Oct. 2, 2020 — Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer in her poem “Holding What Must Be Held” writes: “Down by the river we sit and talk. / When I think I can’t ache any more, / the world serves more heartache.” I can think of few better words to describe my sense of broken-heartedness in this era of COVID-19, the Black Lives Matters marches for racial and social justice, and the climate crisis. I know in my life there are daily talks about the trials we face individually and collectively. Network TV and radio brings to light all that is lost when another person dies from the coronavirus. I have my stories of pain and loss. I hear similar stories from colleagues and friends. We “sit and talk”. We willingly carry the burden of each other’s sorrow, providing a brief moment of respite. That is what it means to be in community. When we rise from the riverbank, we find that all around us the world is hurting. Its people are suffering. The rate of animal and plant extinction is rising. Social institutions are struggling to hold the fraying fabric of society in one piece. Schools and teachers who are historically a place of social cohesion are saddled with the difficult task of serving the learning and social emotional interests of students while also facing a deadly viral pandemic. The call to care for students seems to run headlong into the requirements of social distancing in a virtual classroom. In Zoom, teacher and students are reduced to small boxes, walled off and separate. Most teachers I know are tired, frustrated and just want to share a classroom space with their students. The language of burnout no longer seems adequate to describe this moment. And still the “world serves more heartache”. We just want to be together; to see each other.
It seems that the question is not when will the heartache end, but rather are there ways to both hold our collective pain while also turning toward new opportunities? The pain is real. The loss of so many lives is real. The longing of teachers to teach in the living-presence of their students is real. To say that change is in the air seems like an understatement. Sacred cows that once were nearly unassailable are now falling to the wayside. Take for example online education. Not that long ago the resistance to teaching in virtual classrooms was high. And now it is more common than face to face learning. Think of all the opportunities that are now open that were once closed to teachers and students. There are yet to be explored avenues for advancing equity, justice and diversity in schools. For me there is a newness and freshness that only a pandemic, a situation no one wanted and that no one can escape, brings to education. It feels like in the midst of broken-heartedness is a kernel of abundance waiting to grow and flourish. We are all in this together, some a little better off and some a lot worse off, but still we are all bound together in ways we have not felt before.
What I fear and seek to resist is the temptation to move quickly from this moment of collective disruption, a pandemic of uncertainty, to a return to the social and educational status quo. I’ve developed a strong response to two words that I hear in the halls of education lately: pivot and normal. Change it seems can run two ways. One path brings us back to the way things once were. A pivot toward the normalness of power and privilege, the maintenance of the status quo. Given the level of uncertainty and the sense of loss experienced by so many, this seems like a reasonable turn to make. If things just get back to normal, if we can just open schools, then we can get back to the job of teaching and learning. But this path also seems dangerous in that in the comfort of normal comes the familiar experiences of injustice, inequity and disempowerment for many. The other path of change leads away from tradition. It favors innovation, imagination, ambiguity and the unknown possibilities of the teacher’s heart. The environmental and social pandemics of our time have created a rift in normal, an opening to newer ways of being together in educational spaces. Heartache is sure to find us no matter which direction we choose. But I choose the kind that leads toward community and empowerment, not individualism and loss of agency. I would like to offer five questions that I think can help educators in making decisions that advance the mission of equity and excellence while resisting the pull back to normal: 1. Who is empowered and flourishing?, 2. Who’s voice is honored?, 3. How is everyone humanized?, 4. Are we listening?, and 5. What are we will to give up?