As Hurricane Ian slammed into Florida this past week, my first thoughts were with the people whose homes and lives were going to be impacted. Then, I immediately thought about the students and teachers whose schools were going to be destroyed.
The last two years have been the most disruptive in the history of American education. Teachers and students in Florida are now faced (yet again) with the seemingly recurring question: now what?
Before I continue, I think it’s important to note that Florida is not exclusive in dealing with this. Earlier this year, Kentucky teachers were racing to get their schools open after historic summer floods ravaged the state. In the town of Combs, an entire elementary school was destroyed. As one article reported “This school year was supposed to mark the return of long-awaited normal, after two years in which the coronavirus pandemic cut classes short and, for a time, forced students and teachers online. But just as custodians finished polishing the tile floors and teachers began laying out the new supplies, floodwaters surged through eastern Kentucky, sweeping away the Chromebooks and covering decades of class pictures in mud and mildew.”
I can relate to this. Two of the schools I teach in were destroyed by Hurricane Ida last September. We teachers lost everything and have since been operating out of temporary locations for over a year now. We too had to pivot from online learning; to in-person; back to online; then back to in-person in a new location with no supplies. The reality is that this is the new normal in education — and I am not being hyperbolic.
In January, 2022, the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that since 2017 the US has experienced over 300 presidentially declared disasters, impacting all 50 states. Between 2017 and 2019, over 800 public school districts received some form of government aid after suffering damage from a natural disaster. The report states that districts who suffer this damage “…have faced a range of recovery challenges, including trauma and mental health issues among students and staff, lost instructional time, staff burnout, and financial strain.”
As these incidents become more frequent and more intense, teachers are being asked to pivot and make their work effective in multiple spaces and in multiple ways. Adding to this is the fact that student populations are more developmentally, socially, emotionally and neurologically diverse. When creating and writing lesson plans, teachers must now ask themselves “Can this lesson plan be effective in-person, virtually, and/or in another location?” They must also ask themselves “Can this lesson plan be effective within a group of developmentally, socially, emotionally, and neurologically diverse students?”
As our system evolves and moves forward, there need to be two key words in the development of modern educators:
- Disruption: It’s not a question of if, but of when.
- Plasticity: Do you possess the mindset and skills to pivot when the disruption comes?
Are we training new teachers with these in mind? How about veteran teachers? These are not hypothetical, but real and necessary. More importantly, do we give the teaching profession the respect it deserves to move into the twenty-first century?
The pandemic served as an accelerant, in a sense, and pushed us to see needed changes regarding education. These include:
- Acknowledgment of the dynamic role our schools play in the community.
- Learning involves the senses and emotions.
- Learning is dynamic.
The world that we now live in changes at an extraordinarily rapid pace — and natural disasters are just one piece of that. Subsequent disruptions come environmentally, politically, socially, emotionally, and economically — and they demand a mindset of plasticity. And while it’s easy to suggest changes, the education ecosystem remains a dynamic one where disruption seems to come from every corner — including staffing.
As this school year was getting ready to begin, there were numerous reports that districts across the country were dangerously short on teachers and staff. Some states were so desperate, they lowered the standards to become a teacher. Florida enacted emergency legislation allowing military veterans to teach, and they don’t even need a college degree. Arizona lowered their standards as well stating “…a person only needs to be enrolled to get their college degree to begin teaching in public schools.” These types of disruptions cannot be addressed through an education strategy that essentially says any warm body will do. In fact it’s just the opposite.
One thing we need to focus immediate change on is our mindset regarding teachers and teaching. In the US, teaching has been maligned — and if you think I’m being sensitive or dramatic, consider what was recently said at a closed door education meeting in Tennessee. As the governor sat in silence, a prominant education consultant stated that public school teachers “…are trained in the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges in the country.” He also said “…you don’t have to be an expert to educate a child because basically anybody can do it” (Note: when this individual stated these things, the audience laughed and/or applauded). This is but one example. I’m not even going to get into how the word “groomer” has been used to label educators. All I’m going to say is that it’s disgusting.
Teaching has always been a creative and dynamic job, but in these times, it’s the case even moreso. Someone studying to be a primary school teacher (grades k-5) not only needs to know multiple subjects, but must now understand mental health diagnoses and be able to teach to multiple learning types inside of a singular classroom. Middle and high school teachers need to do all of that and help students navigate their social and emotional development in the complex age of social media.
Now imagine being asked to do that after your school is destroyed by a flood…or a hurricane…or a wildfire…or (and it’s sad we even have to consider this) a school shooting. Or in a district impacted by an opioid epidemic.
We need to formulate progressive approaches and ideas that a few years ago might have seemed crazy. As an example: school districts, teachers, and administrators should work to create and build outdoor education models and strategies so schools can immediately pivot and carry on in the wake of a natural disaster. Colder regions need to also develop alternative indoor location strategies. Education majors should have to take fine arts and design classes. They should have to study physical movement and improvisation as well as childhood disabilities and neurological development. School, after all, is not just a physical place. It’s a process, situation and phenomenon. It is where learning and discovery occur, but it’s also social, emotional, physical, intellectual, civic and cultural development. Our teachers need to possess a plasticity of thought that will enable them to pivot to an alternative model immediately. Again, it’s not if, but when.
Holding closed door meetings where education departments are referred to as “the dumbest part of every college” is not a coherent strategy. What is coherent is to reckon with what is being asked of our teachers today. We also need to ask how much we value our children. After all, it’s they who are going to navigate us towards a complex future we are just beginning to fully comprehend. This future is already demanding professionals (of every kind) who are highly creative and open minded. We are already seeing a need for professionals who have to work together and respect each other’s perspectives so new ideas can be inspired and implemented (one glaring example is the Florida governors sudden willingness to put political differences aside so he could [humbly] ask President Biden for federal aid).
This world is not unlike anything most of us have experienced. A world that is coming off a global humanitarian crisis that has killed over 1,000,000 Americans. The COVID-19 virus — a singular microscopic thing — disrupted every facet of our lives. We lived through the reality of seeing and feeling how we all exist in a world where we are connected, and not just from the perspective of global health. We are connected environmentally, socially, emotionally, and from the perspectives of truth and reality.
An education system that is going to thrive in this world is one that is comprised of creative, dynamic and respected teachers. Let’s create that system now.