Finding The Win in A Blended Future

What’s your win? What’s the win here? Is there a clear win or victory? Maybe in the short-term, maybe today as people, everybody scrambling, everybody tense and overwhelmed, extend grace and appreciation for their safety and the safety of the community right now. We’ve made plenty of good decisions in light of what’s going on. But that grace could be gone the longer this goes on, the more vulnerable people feel, and as I make each decision with bigger consequences for individuals and our school, and upset different people, using every bit of political capital I have earned and saved up in the process. At the NAIS Institute of New Heads on whose faculty I’ve served now for two years, an early lesson I share with the new heads is one of accountability and responsibility. Heads are almost never responsible but always accountable. I make few decisions over the course of a day; collectively everyone else makes many more decisions than I do. Yet, if something goes wrong, I’m accountable even though I wasn’t initially responsible. Now, over the course of a few weeks, the landscape has changed for our world and we are reacting every minute to a course and destination that are both unknown and uncertain. So what’s the win here? What will be our victory? The wins are important so we can build, not just conserve or use, the capital and credibility we need for the long haul. I wrestle with those questions now, and ask my team, as we build our leadership muscle and resilience for the next several weeks to steer our school.

I haven’t worked as hard in seven years as I have in the last two weeks. I believe that’s true of most of my peers; I’ve heard that said over and over again in conversations with other heads of school, less and more tenured than me. Each week has felt like a year; we are dealing with the changing news, developing questions and developing problems to which we don’t have clear or straightforward answers, and the pressures of moving individuals and an entire community from age three through grade 8, and the full ecosystem of teachers, support staff, parents, and caregivers into a virtual space that resembles, as closely as possible, the school’s values, pedagogy, and curricular lessons and activities.

I asked this question, “What’s the win?” of other heads in a 1:1 phone call. I was curious how they saw the road ahead and how they were building their school’s capacity to sustain this mad sprint and retain and strengthen their enrollment and employment ranks. In one conversation with a dear friend, another head of school in the Seattle area, she spoke of opportunity that would arise from these circumstances. As her school went virtual, her faculty had to make choices of what to retain and what to cut; they chose what they deemed essential to their school’s ethos; the rest they cut. She believes that as schools consider the length of virtual learning and the possibility it could extend into, or happen again, the next school year, whatever is fluff or non-essential will be shed and every school’s value proposition will at least have the chance to be more clear, more distinct. I don’t disagree. I think it’s a brilliant answer; it captures the spirit of Day One thinking and leadership. My concern, as I laid it out to her, was its impact on people. Who decides what’s essential and what’s not? And, as non-essential programs and services are cut, won’t the people who are currently employed and provide those services also face termination? Schools, like healthcare, are usually recession-proof. This is one crisis that could prove that experience wrong.

Let’s lay out the rationale and subsequent impact further out. Virtual learning eliminates the need for expensive facilities, student-teacher ratios will be reconfigured, and schools will review their tuition tiers and add one more for hybrid or blended school. None of these are innately bad outcomes. School reformers have been pushing these conversations for years, but schools and school leaders have usually offered a whisper when a shout is needed. This pandemic will accelerate problems and solutions and reshape the entire industry. It will accelerate school closures, probably the ones under-resourced and under-funded first, and it will create space for new businesses and services. The market will likely consolidate, mergers and acquisitions will increase, and competition will both increase and decrease simultaneously. This crisis will effectively resize and reprice independent schools. (Add colleges, too. Would you pay room and board for a full year at current rates if your son or daughter may come home for weeks or months next year?)

I’ve heard from parents or students in high school or college that they even prefer this style of learning. The user’s in charge of how to organize their experience. Because most remote learning is asynchronous, it releases students from the shackles of the 8-4 school day. Apart from checking in on live classes, the student has more freedom and control over their day’s organization and agenda. Remote learning is not as simple, though. Independence is rewarded here. So if your student is blessed with good or great executive functioning skills, then remote learning can be a wonderful experience. For the student who needs additional support with organization and managing their time and work, remote learning can create challenges and frustrations for them, and those who support them.

School, however, is more than just academic learning. Overly simplified, school is relationship plus knowledge equals application. Learning remotely, in this way, prioritizes knowledge over relationship. Remote learning trades relationship for efficiency, and so we trade effectiveness too. Here’s my first draft of essential questions for this new paradigm (and by that, I mean, 100% or majority virtual school):

  • How do we maintain a three-dimensional relationship in a two-dimensional world?
  • How do we keep the lines between real world and virtual world separate and distinct?
  • When might we forget those boundaries if our only real relationships are with whom we live?
  • When does community no longer hold any separation based on the mediums we use, and it’s all just one type, our ability to understand the difference also eliminated?
  • What do we lose when we lose the teachable moment, the humor, or the quiet or loud rebellion?
  • Where is the collective pause in our meetings or lessons when we are working from home? (Even the pauses in our day are no longer shared with our colleagues or students; they are private, meant only for ourselves or our families.)

I’m really conflicted because there are aspects of this life I actually like. However, I miss the social times, the drop-ins in my office, the walkthroughs of a classroom, recess four-square battlefield, or our campus playgrounds. I miss the spontaneous sharing, the visitors, the little feet and big feet running around, laughing and chattering away about something completely irrelevant to school except what school makes possible for them with that moment. In the end, two weeks in and with the outlook of at least the next several weeks still sitting in my home office, running a school remotely and from behind a screen, I know that the future is blended. Neither option, especially when we consider the older students in a K-12 environment, is fully efficient or effective; the answer lies not in an either/or but in a both/and. There’s a win in that answer.

BONUS: I was interviewed a few weeks ago on school leadership by two educators, Michael Lomuscio and Matt McGee, for their podcast, The FullStack Educator. The episode was just published here.

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