My New Job

Through our Tuesday TouchPoints series, we are sharing a diverse set of content we hope will be helpful to those managing through volatility, working from home, or just connecting. 

By Tim DeRoche

Yesterday my daughter’s pre-K teacher read a picture book to the class via Zoom – a delightful way for the kids to feel connected to their teacher and their classmates. When they shut down the schools just 10 days ago, my 5-year-old daughter didn’t get to say a proper goodbye to her teacher, and only now are we realizing that she may never be in Ms. de los Santos’ class again, because of the COVID-19 lockdown.

But at least we had this Zoom meet-up, where all of the kids could check in with their teacher and with each other.  It wasn’t perfect.  The connection was spotty, perhaps because millions of other people were likely on similar calls with colleagues and classmates.  What’s more, the usual fits-and-starts of a teleconference are, um, amplified when the participants are 4 and 5 years old.

But it meant a lot to all of us. I was especially happy about it, because it kept my kids busy for a whole hour of the day.  My wife works in a hospital, so I’ve been the primary caregiver for my children since school closed.

We all agreed to do this Zoom meet-up every Friday during the lockdown.

Then, later in the day, came the bad news.  The Los Angeles Unified School District does not approve of Zoom as a platform for student-teacher interactions.  So no more class meet-ups.

ARRRGH.

I’ve got over 25 years working in the education sector.  I’ve served large public school districts, private school operators, charter schools, curriculum developers, and national non-profits.  In college, I had a work-study job as a teacher’s aide in a Montessori classroom, and I’ve volunteered in inner-city schools at several different grade levels.

But I’ve never been a preschool teacher before.  That’s what I am now for the foreseeable future.  And I can’t help but think how all of our educators – and our institutions – are being thrust into new, uncomfortable roles.  I think of all my clients and the difficulties they are facing.  The difficulties are economic, for sure.  How do I keep my organization from going under?  But most of these organizations are populated by people who care intensely about kids and who want to see them succeed.  How are we all going to help kids, when the normal ways are no longer available?

Let’s be honest here: We don’t know how COVID-19 and the response are going to impact our educational system going forward.  There’s too much uncertainty right now.  We don’t know how the disease is going to progress.  While a downturn is inevitable, we don’t really know how the economy will be affected in the long run.  We don’t yet know exactly all the actions the government will take over the next few months, and it’s even harder to predict how private institutions will respond.

But this Zoom incident in one Los Angeles classroom can give us a few clues about some of the issues in play:

  1. Many parents are realizing just how hard it is to keep their children productive and keep the learning going for 6 hours a day. Many parents and families will thrive; others will struggle.  All will gain a new appreciation for what teachers (and child-care workers) do every day.
  2. The balance between face-to-face education and automated learning will be disrupted. New tools will emerge, and the shift toward learning-via-software will accelerate, but only in some domains.
  3. As in many industries, the behemoth institutions of the past will have a very hard time adapting to disruption.
  4. Many rules that seem perfectly reasonable in the pre-COVID environment will seem silly and antiquated in a post-COVID environment.

Here are some very speculative thoughts on how COVID-19 and the response may affect education and schools going forward.  My assumption here is that, while it may be tough in the next year, we will likely conquer this virus – or learn to live with it – in the next 12-18 months.  What happens then?

Learning in the Home: We’re all homeschoolers now!  Homeschooling has always had a stigma attached to it, but the practice is more common than most people know.  I wonder if some families will decide that they like this arrangement.  What if some of the students never go back to their school buildings?  Some will decide that, if homeschooling is good enough for Billie Eilish, it’s certainly good enough for my family.

Even if they do go back, I have a feeling that American moms and dads are likely to be more involved going forward.  They may be pickier about the schools they choose for their children.  Or there may be a massive uptick in supplemental education, as parents download gamified educational apps, hire online tutors, or set their kids off on a course of independent study with online resources.

Here are just a few of the amazing resources that I’ve discovered – only out of necessity – in the last 10 days:

  • Learn Everywhere, a Facebook group devoted to helping parents provide educational opportunities in the home (homeschoolers, yes, but everyone else too)
  • Zearn, the free online math curriculum for kids in grades K-5
  • Juni Learning, which offers private online tutoring for kids 8-18 in math and coding.

K-12 schools: With so many families now experimenting with homeschooling and online learning, there may be more comfort with – and demand for – those types of arrangements even after the schools open up again.  Many teachers are now being forced to abandon their tried-and-true classroom activities and experiment with apps, games, and distance learning.  They are likely going to bring what they learn back to the classroom.  For those who have been trying to disrupt the dominant K-12 education model, which dates back to the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, this could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to change people’s behavior.

Higher education: Similarly, college professors and students are likely learning that (1) distance learning can be so helpful when you can’t be face-to-face, and (2) it’s not as easy as it looks.  Given that many colleges and universities (and individual professors) have been integrating elements of educational software and distance learning for years, some will know just how to roll this out at scale.  Others will flounder.  And even those who thrive in this new environment will likely concede that face-to-face interactions – and ritual – are an irreplaceable and priceless component of higher education.  Who doesn’t feel a pang for the senior who loses his or her chance to defend a thesis or to walk down the aisle at graduation?

In the end, all this experimenting may reveal what should have been obvious all along: Technology is a great tool for certain types of learning within specific domains.  And so much of the potential of our current technologies has yet to be fully realized within our schools – at any level.  But it’s only a tool, and it can’t do every job.

So much of education is about socialization – learning how to connect and cooperate with others.  And so much of socialization is physical.  Even with Zoom 8.0 and a perfect internet connection, there’s no way that an online meeting will ever replace the simple act of a teacher reading to children sitting around her in a circle on the classroom carpet.  Or a college professor hosting a discussion of a book around a conference table or supervising an experiment in the lab.

Here’s a prediction: Human beings will still be doing all of those things 500 years from now.  Because we’re human.

My biggest takeaway after one week of homeschooling: The #1 challenge is to keep the kids physically engaged.  They’re like puppies, and they crave activities that engage them physically.  And I’ve had to pull out every trick in the book to fill the hours.  Just today, my daughter completed several levels on the math program Zearn (gamified software), and then participated in a virtual ballet class via Youtube (distance learning).  And she still had enough energy to play frisbee down in the park, to put on a puppet show for her brother, and to have a jumping contest on the living room couch.

Even with all of that, the most precious part of the day was when we sat down, right before her nap, and read three books in a row.

Some things never change.

[P.S. We learned a few days later that LA Unified had finally approved the use of Zoom, so our pre-K meet-ups are back on.  Perhaps our institutions will adapt better than we think!]

Tim DeRoche is the author of A Fine Line: How Most American Kids Are Kept Out of the Best Public Schools, which publishes on May 17th.  He is also an HPA and independent consultant serving clients in the education, health care, and financial services industries.  He is currently working as preschool teacher – and cafeteria worker – out of his home.