation as a partner to the improvement of performance and not just as a sterile assessment on the achievements of our students, and if we were giving more weight to self-evaluation and peer-evaluation than to traditional lettered qualifications, we have now surely found ways of approaching it better. And if we had practiced putting all the elements of school organization like schedules, timetables, subjects, and working parties at the service of learning and not the other way around, we surely wouldn’t have been victims of the vertigo-inducing feeling of having to cut back on some things in order to dedicate time to others, acknowledging that there were many different and acceptable ways of responding to such a complex situation. Mutual trust in the ability of each teacher to autonomously generate initiatives is not something that one can improvise, and it has been a fundamental aspect of our response. The starting points of each school, each country, and even of each teacher, have been very different depending on their possibilities and the level of funding and development, but many of us have stood strong in the face of difficulty and we’ve placed the protection of health and the right to quality education at the forefront of our priorities.
- The investments we’ve made during these past few years in stimulating the critical, creative and rigorous thinking of our students, in changing the most outdated curricula, betting on interdisciplinary projects, entrepreneurial education, cultivation of the spiritual dimension and inner life, promoting the joy of reading and story-telling in every possible language, collaborative work, the mindful and critical consumption of media and a long etcetera. If during these years we ‘stole’ time from the traditional curriculum in favor of the stimulation of a wide array of transversal skills in our schools, sometimes even against the pressure from families or school inspectors, then it has been easier to independently and coherently redesign a new curriculum for COVID19; but more than anything, our students have been able to navigate better all the difficulties that each one has encountered, as well as passing math or resitting that failed history exam. But not only that.
- Finally, the nature of our education ecosystems, the entire fabric of alliances that we’ve developed with local communities, NGOs, businesses, volunteer groups, families, support staff, trainers and management staff in our network of schools has considerably influenced the efficacy of our responses. Schools radiate humanization. The school, for many of our students, is a safe haven free of violence, where they eat breakfast, have lunch, spend their time, learn and view life with hope. School, for millions of them, is a chance of a better life. In so far as our alliances and connections were close and genuine, we’ve been able to respond to what gives our profession true meaning: educating and not only teaching.
If we can recognize that these are the factors that have led to success in education during COVID-19, it’s high time to unconditionally invest in them. So, what decisions should we address before our own Monday arrives? Many! The starting point is to be willing to question ourselves, with honesty and generosity, to question our priorities and ask ourselves good questions. We ought not to settle for the mediocrity that has corrupted so many institutions, or to the mirage of returning to routines that have been proven useless. We shouldn’t want to return to normality, but to create a Better Normality. We look forward to coming in on Monday to school, the one we know is possible, and therefore, the one we want not to be new, but to be better.