It’s been a long and difficult year of NTI. Now that there is finally an end in sight and we’re looking forward to a projected return to in-person learning, it’s important for us to look back at this experience, evaluate our successes and failures, and see what is worthy of carrying forward into the future. Here are some of my thoughts as a high school teacher looking back over the past ten months of distance learning.
Pandemic Learning and NTI took the focus off of achievement culture and placed it on the well-being and growth of our children.
The difficulties were many and the stress levels were high for us all, but NTI has helped many of us educators focus on the essentials and has put teaching the standards versus pursuing the growth and well-being of our students into perspective. As a high school teacher and as the parent of a high schooler, I watched early on as students became overwhelmed with their work while their teachers struggled to adjust to the realization that they wouldn’t be able to teach NTI the same way they did in-person. Gradually teachers began to find the sweet spot that exists between too many assignments and not enough. We slowed down and we learned to “unpack our standards” in a way that we hadn’t ever done before, prioritizing what’s most essential and finding new and creative ways to make it relevant, accessible, and engaging for our students. For many, that meant focusing on some things and letting other things go, but thanks to the grace of the Department of Education in providing relief from school accountability last year, that was okay. It gave us the space to focus on our students and their well-being.
Pandemic learning taught us how we should be supporting students.
For many of us, NTI confirmed what we already knew about our students: Many of them live in very challenging situations and require multiple levels of support in order just to survive, let alone to grow or thrive. Some of them are fortunate enough to have parents who are able to support them and ensure that they follow through on their learning, but others do not. Finding ways to help those who need help has been frustrating and challenging for all of us, and sadly we haven’t always been able to reach the ones who need us the most. Nevertheless, NTI has demonstrated that schools have the capacity to develop deep support networks that we had never imagined before. We’ve delivered food and supplies, we’ve clothed children, we’ve helped housing insecure families find shelter, we’ve connected families with medical resources, and we’ve provided grief support and emotional support when nothing else could protect our students from the effects of sickness and violence. Schools found ways to reprioritize and reallocate their staff to make sure that every child in need had the attention of several adults beyond their classroom teachers. If it takes a village to raise a child, we learned that every member of our staff has a role to play in reaching and supporting that child.
We teach students, not standards.
So how should we carry what we’ve learned forward into post-NTI learning? For the past ten months, we’ve had an up-close window into the struggles that our students face in their daily lives. For some students we’ve had to try to help them overcome deep needs at home, for others we’ve had to help them conquer apathy, and for some we’ve had the opportunity to help them use this time and space to develop their own talents and passions. For every one we’ve seen what it’s like to prioritize their well-being over their academic successes and failures. Throughout this pandemic, students and educators alike have grown in grit, in resilience, and in compassion for one another. We’ve learned to develop community and to find our place in it, that we have a responsibility to care for and lift up each other, and that we are in fact our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. When we return to in-person learning, it is important for us to continue prioritizing compassion and relationships with our students and their families over
“covering the standards.” Students need us to nurture them as whole human beings with social-emotional needs that are at least as important as the content knowledge that we are tasked with teaching them. As teachers, nurturing students, caring for them, and helping them thrive is our passion. Sure content standards are an important tool to help them prepare for life after P-12 education, but they are only a small part of helping students grow into healthy and self-actualized adults. We want to make a lasting difference in their lives.
If we are truly going to help our students grow and thrive going forward, we need support and agency to help us prioritize finding ways to continue meeting students’ physical and social-emotional needs, building relationships with them, and finding new ways to inspire and engage them. The revenue increase passed by the JCPS Board of Education last spring offers new opportunities to invest in our students. Let’s keep giving our students the support and learning experience that they deserve.
To learn more about the schools our students deserve, read A Better Way Forward for JCPS.