Traditionally, change in schools has come after a hard-fought battle. Take the classroom. In some ways, it still resembles what it did a century ago. Thirty-some students sitting in rows facing the front of the room. A teacher, at the front, “downloading” curricula to those students by a variety of means. When I began teaching, which was not that long ago, one of those means was to write on a blackboard with chalk! And sure, some things are experimented with when in fashion but ultimately are abandoned for the tried and tested traditionalism. That is, we revert back to a classroom that, in many ways, resembles a classroom from a century ago.
For the past ten years, I’ve been teaching in therapeutic schools which has been a life-changing experience for me as an educator. Prior to working in therapeutic schools, I spent a decade in Quebec’s public mainstream school system. When I look back on my time in that large, public high school setting, I often think, as cliché as it might sound, “if only I knew then what I know now.” I also think, “how might I share what I know now with others?”, especially with those who still teach in mainstream classrooms. So what is it that I know now? That the things we do in therapeutic schools should be done in all schools. And why push to share it now? Because as a result of the pandemic, I see mainstream schools enacting many of the things that we, in the therapeutic stream, have been doing for years.
Perhaps a silver lining of the pandemic has been the opening of a window to possibility—a window toward re-imagining what school might look like. And we, as educators in both therapeutic and regular settings, had to open that window. Had to work harder to engage and sustain all students in meaningful learning. From video conferencing, virtual whiteboards, differentiated instruction, and accelerated learning, to academic advising and even social work, many teachers quickly waded into unfamiliar waters to meet students “in the middle” and keep them engaged.
Now, more than two years into the pandemic, with many of the more urgent aspects of the disease under control, there is a risk of, once again, reverting to our old ways—to those classrooms (and teaching methods) that are more akin to the last century than this one. We should fight against that urge. Many boards of education, administrators, and parents are more open to change and difference. Let’s put that opening to good use. Let’s seize the moment and propel education forward by a giant leap.
So, you say, all good talk but what, exactly, should we be changing? What “things” from teaching in the pandemic should we be aiming to hang onto? Obviously, there is no magical single list. However, a lot of the things I turned to during the pandemic were tools and approaches we’ve used in therapeutic education (and elsewhere) for some time. I just used them more consistently, and I also grouped them together more cohesively than in the past. Put another way, I really leaned into the things I have relied on in therapeutic education over the years and they came through for me. So much so that I now want to keep them in place and to convince more of my colleagues, especially those in the mainstream, to come on board and embrace these approaches.
Embrace one-on-one interactions rather than whole group instruction. While whole group instruction has its place, kids will remember the moments you’ve spent with them individually more than those when you were at the front of the room.
Differentiate. Yes, I know, we’ve all been through this over the years. But during the pandemic, I really did differentiate for nearly all of my students, and it was perhaps the one thing that made the most difference. I even allowed students to design their own projects and assessments, which made this strategy easier to employ. It also made work more likely to be completed, as students embraced their areas of interest.
Evaluate students on work actually completed, rather than the things they didn’t do. No more zeros in the grade book!
Check and recheck for understanding. Seems simple, but I was astonished to find out how many students actually didn’t yet understand something or grasp a particular concept by the time I was ready to advance.
Embrace the social work that is inevitably inherent in teaching. Slow down, get to know your students and what matters to them. Empathize with the psycho/social situations and accommodate as needed. Education is a personal journey unique to each learner, not a process of simply mastering the curriculum.
Completely remove behaviour from the situation. High school students rarely misbehave in a true sense. I’ve been working with at-risk youth for over a decade. In those years I can count on one hand the number of “situations” I’ve approached from a disciplinary stance.
My hope is that teachers everywhere will use the pandemic as a reason to reflect on their practice and to embrace change that otherwise would be harder to enact. We are all in a moment of openness toward change— let’s use this window of opportunity to reinvigorate our teaching practices and to collectively push education forward into the 21st century. Let’s put everything on the table and finally decide to rid ourselves of those ineffective, institutional, or even harmful practices that have hung on too long. We cannot embrace the work-from-home model that the corporate world is pondering at this moment, but we can do some of these other things so that we too can have our fundamental paradigm shift as our silver lining of the pandemic. Let’s embrace change!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Michael Sweet has been teaching in public and private schools in Canada and the United States for twenty years. He is a recipient of a Prime Minister’s Award for Teaching Excellence and a Queen’s Medal for exceptional contributions to education. Currently, Michael is on the faculty at The Robert Louis Stevenson School, which is an independent therapeutic college preparatory school located in New York City.
This article is featured in Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Fall 2022 issue.