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Stepping into 2021 - Tips for Transitioning

A much-anticipated new year has finally arrived, and not a moment too soon. I know absolutely zero people who were not eagerly waiting to jettison 2020 and move into 2021 in the hope that a year from now, we will have seen some significant relief from this global pandemic. While it is customary to make resolutions at the start of a new year, this practice is often criticized for being fairly meaningless; after all, how many of those resolves are kept in the long term? Instead of making promises to ourselves or others, it might be more useful to do some proactive thinking about simple ways to infuse our teaching with the best of what our skillsets have to offer in the coming months of transition.

Low Entry, High Ceiling

We tend to overanalyze our work, and one constant worry over the past several months has revolved around whether our expectations have fallen during the pandemic. The answer to that question probably varies widely from teacher to teacher, but there is also a misconception around the difference between low expectations and a low entry point to learning. When we set a low entry point, we choose an accessible starting place for learning that welcomes all students into the process. However, the goal is to reach a high ceiling with everyone as we move into content more deeply. For example, I might begin teaching a unit about the 60s by sharing some music that helped to define the time period. The whole class can listen to the melodies, think about the lyrics, and discuss ideas around messaging and meaning. As we continue, more complex historical concepts will have that early foundation in how the class began to discuss the time period with music, not to mention a higher likelihood of engagement from students who probably found ways to relate to at least one song they listened to. In other words, we begin with the priority of engagement, and then elevate the learning as we go as we keep our instructional expectations high and think about ways to enter each new unit in a way that will appeal to every member of the class.

Expect the Unexpected

Right now, nobody knows exactly what each month will bring. While it is frustrating to lack so much control over our jobs, instability can no longer function as any kind of excuse in how we manage our daily work. Children depend on us, and we are adaptable. Even if a school district is unable to tell us how or where we’ll be teaching in two weeks, or six, or ten, we can plan ahead for multiple contingencies. The truth is, excellent instruction translates more than we assume from an in-person classroom to a virtual one, mainly because of the tireless and skillful dedication of teachers. As we put unit plans together for the upcoming months, it might help to look at each project or long-term assignment and add a list of considerations that would change the process depending on where students are learning. This might look like a written list of possible adjustments that are highlighted in a larger plan, or some teachers might prefer to flag weekly lesson plans by jotting down some smaller tweaks that could work in the event of a transition. Either way, thinking ahead will put the details of our classroom functioning back in our court, and will lessen the anxiety that comes from having little control over so much.

Reclaim Teaching Identity

Let’s face it: none of us finished this year being the same people we were at the start. Too much has happened, and depending on our own experiences, we’ve either experienced minor shifts in our lives (relatively speaking, that is) or significant change. To orient ourselves firmly in this new year, it might help to think back to how we identified our professional selves before the pandemic began. Our governing approaches and philosophies are likely still intact. For example, a teacher who valued a whole-child approach to education and sought to build relationships as a defining part of practice in order to reach instructional goals will likely still hold those same priorities, or the teacher who made a point of making learning relevant to student interest will continue to do so. By thinking intentionally about what we stand for, we can reclaim our connection to the “why” behind our dedication to teaching.

Hope is a Verb

It can be hard to actively maintain hope, but if we page through some history books, we will see that humankind has bounced back from situations that look similar to the one we currently find ourselves confronting. A new year is a technical marking of a fresh start for us all. Our students rely on us to keep believing in them and hoping that the world will become better, and we owe it to them to show them positivity. A few years ago, a student of mine observed that I always seemed to be happy, and I told her a secret: that I’m often tired or cranky, but it’s important for my students to have a version of me that they can count on each day to be consistent. I decided that version would be a cheery one, mainly because I wanted my classes to know that the first place I wanted to be was with them, and that I loved my job. Whatever we feel privately, actively showing hope for the year ahead will help both us and our students buckle down for the second part of the school year.

We might be approaching the halfway point in the school calendar, but the year has begun afresh. Stepping into 2021 allows us to think about how what has happened in the past year can inform a better future as we slowly begin the process of making a gradual transition out of what has been a universally difficult series of months. This might be a new beginning, but how we continue is up to us.

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam is a Learning and Achievement Specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has worked for nearly 20 years as an English teacher, staff developer and department chair. She is a National Board Certified Teacher, and recently earned her certification in Education Administration and Supervision. She can be followed on Twitter: @MirPloMCPS

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