We have all had to pivot in unexpected directions during the COVID crisis. Perhaps no one more than educators. Our education system has been built on a face-to-face paradigm that was instantly no longer possible. Schools across the country had to find a new way overnight. What lessons can we learn from the speed and scale of this change? What does it teach us about ourselves and our children?
To learn more, I spoke with Paul Druzinsky, Head of School at The Avery Coonley School in Downers Grove, Illinois. Avery Coonley is an independent PK-8 school for gifted children, founded in 1908 as a nationally recognized model for progressive education. A graduate of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Paul has been an independent school leader for twenty-five years.
Paul points out that people from all walks of life need to step back and rethink things. What it is they do and what is really important. Teachers have spent their careers teaching subject matter. It is what they are trained and wired to do. But right now, academic content and grades are not what is most important. What is important is how kids feel. As Maya Angelou said, no one will remember what you said, but they will always remember how you made them feel. No child will remember what they learned in sixth grade, but all of them will have vivid memories of what happened in their lives at this time. The number one challenge for the school is to take care of the kids and make sure they feel good about how they were treated and what they experienced during this crisis.
It is a huge challenge for teachers. All good teachers know that students learn best in the context of a relationship. Maintaining relationships in a full class of students online is a challenge, technically and personally. Paul says you don’t really notice until they are gone all the learning moments and connections that take place outside the classroom. Between classes or at lunch, are where the really great conversations take place. They no longer happen spontaneously; they have to be planned intentionally or they will not happen at all. Teachers must rely on humor and their imagination to create connections and personal bonds with students online. This is a major shift for everyone.
Avery Coonley has a long history and many deeply held traditions. I asked Paul how he maintains that sense of history and tradition when so much has changed. He points out the bright side of the crisis, which is that unthinkable changes become non-controversial because you really have no choice. The opportunities to think differently and do things in new ways suddenly appears where it was never there before.
Like all great educators, Paul made me think. Everything he has found true in education, we have found true in business, as well. The business of good business is not transactions at this moment, it is relationships. Establishing and maintaining the human bonds we have with our customers that we so often take for granted. Creating moments of engagement and personal value online and in other ways. Rising to the occasion by tossing out old conventions and embracing the new out of necessity, but hopefully also with a sense of openness and possibility.
We all learn a lot from our kids. We have a lot to learn from their teachers, too.