By: NIET CEO Dr. Candice McQueen
One of my fondest memories of my father was seeing him writing in the small home office that was built into our garage. While the room was a bit musty and small, it was well-used. He had a desk that took up most of the space and an oversized chair that he liked to lean back in while he stared at the ceiling and searched his mind for the next best word to write. He could stay in there for hours studying, thinking, and seeking. On New Year's Day, he always seemed to take a little longer as he religiously typed his New Year's Resolutions and considered the path to success for each goal. One New Year's Day, I slipped in, like I had done many times before, to see what he was doing, and I asked him what he was writing. Expecting him to recount his long list of resolutions, my 10-year-old mind began to tune out a bit, but instead he said, "I have not written any this year." My inquisitive look must have required more explanation, but he gave none. With tears in his eyes, all he did was pass me a poem that I had seen on his desk for years.
The poem, Don't Quit, now sits in my home office, and I often read and reflect on it. Looking back, I now understand why he did not write any resolutions that year. It had been a tough year for him and for our family, one that I now know was even tougher than I understood as a child. On that day – the day he was supposed to be eagerly planning for what's next – the future was still unclear and circumstances were challenging. So, he did what he knew he must do and left it at that. Simply, in the words of the poem, he took an approach that resonates anew as we enter 2021: "When care is pressing you down a bit, rest if you must, but don't you quit."
We simply must continue moving forward, one day at a time, using the learnings from 2020 to make the next best decision. It is the year to not quit.Dr. Candice McQueen, CEO, NIET
This year, we desperately desire a new year that wipes away the challenges of 2020 and clearly spells out 2021, but year endings and beginnings are not like page breaks in a document. They are not clean and complete, but simply a transition. All you dealt with in 2020 is likely still with you in 2021: the threat of COVID-19, anxiety about finances or job security, the challenges of making decisions with incomplete or competing information, the mental stress that comes with pandemic life, or the fear and grief of loss. Whatever the case, the message is the same: Don't quit. We may not have the ability to make the long list of "to do's," but we do have the ability to resolve to keep moving forward and focus on what can be. I believe this year is a transition to something better, but it is not an ending to all that was. While this seems limiting, it can also be freeing as you flexibly consider your resolutions.
Just as we did in 2020, we have to keep making the next best decision based on what we know. We need to take what we learned in 2020 and apply those learnings. Here are three continuing decisions for 2021 – with the opportunities that the new year will bring:
1. Staffing and in-person education.
A vaccine is finally here. That can dramatically change our situation in schools, but there is an on-ramp to delivery and barriers that prevent us from all getting vaccinated tomorrow or even next month. This fact alone means we still have to act safely and continue to be attentive to social distancing, masking, and virtual learning needs. This is not a time to let our guard down and to quit the measures and focus we had prior to the vaccine approval and deployment. It simply means we now have additional context that can help inform our next decisions.
How so? It is likely that even though teachers may get vaccines quickly, families of school-aged children and children themselves will be among the last to get vaccinated. This means the rest of this school year may look similar to the beginning. The difference is that as teachers get vaccinated, staffing challenges brought on by sickness and quarantining are reduced, and the ability to interact in-person, particularly one-on-one and in small groups, becomes more doable. Decisions can focus on who, when, and how to bring in more students based on learning needs – as opposed to decisions that have had to revolve around staffing scarcity.
2. Virtual instruction.
During 2020, virtual teaching and learning was a challenge to get off of the ground and to execute successfully. Some of these challenges may continue into 2021, but decisions will be somewhat different than they were just a few months ago. For example, more students now have technology devices and more teachers now have had trial-by-fire experience teaching in the online environment. More than ever, learning management systems are in place and communities have increased online access. While these are at varying stages, progress has been made and more attention can now be given to quality and improvement of the intended learning happening in the online environment. This is the year to dig deeper and provide more support for both the short and long term to ensure decisions help teachers get better and see online learning as a continuing avenue to serve each and every student.
3. Planning for the future.
This academic year produced a host of calls for innovation with varying ideas for what that might look like. Many schools have embraced some level of innovation – most by necessity – and have rightly questioned the purpose behind a great deal of what they did and what was required (prior to 2020) as they sought flexibility. During 2021, there will be continued decision-making in this vein, and like before, by necessity decisions will be made to change a policy, procedure, or a process. What could change for many schools, if they embrace it, is change to the foundational elements based on the lessons they have learned and experiences they have had this past year. These could be decisions around a myriad of items, such as transitioning some bad weather days to online learning days, changing the last one or two years of high school to include more virtual courses with service learning and internships, or consistently offering online courses to students who want them or are homebound. It could even look like dramatically changing staffing structures to better serve all students based on specific needs.
2021 may not feel like the year to make a long list of "to do's" as the challenges still feel heavy and the path unclear. Regardless, I am convinced 2021 is the year where decision-making can take you to many new and better places. We simply must continue moving forward, one day at a time, using the learnings from 2020 to make the next best decision. It is the year to "not quit." In the words of the poem:
"Success is failure turned inside out,
The silver tint of the clouds of doubt,
And you can never tell how close you are …
So stick to the fight when you are hardest hit,
It's when things seem hard, that you must not quit."