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  • Writer's picturechristinemerle

The Power of Mixed Messages

"Complete those assignments that you are able to do, and do not worry about the work which you can't complete."

"Complete a five paragraph essay comparing A to B, due tomorrow."

"Just do your best."

"You have 30 assignments to complete by Friday at 3 p.m."

"Please make sure you are taking time for yourself, physically and mentally."

"Are you assigning work on a timely basis? How are you collecting data on completed assignments? What rubrics are you using to grade work?"

"We miss you - here's a funny video to watch!"

Email received at 7:24 p.m. "We will have a Zoom meeting tomorrow morning at 8 a.m. Please be on time and ready with your work completed."

*Personal disclaimer - these comments and the content throughout not only represent my own personal experience, but the experience and comments that I have received from parents, students, teachers and administrators from different districts and regions.

Yes, we are definitely living in a time of mixed messages. (There is no need to wear a mask. Everyone must now wear a mask.) But as we traverse this new online educational landscape, we are encountering more and more mixed messages, and these are adding to the confusion and anxiety of an already tumultuous time. Teachers are worried about their students, especially those that are struggling learners, of low socioeconomic status, living in potentially abusive situations, etc. But they are being tasked with the challenge of providing virtual education in an attempt to meet some standards, provide social emotional support, guide families on learning strategies, and calculate a grade from it. Students are receiving different levels of work from different teachers or courses, with different levels of expectations and feedback. Meanwhile our virtual platforms keep sending out email reminders of work that is yet to be completed. So what is the message? Take care of yourself? Or complete the work? Is it possible to do both?

I spoke with a group of teenagers about the messages that they were receiving from their different schools. One high-achieving young person replied, "Yes, they are now telling us to take care of ourselves physically. But they never said anything like that before when we were in a classroom setting. Makes me feel that it isn't genuine." They felt that the comments to take care of themselves serve two purposes - 1 - to say what most teachers "should" be saying, and 2 - to manipulate kids into doing the work. Granted they are cynical and bored, as many their age are wont to be, but it still represents an interesting viewpoint, don't you think? Makes you wonder what messages were being given, or received, before the pandemic. One elementary classroom offers prizes to those students who complete all of their work, while also "encouraging" students and families to take time off if necessary. It is tough for a 3rd grader to figure out what is more important - their own social emotional wellness, or a prize. And yes, those automatically generated email reminders coming out by the dozens don't know that a student or parent may have purposely chosen to skip that assignment. They just keep coming . . .

The message that I hear from administrators seems to be solid and consistent across the board: they are most concerned about the health and wellness of students, faculty, and staff. And yet teachers are still feeling pressure, whether it be real or perceived, to provide excellent instruction, meet standards and objectives, provide timely feedback, and calculate grades, all while learning how to do so in a technologically savvy way that engages, motivates, and instructs. Many have been accused of having an extra few months of summer and they take these comments to heart. These professionals are struggling to figure out how to effectively move through curricula, balance the increased need for emotional and academic support, and learn how to be an effective tech guru, while taking care of their own families when "zooming" with students, and not worry about the financial impact all of this will have on districts, and possibly their own jobs. Hmmm . . . what is the message here? We can't teach what we don't know, practice, or believe.

As I think about our eventual transition back into the classroom, I worry about the mixed messages that might be sent. "We are so glad to see you and can't wait to get to know each of you personally!" "Hurry up, we have missed so much educational time that we have to catch up!" "Let's take some time to get to know each other and establish some routines and procedures that help our classroom function as a community!" "We can't do face-to-face interactions right now - you need to learn how to do this technology-based work in case we have a second or third round of quarantine." Which messages will help our students and faculty transition back from this crazy time into a safe learning environment that really help all of us learn how to take care of ourselves?

Today my daughter and I had the opportunity to participate in a parade through her middle school parking lot in order to see all of her teachers, at an appropriate distance, of course. Although her first reaction was an eye roll (she is an average 8th grader), it was wonderful to see her genuinely smiling and waving to all of the faculty and staff as we slowly circled the lot, honking our horn. She laughed and looked for all of her friends, counting how many people she recognized in the line up of more than 100 cars. These educational professionals, with masks and signs, were clear in their message today. We love you! We miss you! We can't wait to see you back in our building!

You know, when I truly think about this spring, so much of this really doesn't matter. Yes, all children have missed instruction. Yes, all children have gaps in what they should have learned, and didn't learn this year. Yes, some children didn't do work that they should have, some parents didn't follow through, some teachers assigned more or less, some grades didn't really "count", the list is endless. But in this landscape, none of that really matters, does it? What really matters the most to all children is knowing that they are loved, that they are missed and that we will help them succeed, no matter what the environment. For right now, in this scary world, one message needs to be said, heard and believed - over and over and over.

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