One step forward, two steps back: Miraculous educator response to global crisis not all that miraculous

Immediately after state and district officials announced school closings, educators responded. And their response, though met with enthusiasm by colleagues, authors, researchers, and parents, is currently being undermined by authority figures who cannot fathom handing over the reins to those who actually have answers: teachers.

Many have expressed surprise over the education community’s nearly instantaneous mobilization following the closing of schools across the U.S. Even before official announcements of school closures, the collective response of teachers across the country was nothing short of inspirational.

Blogs were posted. Lessons were shared. Scores of ideas to take learning from brick-and-mortar classrooms to online platforms seemed to sprout, grow, and bloom almost overnight.

Teachers were quick to share ideas with parents and their educator counterparts in order to take rich, effective, research-based instructional practice from the classroom to an online setting. Many offered links to learning resources for parents, including free audio books and read-alouds. Others offered assistance to families by volunteering to deliver food from local food pantries and books from their own classroom libraries. Teachers almost instantaneously turned the Internet into a treasure trove of distance learning opportunities — without being asked to do so.

Miraculous, isn’t it? Yes, and no.

I’m not surprised. Not at all. Most people who enter the teaching profession do so for one of two reasons (or maybe a combination of the two): 1. They have a passion for teaching children and changing lives. 2. They are lifelong learners, future practitioner-researchers with a strong desire to enter a knowledge profession.

Passion and a thirst for knowledge are what keep teachers in classrooms even when their professional autonomy – the engine that drives the two reasons they entered the profession — is continuously stripped away and replaced with micromanaged, lockstep, standardized mandates.

And so, when faced with an education challenge while temporarily freed from authoritarian constraints, teachers did what they were intended to do; individually and collectively, they reached into their overflowing professional toolboxes to respond by providing thoughtful, effective instruction for their students.

Not shocking. Not. At. All. Teachers simply acted like… teachers.

One of the reasons so many were shocked by the impressive display is that so many have been indoctrinated by decades of systematic measures designed to de-professionalize the teaching profession. Toxic federal and state mandates based on an antiquated top-down management style and supported by standardized testing have all but silenced the voices of passion, reason, and sound practice.

COVID-19 changed all of that — for a few days. Teachers suddenly found themselves free of what researcher and literacy giant Ken Goodman once called “the pedagogy of the absurd.” Educators responded. And their response, though met with enthusiasm by colleagues, authors, researchers, and parents, is currently being undermined by authority figures who cannot fathom handing over the reins to those who actually have answers: teachers.

States and school districts reacted as predicted — with the same forceful, authoritarian attitudes born of standardization doctrine and perfected in the decades following NCLB. Teachers responded quickly and provided answers, and many of their school districts rushed to play catch-up in the days that followed by forcing upon them a never-ending barrage of time- and energy-draining “accountability” mandates.

Passionate educators responded to the crisis immediately, and their state/district leadership followed by dragging them back to the status quo: “We will make the decisions. We are the professionals. You are the workers who will implement what we dictate to you and prove to us you have done so.”

Rediscovered professional autonomy was immediately met by the same forceful constraints that have served to undermine the profession for decades.

Teachers who face such mandates find themselves once again disappointed, dejected, demoralized. They find themselves fighting back tears as the research-based instruction they had so thoughtfully planned is replaced with automated systems based solely on quantitative measures. They find themselves working 12- and 15-hour days in order to continue providing the kind of high-quality instruction they know their students need while at the same time meeting useless demands intended only as measures of compliance.

Fortunately, many districts have responded in reasonable, thoughtful ways. I applaud them. But unfortunately, many others have returned to what they know: lockstep authoritarianism — count the minutes you are online; document every conversation you have with every child; spend hours on useless paperwork so we can prove you are doing your job.

No, I’m not surprised by the almost magical response of passionate educators who continued providing the highest levels of instruction in the face of a global pandemic. And I’m also not surprised by the response of state and district officials who immediately rushed to maintain a sense of control and compliance. And to the latter, I say…

Teachers took a step forward. Please stop forcing them to take two steps back.

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