Why fads, trends, and gurus won’t protect public education during COVID-19.

Like public health, public education is essential to the social and economic well-being of any society. Public health protects people from pandemics, provides health care, and keeps people safe. Public education provides equity and inclusion, promotes literacy and critical thinking, and sustains communities with dignity and learning – in every neighbourhood, town, and village.

Public health is built on values, science, and trust. Public education is built on relationships, ethics, and diversity. We need both public health and public education to thrive as a community. Both are essential to our society.

The public health crisis of COVID-19 is a testament to the value of universally accessible health care for all people. Public health officials have demonstrated remarkable responsibility and compassion in their calls to put human life and wellness above all else.

As we enter the next stages and phases of the pandemic, it’s critical that we take advantage of the gains and preparations put in place in the first phases of COVID-19, so that we can start to focus on other priorities once again. One of these priorities must be a safe return to in-person public education for the vast majority of B.C. students.

As public education comes safely back on line, following the partial shutdown due to “emergency remote teaching” in the early months of the pandemic, we must tread carefully because education is truly essential.

Public education is life-sustaining for many students and communities, providing a lifeline in the form of community and education for students who depend on universal access to education. We need to reopen schools safely and responsibly, given how many students and families depend on the system for their education and well-being.

Equity-Seeking Students Need Public Education to Work for Everyone

Defending the integrity of public education matters most to those facing the greatest obstacles to justice and fairness. That’s one reason why we should be on the lookout for simplistic “one-size-fits-all” approaches to teaching and learning. We must also pushback on Trojan Horses, which are radical approaches that would undermine public education – waiting to be brought into the public education system during this time of crisis and hidden as easy solutions to big challenges.  

Fad diets are top sellers because they are sold as simple to do and easy to digest. It’s much easier to sell a simplistic and one-size-approach over the much more complex regimen of healthy eating, plenty of exercise, and the individual support of a medical doctor. The same is true in education.

At First Look: Public Education Seems Boring and Easy to Tinker With

The boring truth is this: Public education works for students because it is based on communities centred on student-teacher relationships. Teams of teachers and other educators support student learning. There are ups and downs, areas to improve, and areas to celebrate. We can do better but overall society depends on public education for all that it does well. Teaching requires working with families, using all available approaches, and the application of wide-ranging expertise. There is never a one-size-approach.

Gurus are popular with many school leaders and teachers because they inspire us. There’s nothing wrong with that. But while dazzle is important for standing up on a stage and getting likes on Twitter and Facebook, it’s not necessarily the key to a robust education system. Teams of teachers work together across time and in really messy ways to support students and families. Look closely and you will notice that teachers usually apply diverse approaches at once, often using contradictory approaches at the same time.

While some teachers use more tech than others, you may see that those teachers actually dig down to the tech through non-digital approaches. And the most tech-phobic teacher may surprise you – such as when you see their students using spreadsheets to do data analysis and blogs to do writing. Almost every teacher applies ad hoc approaches, mixing and matching fads and trends (and the tried and true) to the needs of their class.

The Teacher-Student Relationship is the Heart of Public Education

On the surface, it may seem like teachers use an “eclectic approach” – a mash up of various models and approaches. But in reality, most teachers work from a single approach. That approach is to base their teaching on the needs of the students – to do what works for students. Teachers are highly adaptive and responsive, paying attention to their students and adapting teaching to what engages and supports teaching and learning.

This is not a “mash up” but is instead a unitary focus on meeting students’ needs. The heart of public education is the teacher-student relationship for good reason: It works to base public education on the needs of students. Unlike researchers, formal leaders, politicians, gurus, and pundits, teachers know students. We know students because we work with them, right before us, every day. That is the keystone of public education.

Public education, as a whole, is resilient, adaptive, and responsive. For the vast majority of students teaching occurs in-person, in classrooms and schools. But for some students, other approaches are also required. That’s why distance-learning and alternative programs are provided. Teachers and schools provide a diverse range of options, not because one option is better than another, but because for some students one option works. For others, an alternative works.

Teachers are also drawn to certain options over others, which is why some teachers work in classrooms, others as student support teachers, and still others as distance learning teachers. So long as student learning drives teaching the system is working.

During COVID-19 we must remain true to what works. The pre-pandemic public education system worked for the vast majority of students, and schools and teachers were already working hard at doing a better job under the existing system. Given this, during the pandemic we should focus on three key strategies: (1) Strengthen and defend teachers’ professional autonomy as the cornerstone of public education; (2) Adapt public education programs to COVID-19, so that schools and classrooms are safe for educators and students alike. This includes providing accessible PPE, such as N95 respirator masks and face shields; (3) Provide individual accommodations for the students who need them.

Teachers’ professional autonomy + Safe adaptations during COVID-19 + Accommodations = Equitable public education for all, especially during a pandemic.

We can do this, because this formula relies on what’s already in place. Public education is resilient, efficient, and effective. Let’s use what works so that students’ education continues, especially when safe schools are needed now more than ever.