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  • Writer's pictureMike Vachow

Relaxed, With a Sense of Urgency

Updated: Oct 1, 2023

As schools begin to curate what they learned and created during the pandemic, they're discovering interesting tensions between efficiency and intimacy, structure and latitude, all of this inside the atmosphere that characterizes school done well: relaxed, with a sense of urgency. This is what we're hearing in our work with school clients who are moving forward with strategic plans as one governance-level effort to plan for a future recast by the pandemic.

Relaxed, with a sense of urgency, this was the flow state we tried to teach and rehearse on the baseball teams I coached. Teeth clenched adrenaline, that's football. High tempo improvisation, that's basketball. I think most educators would describe a classroom, or more broadly a school functioning at its ideal rhythm as analogous to the flow state of a baseball game. Structured and intentional but with enough latitude for lessons to play out in ways we couldn't have anticipated, for the culture to reflect a shared vision but with enough space for students and teachers to explore their own place inside of the mission. Whatever our next normal might look like, this is the context we want to return to, and what was often absent from days and relationships and activities fractured by quarantining and digitization.

Now that we can imagine having choices about how we do school, though, some of what schools learned and created this past year seems promising in its capacity to restore or enhance the ideal tenor of school, or make it more equitable. We spoke with a set of elementary parents recently who talked about how well their children's school had communicated with them this year. Using multiple channels to accommodate a variety of content, the school had provided everything from critical information to day-in-the-life photos from classrooms. Forbidden to enter campus where they'd previously had an open invitation, these parents were eagerly awaiting the green light to set foot on school grounds again but also hoping that the school would maintain the communication channels that had sown confidence in the community.

We've also heard from schools who are thinking about how remote learning strategies might help them loosen overwrought schedules and teaching assignments. By partnering with outside, remote providers of courses, schools with small economies of scale can offer arcane courses rather than ask already-busy teachers to take on additional preps, and by flipping direct instruction into after school hours, teachers can reconstruct how their time is used and undo many of the artificial ways we divide up time and content during the school day. We hear similar efficiency conversations around the ways that adults meet to collaborate. It's easy to imagine that a sizeable portion of the meetings that educators and parents once had in person will remain in video-conferencing format.

On the other side of the equation lies the power of intimacy and our obligations to provide structure and balance in our communities. Curriculum Night on Zoom offers many conveniences. It is also a huge missed opportunity to immerse parents in the spaces their children occupy every day and to help the adults build the relationships that strengthen the fabric of community. Likewise, it's easy to imagine remote learning kudzuing into every available moment of the day for those faculty and kids who always say yes to more, also easy to imagine the students who simply don't have the executive skills to manage courses unmoored from the traditional structures of the school day. Schools will need to make careful choices about the continued use and development of these tools next year, and confidently articulate their rationale to students and parents. They'll have opportunities for "ands"--why not conduct in person Curriculum Night and record it for those who can't attend--and for "nos"--we've heard from many teachers that even as much as "room and Zoom" might be a reasonable crisis strategy and potentially a solution to our troubled financial model, as a pedagogy, it is intractably arduous and awful, and for some a professional deal-breaker. As investor and organizational consultant Aaron Dignan writes in his book, Brave New Work, "A million years of evolution didn't evaporate because someone invented the videoconference."

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