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The X Factor of Hope

The X Factor of Hope

Hope. With everything that has happened in the year 2020, the word “hope” is not something I currently hear expressed by my former and present colleagues in education. Everything we’ve ever done—the way we educate students; the world for which we thought we were preparing them; and even the ability to be in our favorite place, our classrooms—has been turned upside down. Our classroom—the wonderous place that reflects our passion, shows our personality, and provides us with a place to connect with students and do our part to prepare them for what lies ahead—is now the great unknown.

Across the country, states and districts are now wrestling with how to provide instruction in a safe and effective manner. Rightly so, we’re thinking about whether we should teach students in person or use a hybrid model that helps facilitate social distancing and provides flexibility to accommodate the unpredictable reality we’ll face when bringing students back to school. The model that is the safest from a health standpoint is also the model that educators, parents, and students are struggling with the most—a model of nearly 100-percent distance learning. This model was thrust upon us in March—a sudden and necessary step needed to keep everyone safe and flatten the curve of COVID-19. We had no time to prepare and, compared to what we know about educating students in our classrooms, limited understanding of how to effectively teach students via email, using whatever online resources we had at the moment, and in the best of cases, over a webcam.

On the best of days, educating all students is a challenge. Now, we suddenly face myriad new challenges: contending with the fact that many students do not have access to a computer or Internet access, educating a K–3 learner in a purely virtual environment without an adult present (or with the adult also trying to work), meeting the needs and Individualized Education Programs (IEP) requirements of special needs learners in a virtual environment, and supporting students with social and emotional needs. The list of challenges was and continues to be daunting.

What does all of this mean? If I know my colleagues in education, beyond the obvious question of Can we educate students in our schools and stay safe?, we are losing even more sleep wondering about the bigger questions: Will I be an effective teacher? Will my students be OK? Is the new reality we’re facing this year going to set a whole generation of students behind? How do I live with that when I’m part of the system where it could happen?

It is after reflecting upon these questions that I decided to write this blog post. I’ve been working with students for 30 years as a teacher or administrator in urban, suburban, and rural schools and also at Edmentum. I’ve seen and experienced enough things as an educator that I could write a book about my experiences, and the first review of my dead-honest recollections would be: “There’s no way all of this actually happened.” Those of you who have spent an extended time in schools are thinking: “I bet it all did, and I could write that book too!” We’ve all experienced the constant changes in what is expected of us as educators. We’ve worked with students from so many different backgrounds, and we have stories of success and also sad stories about facing what seem to be insurmountable obstacles—students dealing with a tough home life; poverty; unsafe neighborhoods; learning difficulties; and a host of other barriers that, for many, make success in school elusive.

Despite all of things I’ve seen and experienced that make educating students a challenge, I’ve also been around long enough to have learned a very important lesson. There is hope, and there are innumerable successes that happen under even the toughest of circumstances. This is the message I want to communicate because I’ve seen it enough times to know it to be true.

I want to share two very important truths about education. The first truth is that nearly every educator I’ve worked with is a committed expert in helping children maximize their potential. Educators are constantly striving to improve and to find any means possible to reach their students: better teaching technique, better curriculum, better support systems, better assessment—anything. The science of education has really become something of a marvel. Despite all of the challenges facing us with COVID-19 and all of the challenges we faced in educating all children before COVID-19, we should feel good about the state of the profession of teaching. We are good at this!

But, it is the second truth that matters, and I want to share a story that illustrates it. Recently, a former student reached out to me, completely out of the blue, on social media. I hadn’t talked with this student in many years. I’ll call him Mike. Mike was one of my students about 18 years ago. He had a really hard time with school; struggled with ADHD; and grew up in northern Minneapolis, attending a school that brought with it many challenges just because of its location in the city. As with all of my students, I built a relationship with Mike and really tried to support him. Mike struggled and, ultimately, didn’t graduate from the high school where I taught computer science. You might be thinking: “This is hardly a message of hope.” Wait until you see the message Mike sent to me!

Mike’s message popped up on my phone: “Just wanted to say thank you. Without an influence like you, I would never have made it this far in life.”

I was stunned and moved by something so completely out of the blue. I replied, “What a very kind thing to say; thank you!” To which he replied, “I know the profession that chose you would never make you rich, but I know success stories make you rich in other ways.” Mike had no idea how rich he had just made me. As an aside, I had often shared with my students that I struggled with ADHD as a student, and Mike remembered:

You never let ADHD hold me back because you never let it hold YOU back. I just want you to remember how big of an influence you had. There were many days I showed up to school because I never wanted to disappoint you. You taught me nothing holds you back but yourself. Just so you know, I am now a senior classified systems administrator for a top-five defense contractor. I owe that passion for computers to you and your class.

And there, folks, is where the second truth about education comes into play. We work so hard to ensure that our students learn, we measure that learning on state and local tests, and we track what our students do after high school. We look for useful metrics of success and continuously improve the science of educating students. Despite all of this, perhaps the real measure of success, and my second truth, is that the human moments between teacher and student matter more than anything. Mike’s success wasn’t because I taught him to be a great .NET programmer. His success was because I was his biggest cheerleader. I expected him to do well, and I did my best to erase the doubt in his mind that he could be a success.

What can you take away from this going into the 2020–21 school year? Hope. Patience. Faith in your students and yourself as a dedicated educator. This year, we will all face challenges that, in 2019, we couldn’t even imagine. As educators, we’ve become experts at overcoming new challenges like providing equitable access to education in the face of shrinking budgets and increasing class sizes. There has been remarkable work on that front. Remain hopeful, as this too will pass. Have patience. You might not get to witness the seeds of success bloom into wonderful futures, and sometimes, you will hit bumps in the road. Finally, have faith. We all had to change how we taught students at the drop of a hat, and it may take some time to help students get caught up academically. But, take it from Mike, and have faith—if you take the time to reach your students, to support them as people, and to teach them that they can and will make it through this and that better times are ahead, they’ll believe you.