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  • Writer's pictureMike Vachow

The Longer Game

Last December, I wrote a piece entitled The Long Game. December was an auspicious moment. Budget planning forced school leaders to lift their eyes from their shoe tops, where the pandemic had trained their gaze for 7 months, to the horizon of the 2021 - 2022 school year. December was also notable in that many schools had found a kind of operational equilibrium by that time. No one doubted that conditions were going to continue to change, but most school leaders had built crisis management models and communication standards that were working reliably.

The tradeoff, however, was human exhaustion. Much has been written since about the sources--decision fatigue, social deprivation, chronic fear, the daily effort to feign optimism and resilience for children--but at the time we mostly just knew that school people were worn thin. December, ironically, also brought a competing crescendo of enthusiasm for the educational innovations the pandemic had forced schools to adopt. In the education reform community, the pandemic was just the disruption American education needed, a much easier position to take from the cheap seats. Awakened from its century-long slumber of desultory pedagogy, artificially segmented curriculum and fantastical assessment methods, American schooling should refuse to return to the old normal, these pundits said, and embrace the digital tools that not only helped them through the pandemic but were also providing greater access, more pedagogical flexibility, and, the real brass ring, genuine personalized learning. The collision of this energy--whether you believe this characterization of American education or not--with the exhaustion of the educators who would theoretically lead this change while managing through a pandemic was an imminent disaster.

In this post, I'd simply like to further emphasize my prescient (i.e. lucky) thoughts from last December and suggest that heads play an even longer game with innovation than they imagined over the summer, an approach that protects their greatest asset--the classroom teachers who bring our missions alive and all of the administrators and staff who support them--and gives them the latitude to focus on their students who have returned with a wide variety of needs, not the least of which is learning how to be together again. As we talk with heads around the country, we hear an almost universal story. Despite ingenious efforts to make summer a true break, it wasn't enough for most faculty to recover from the previous 15 months of pandemic teaching, and in late July as news of the Delta variant spread, as heads began informing their communities that they'd begin the year with precautions, as news media fed them frightening data and daily images of tragi-comical school board meetings, faculty and staff arrived for opening meetings with brave faces thinly disguising dread.

What's the longer game? I believe that heads and boards should make June 2023 the default horizon for large institutional projects. Most regional associations have extended timelines for accreditation. Take advantage of them. Will the self-study you began writing a year and a half ago need significant revision if you punt it another year down the field? Of course, but the cost of taking it up now is too high. The urgency that surrounds antiracism work at your school might compel you to radically grow the time you ask of the faculty for professional growth. Remind yourself that an honest reflection on the history of race in this nation demonstrates that we will always have to work at antiracism, and plan an agenda that earnestly undertakes this work now and sets spring of 2023 as a first point of articulation in the journey. Other all-in faculty projects like curriculum review, assessment and grading overhaul likely have enthusiasts, but they require too much for this moment. What might fit inside the very narrow margin of energy that faculty and staff have? Projects once or twice removed from the classroom like strategic planning and facility master planning provide concise opportunities for everyone to participate and deeper roles for people with keen interest and the stamina to back it up. They also provide boards with an exercise that has enormous collateral value at this moment: raising their sites from the operational details in which they've been immersed to more strategic horizons. Curating the silver linings of the past two years, documenting the crisis management models we built for future use, celebrating the successes, grabbing low-hanging fruit, these projects are both time-sensitive and doable as long as they are not allowed to become movements. Fair enough to recognize and document the success teachers had with flipped classroom strategies while hybridized last year, quite another to build required workshops for teachers this year in advance of widespread adoption next year.

Heads must protect the classroom, give teachers the time and mental space to invest themselves in their students. This is what they're in it for in the first place, why they're so good, why our schools are so good.

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