By Steve Hoemberg
Director of Outreach
Minnesota State Transportation Center of Excellence
Across the globe, a whirlwind of challenges has been the norm lately. In spite of the hurdles, you still played a heck of a hand with the cards you were dealt. But, we’re tired, and that’s okay. It’s perfectly reasonable to be tired of learning on the fly how to distance teach, tired of not knowing when things will finally fully become the new normal, and worst of all, tired of wondering how all this will affect our students in the long term. At every level of education, the value of hands-on learning and physical presence in school settings in undeniable. The important work you’ve been doing for years is once again affirmed, and perhaps more so than ever. Whether it’s recharge time on the playground after morning math, or reassembling transmission clutch packs and planetary gear sets in a college automotive class, there is no denying that distance learning simply cannot deliver in all areas of need. There is certainly rhetoric in many circles boasting about the amazing accomplishments of late, and though countless examples of positive innovation and collaboration exist, many educators are feeling empty. Stewards of hands-on education are keenly aware of the deficits. So, where do we go from here?
Perhaps two perspectives should be addressed. Administrators and Educational Leaders –Encouragement for, and acknowledgement of, a job well done is important to instructors. But, these hands-on instructors are coping with the reality that their students are now existing in the world with a 3-month deficit. For the most part, wrenches weren’t turned, final projects weren’t completed, art wasn’t created, internships weren’t accomplished, and final handshakes weren’t given. By only telling them everything was great, you are also inadvertently telling them that unmet objectives are not a concern. There is an element of grief that needs to be acknowledged, and a reassurance that they are not going to be replaced by the short-term, emergency response of distance learning. Instructors – be honest with yourself about what went well, and what did not. Of what did not, try to imagine one or two attainable adjustments you can make this fall. Don’t overwhelm yourself – keep it simple. Assess your resources and your own abilities, and be certain that whatever you try to do next is within reason. Whether experimenting with a more student-friendly mode of communication, or simply refining a few things you already created for distance learning, or recording a couple new lessons with your smart phone, remember to be authentic. Be true to yourself and who you are. Don’t overlook students’ appreciation for your authenticity. The world is no longer expecting professional-grade video (students maybe never did) with seamless transitions, or perfect backgrounds without noise. After months of digital connections, students are craving authentic and emotive connection. Being authentic, even if stumbling around a bit, will actually give you more credibility.
Don’t waste time or resources on short-term solutions. You already have a lot to contend with. With each new assignment created, video recorded, or new platform learned, focus on how you can utilize them in the future. If you can’t identify how will ever use it again, then focus on something else. Like I said earlier – you’re tired. But, you also must admit that you’re probably more capable now than you were before. If you’re going to transition to something new, reinvent the wheel, or add a new layer of online resources to your tool kit (like those you can find here), do so with the “new normal” in mind. My most influential high school teacher once said to me, “I don’t mind working my tail off, but I hate having to redo it.” Don’t waste time on things that won’t help you or your students in the future. Save everything. Record everything. As crazy as this sounds, at a time when barely getting by is a norm for some, try to build for your future. As one teacher said to me recently, “After all this, I will never have to create another sub plan again. Everything I will ever need is in my COVID-19 folder.”
Progress is measurement.
The barriers and unknowns are too vast and out of your control. Some of you need to give yourself a little more credit. Again, it’s okay to be honest about goals unmet and deficiencies in process and final product. But, mitigation (reducing the severity, seriousness, or painfulness of something) matters. Forward movement (progress) also matters. Everchanging targets and unpredictable learning environments make traditional measurements irrational. For most of us in education, an “in progress” grade is often code for something like “way behind, but working on it,” or “having trouble with the deadline due to unforeseen circumstances.” But, it also means “I’m not sure what the final grade will be, but they’re working on it.” We don’t know what our final grade will be, which is unsettling, but it is the truth. When faced with the insurmountable challenges that distance learning is creating for many of us, focus on progress. Since starting this job, every single employer I have talked to (literally) expressed a version of this sentiment: We are looking for hard workers, reliable workers, who want to learn and get better at what we do. We are not expecting everyone to be great at everything. The same goes for you in education.
None of this is easy, and everyone went above and beyond. Excellent work was done, and much was learned. Yet, be cautious about rhetoric that inadvertently discounts the value of hands-on teaching and learning as we progress through new strategies and norms. Be passionate and authentic in your efforts – it gives you more credibility than you realize. Strategically focus your work for today in ways that build for tomorrow. At times of deepest struggle, moving forward one-step-at-a-time (progress) is the first measurement that should be considered. Build upon each success. Do the next right thing.
A former student of mine, now adjunct professor at The University of Nebraska at Omaha, recently spoke of a very successful project that scarily began with a significant failure, was then shrouded in uncertainty, and a subsequent change in strategy was deployed. He stated, “Every element of what you hold is an extension of that first failure. The first mistake. Mistakes and failure are a natural part of the creative process. May that lead your way.”
Don’t be afraid of the first mistake.