Forget the roadmap. Look for signals.

Signpost

“I should know what to ask for!” Frustrated, a friend shared what was bothering her most about the back-to-school situation as we took a socially-distant walk around the block. “I’m a professional education advocate! Of all the parents, I should know how to advocate for what I want. But I don’t.”

Her words echoed what I’ve been reading, what I’ve been hearing, and the feelings in my own home. Even with my husband’s 20+ years of experience teaching in and leading highly impacted schools, this year it feels like we’re just making it up as we go.

The thing is, it’s not just that we don’t know what to do. We don’t even know what we want.

Improvising vs. Redefining

We’re all used to improvising, especially in education. Kids having trouble with a concept? No problem – teachers have a full bag of tricks. Need materials for a project? Ask for donations, maybe start a GoFundMe, or even apply for a grant. Concerned about strengthening the home-to-classroom bridge in your school? Whole books have been written with strategies you can try (and, of course, we can help, too.)

Today, the question isn’t “can we get creative?” It’s “what does success look like?” Conditions are changing so fast that the plan you put in place in June became obsolete two weeks ago. The plan you’re drafting now could be tossed out between inviting people to your Zoom Town Hall and actually holding it.

So how do you build a plan to educate kids this fall when the goal post doesn’t just move, but you suddenly find yourself playing a totally different sport?

That’s the question educators across the country are grappling with. And it’s a completely different challenge than one we’ve ever faced before. We’re not asking educators to drive higher test scores or fit yet another 5 kids in each classroom. Educators are being asked to toss out the fundamentals and redefine what it means to educate, when nothing looks like school at all.

The irony is, I know a lot of educators who LOVED to explore that question (back when it wasn’t under the absurd constraints of a pandemic). In fact, it was their favorite question: what does education look like when the typical rules are suspended?

And as I walked around the block with my friend, that began to feel like the key to the puzzle. We needed to stop thinking about goals and start thinking about signals: what will it feel like when we’re on the right track?

Signals, Not Maps

One of the sneaky, tricky things about chaotic situations (and yes, we’re in a chaotic situation – I’m not using that term for dramatic effect), is that we can get caught in old habits of mind. Before we were in a state of chaos, we had established back-to-school maps and plans for navigating them. But in a chaotic situation, there’s no map and the plans that went with them aren’t going to work. Time invested in looking for the “right” way to do things is problematic, because if there is a “right” way, it’s never been charted. Instead, the way to navigate is by seeking out little signals that will tell us whether we’re getting closer to where we want to go.

Which, when you stop to think about it, sounds a lot like teaching and parenting.

In our program, we invest up front in building what we call “parenting muscles.” For example, we send parents texts on how to listen to children, how to ask meaningful questions, how to read their child’s cues and follow their lead as they learn. Of course, the messaging on building literacy and math skills are also essential. But first parents need to be able to recognize and react to the signals their children send. That gives them the foundation to support their children in any number of teachable moments.

As education professionals, you know that kids’ signals can show up in surprising ways. Push back, fighting, silence, pouting, yelling. When you’re a parent with no educational training, it can be hard to interpret these signals. But parents can learn how to look for, recognize, and interpret these signals.

And parents can often use help recognizing their own signals. When are they feeling stressed? Are there any emotions getting in the way of supporting their child? When parents know how to recognize key signals, it’s much easier to adjust and get kids (and ourselves) back on track. 

Building a Continuous Feedback Loop

Today, those signal-recognition skills that you teach to parents and use with kids are a muscle you can call on to shift and adjust to the evolving educational environment. Finding ways to engage in continuous feedback loops with your teachers and parents can be challenging. But without a map to follow, signals are where it’s at.

One way that we’re working with our partners is to provide them with a text-based surveying tool, so they can get that signaling insight they need to adjust and react. Some questions we’re suggesting include:

  • If school started tomorrow, which of these online learning schedules are you most comfortable with?
  • Which of these was your biggest challenge this week to getting your kid(s) engaged in online learning?
  • Are we providing the right amount of work? Too much? Too little?
  • How many hours of the day is your child actively engaged in school work?

We’re not talking about a big survey with 25 questions that needs to be collected and analyzed. That data can be really valuable at the right moment. But right now you want rapid-response feedback that you can use to adjust on a monthly, even weekly, basis.

For my family, and the families in my life, we can’t answer the question “what kind of school experience do you want this fall?” It’s too big, too amorphous, and too overwhelming. But as we walk and talk – 6 feet apart and in masks – we can tell you whether today felt better than yesterday. And right now, that’s enough.

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