Distance Learning Is About to Get Way Easier

Mile Marking the Academic Calendar.


As a teacher I always keep a large school-year paper calendar. Before I leave my classroom each evening, I cross off the day with an X. Every once in a while I’ll forget for a week or two, and then add ten or twelve X’s in a row, as if a couple of weeks have just magically played out without me noticing.


The calendar is a visual representation of time passing within the construct of a school year, but it’s also a testament to accomplishment and, if I’m honest, of survival. The number of hard-earned days I have behind me instills a particular confidence.


Many mile markers on the calendar are associated with different rituals throughout the year. Each school has its own traditions, but it is comforting and reassuring that the rhythm of the American school calendar remains the same despite COVID and the dramatic changes to education this year. If we look to the school calendar, these heartening mile markers help us orient ourselves and point us toward easier days to come.


The Beginning


The learning that is done from September through early November is not only academic; it is in fact largely adaptive. This means that kids, teachers, and now parents, follow a process of normalization where new practices start to synthesize and become routine. There is a (sometimes steep) learning curve as we learn new procedures and expectations, how to function within a community, and now this year, how to do all these things from home.


This three-month onboarding process is hard on a good year; traditionally it’s the hardest part of the school year. Having to attempt this feat from home is next level.


However, November’s school calendar holds two significant mile markers that symbolize an end of the beginning. We have a lot of X’s behind us, amounting to about 50 school days completed so far. There are no large breaks between the start of the year and November, and after the hard adaptive work of the fall, the rhythm of November finally allows us to pause, which always feels like a gift.


Mile Marker One: Parent Teacher Conferences


The first stop in November is parent-teacher conferences. While sometimes daunting, conferences are evidence-based conversations that allow us to assess what is working and what is not. This year, parents have a better pulse on this than ever as they’ve become privy to the every day work of learning. Taking time to reflect and make new student-centered goals with teachers can set students up for efficient growth and better learning outcomes.


Whether your child is struggling, coasting, or thriving, this audit is beneficial. It’s an invitation to zoom out and look at the larger picture when so much of the weekly grind focuses on task-oriented details.


Conferences are an opportunity to help set new goals based on the evidence of 50 X’s. They are also a mile marker of accomplishment. Acknowledge the hard work you and your child have done so far. Own the failures, and look forward to new growth based on hard-earned wisdom.


This foundational work is the hardest, and you are no longer at the beginning. 50 X’s gives reason to beat the drum and dance.


Mile Marker Two: Thanksgiving Break


A brilliant teacher friend of mine calls Thanksgiving break “the first rest in the song,” which I love. It’s our first real opportunity since the start of the year to pause our school-oriented work.


There are a few things that make Thanksgiving break significant.


First, it’s an opportunity to truly change focus for a week. We’ve been practicing and learning and trying and failing, and now all we need to focus on is eating good food and hanging out. That’s our job this week, which allows our brains to shift and our minds to relax. Rest is essential for growth, and this week has the ultimate regenerative benefits.


The second incredible thing about the Thanksgiving break is that it’s like a trip-wire for upcoming breaks.


No one will point this out at the beginning of the year, but September through Thanksgiving is a break desert. There’s no break oasis, not even a mirage. It’s just a series of five-day weeks, one after another (after another). However, once you hit Thanksgiving, there are tantalizingly well-spaced breaks lined up for the rest of the school year. They’ll continue to hit you just when they are needed, all the way through April.


Let me entice you with the details:


Just a few short weeks after Thanksgiving, winter break arrives, which is almost three weeks of cozy rest for the weary. Mid-winter break is on the scene just six sweet weeks later, followed by spring break, a mere six weeks after that! At this time we strap in for the home stretch - May and June - but we can do anything when we can smell summer, right?


Sometimes on very hard days, my co-teachers and I will recite the calendar in this way and end by saying we’re pretty much at graduation already. When we break larger tasks into smaller tasks, the work feels more surmountable. Knowing there is another break just around the corner gives us a smaller and more achievable goal to work toward.


Reciting the calendar according to breaks is like a peaceful teacher meditation when the school year feels like it’s never going to end. You might try it sometime. It’s particularly useful on Mondays.


From experience I can say that returning to school after Thanksgiving break feels different. There is a crackling of confidence-infused energy among teachers and students after a well-earned rest. It’s highly likely that this same post-Thanksgiving edu-swagger will abound in your home too as we all pick up the torch for the last few weeks of distance learning in 2020.


Looking Ahead to Brighter Days


When teachers pass the conference mile-marker and begin their Thanksgiving break, they do so with a sense of knowing that the hardest work is behind them. We can shift from the adaptive work of normalization to the magical work of wonder-filled learning. The first (and worst) months are now over, and easier days lie ahead just by the simple fact that we have found our footing.


As parents of distance learners, it is my hope you are experiencing this sense of accomplishment as you pass these mile markers too. It’s November and you’ve survived! The work of normalizing school inside your home is behind you. You have 50 X’s at your back, which means you’ve acquired a newfound wisdom about education and how your child learns. You have made it to the first rest in the song.


The work that lies ahead will be challenging, but not nearly as challenging as what you’ve already completed. And now there will be rest and breaks along the way. Passing each mile marker will bring you closer to seeing the light on the horizon. There will even be weeks that silently and quickly slip away without the monumental effort we’ve had to muster up until now.


Whether you celebrate Thanksgiving or not, I invite you to dance past these mile markers with your fellow teachers and parents in gratitude this week, for all the hard work behind us. We have a way to go, but what we have learned and worked so hard to achieve up until now will serve as a solid foundation for what comes next. This will make our jobs exponentially easier as we forge ahead.


But this week, our only job is to take a well-earned rest.


“A day of rest yields a hundred days of progress.”

- Adrienne Posey