“When will this year be over?”
“I can’t wait to go back to normal.”
As we head into the last quarter of 2020, natural disasters, social calamity, pandemic, and a general malaise of sadness and isolation don’t seem like they will be going away anytime soon. We are living in a cycle of crises where the reflex of many is to hold their collective breath until this is all over. But with no end of crisis on the horizon, simple lung capacity and clean air (in particularly short supply, even as the U.S. West is burning) can’t save us. Resolve is weakening, even as we need it to be stronger, to weather the proverbial storms ahead.
To those of you who are asking BIG questions about schools and education in the midst of these disruptions, we don’t share this to depress you; we realize it doesn’t take much to fall into depression these days. We say this to prepare you. The unwavering resolve that’s needed to stave off Coronavirus reflects the determination that’s needed to institute courageous change in schools.
Hope is a discipline, and the hope that is needed to see opportunity through darkness is a radical hope, one that is fueled by discipline, science, community, and creativity.
Countering the collective “hold-my-breath-until-this-is-over” approach calls for novel thinking and an embrace of the discomfort with what is new. This is hope in action.
Like discovering a new trail in the woods, setting out on a new path can also feel energizing. We are seeing this regularly with cohorts of education leaders that trust us to help them identify what a path forward looks like. They find joy when they allow themselves to step into it. Together these contribute to the learning posture we are so fond of: that of fearless inquiry, one that asks us to be willing to consider many answers to difficult yet important questions about our purpose and our practice.
Some of the different mental models and techniques that help us step into that new, uncharted path might look like the following.
Rethink “normal.” When it comes to change and the profound need for it, don’t expect to go back to normal, or a new normal. There is no normal right now. The systems as we know them have not benefited people and the planet. They are breaking under the weight of systemic racism, climate catastrophe, and deep income inequality – not to mention outmoded education structures that are struggling to respond to the needs of 2020 and beyond. “No normal” means we must imagine a new world, build new systems, and include all people in the structures that will serve us in an increasingly uncertain world.
Counteract fear by confronting it. Amidst this uncertainty, rather than fear or avoid difficult conversations, choices, or topics, use the advice of psychologists applying exposure therapy: face your fears. For educators this could mean scenario planning, where you articulate a range of possibilities. Lay out your choices: the cringy, painful, unsavory ones at one end, but also the best, most wonderful ones at the other. Imagining them along a spectrum helps you practice radical honesty and can feel completely liberating.
Recognize that natural disintegration processes need to happen. Accept that the old ways of doing things are no longer working. The old factory model of consumer culture, standardized tests, zero-sum benefits from competition, siloed academic areas and courses (and what else would you add to this list?) have been crumbling for a while. Coronavirus measures have made the dysfunction more visible. Until they go by the wayside, instituting new, just, inclusive, solutions-oriented systems will be nearly impossible.
Create deliberate pauses. For all its horrors, the pandemic has gifted us with the opportunity to consider this time like a portal between old and new worlds. Where teachers have been mandated to re-create old routines into online or hybrid learning scenarios, we see so much burn-out and pushback. But consider this: What would happen if in this current moment of volatility, every Wednesday was set-aside as a mental health day for students and teachers? What if a pause mid-week served as a chance to breathe, play, learn what you want, however you want, sleep, dream, whatever? Like a genius hour – but bigger.
Hone your ability to “read the signs.” As the world has passed out of an industrial era it’s our contention that we are situated in the contextual age. This means that power and opportunity will move toward those who can read context – found in circumstances, people, stories, culture, not just answering how but also who and why? This calls for a broader view of learning over schooling, centering profound empathy, and going beyond reflecting on the past to anticipating needs that are in the making. The ability to ‘read the signs,’ or master contexts represents one of the most in-demand, crucial skills that innovators are looking for. The events of the last year are not just “bad luck;” the signs for all of them were present well before they occurred.
Don’t forget to breathe. It seems silly to explain that if you’re holding your breath you need to stop that, and breathe. But how often do we remember to step away from our work at regular intervals, to stop watching the news if it’s making your heart race, to conduct a daily inventory of small kindnesses and gratitude, and to actually practice deep breaths so that you can slow down and detox from the forces that are pressing down on you and cutting off your creativity and effectiveness? Effective (radical) self-care benefits everyone in your orbit.
As each month of pandemic passes, it is becoming clearer that there is no going back to normal, but the pull to status quo is strong. Let’s lean into a “no normal.” The prospect of building a new world can seem terrifying… or radically hopeful. Let’s move forward, toward justice, coherence, inclusion, belonging…and deep breaths.
Homa and Will