Every now and again I listen to something that stops me in my tracks.
A recent episode of the podcast This American Life entitled School’s Out Forever was one of those moments.
The pandemic broke school, it suggests right at the outset, so can we ever go back?
As someone working in a school that has managed to regain a semblance of normalcy in recent months, I greet this question with two quick rebuttals. We are back, I think to myself. And, second, was it ever really broken in the first place?
But that was my experience - my story - and, for the next 60 minutes, I listen to the experiences of educators, parents, and students telling a quite different tale; a story of a national system of education that, for some at least, is now a degree or two beyond breaking point with dramatic consequences for those involved.
Chana Joffe-Walt, producer of this episode, observes at one point how, when things get tough, we have a tendency to speak in metaphors. She describes how one US high school teacher she spoke to described school during the pandemic:
The metaphor that I would always use is like, it's as though you are creating a vehicle while driving it at the same time on a road whose conditions are unclear in terrible weather. That vehicle, by the way, is a school bus. And not only are there 120 kids there, you're also driving from the back of the bus.
The use of metaphor to describe experiences that we don’t fully understand, like the pandemic, is not uncommon when faced with the extraordinary. Metaphors make the complex easier to digest and help us to convey powerful emotions when our normal battery of words runs out.
So I start to wonder, what are the metaphors that we and those around us - parents, colleagues, students - have been using to describe the past two years? Have we ever really stopped long enough to really listen to them? Or, if someone asked me to describe the experience of the past two years in this way, where would I begin?
I return to the podcast and am struck by the way another teacher talks about how, returning to the classroom after the pandemic, it is like “the seal has been broken”:
Sure, it was hard, and things were never perfect, but it was a different time. And I don't know if we can ever get back to that. I think it's a bygone era.
It is this inability to return to something important, something that is now lost, that led this Massachusetts Teacher of the Year 2020 to quit his job. And he is far from alone in this respect. In a recent poll by the National Education Association, I recently read elsewhere that nearly 55% of US teachers are considering leaving public education as a result of the pandemic.
This statistic is shocking, but not entirely surprising. Almost all of us probably know someone who has decided to leave the teaching profession since the pandemic began. I certainly do. Good teachers, who all of sudden became convinced that what they do no longer matters like ‘before’.
So what was this ‘seal’ that was broken, this point of no return?
For Joffe-Walt at least, it all has to do with what she calls the end of the inevitability of school.
It's been two years since school buildings first closed. It's kind of hard to remember how impossible that seemed before it happened - closing entire school buildings. School seemed like a fact, inevitable. If you're a kid, you go to school five days a week. It's inescapable.
But then, it wasn't anymore. Buildings closed for months, more than a year… It's like everyone involved - kids, parents, drivers, teachers, superintendents - all realized at the same time, hey, this treadmill has an off switch. This place is not fact. School is not inevitable.
Listening to these words, I find myself reflecting on the fact that when something stops, even for a while, it stops being inevitable. Things that we take for granted are suddenly called into question and replaced by something new. And that new is sometimes better, sometimes not.
So did the pandemic really break school?
Personally, I am not convinced. But I do believe that, even in our small corner of education, the pandemic has raised a number of important questions about the inevitability of some of the things that we call “school”, particularly some of our core beliefs about how and where students learn, about learning as a social activity, and the role of assessment and examinations.
More broadly, though, Joffe-Walt’s concluding words may be raising some much bigger questions when she concludes that
… so many of the people I've been speaking with are questioning the very premise of school, whether it's worth it, whether they need to show up every day, whether they need to be in a classroom.
Our tendency will be, I am quite sure, to assume that these students and their families are not to be found in our school communities. And that assumption may, in many respects, be true.
But still it is worth asking the question, what if even some of our students have started to wonder whether it’s worth it.