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Moving Beyond Survival Mode In Schools

By Mark Blitz, CALL Project Director

The challenge, and need, for school leaders to adapt and persist.

Since March of 2020, most conversations I’ve had with a school or district leader has begun with me asking them how everything is going. And most of their responses are some variation of: 

“We’re hanging in there.”
“We’re scrambling.”
“We’re doing OK, all things considered.”

“We’re in survival mode.”

That last response always feels the heaviest, especially in a global pandemic. To use the word “survival” to describe how schools have been adapting to remote teaching and learning conveys the weight of the moment for educators. In March of 2020, schools scrambled to conduct “virtual” school on the fly, with the hope that it would be temporary. As we know, this became the norm for many schools when the new school year began in the fall. And yet, even with more time to prepare and adapt, educators still expressed the idea of “survival mode” when describing what schooling has been like this school year. 

Certainly, much has been written and discussed about why this transition has been so challenging. Frankly, the bigger story would have been if the transition was rather seamless. After all, schools are institutions that have been providing education in pretty much the same way since its inception in modern society: students (organized by age) and teachers in a room with desks and chairs. There are several rooms in a building, led by school administrators, who often walk the halls of the buildings and interact face-to-face with teachers, students, and families. When school leaders, teachers, and parents/guardians were students, this is how they learned. And as adults, this is how their students are learning. That is, until it wasn’t.

It’s no wonder when the world of schooling turned upside down, educators scrambled, and many were, and still are, distraught. The concern one may hear when talking to an educator about this situation stems from their ingrained desire to teach children, which seemed to be almost a futile effort; hence, survival mode. 

And yet, the stakes are too high to remain in survival mode in schools. The situation in schools has changed drastically over the past year, but the charge of teaching children has not. Teachers are doing what they can to adapt and persist because that is integral to their profession, and that is what they do as professionals. And school leaders, along with all of the logistical, psychological, and monetary challenges this specific pandemic has wrought on their schools, are still called upon to do what is most important for their teachers and students: engage in ongoing school improvement work and provide crucial support through effective and targeted instructional leadership. Maintaining this focus moves schools and school leaders beyond survival mode.

It’s easy for me to type this as someone who works with schools but not in schools. By no means do I think that focusing on working “beyond survival mode” is an easy process. All of us are in “survival mode” in some way, and if we can find ways to move beyond that mode, or make progress in that mode, we are, in some ways, overcoming this uniquely challenging time in history. For schools operating in a still novel remote school environment, identifying what is working, what is not working, and what can be done to move forward with school improvement, even during this still-strange schooling situation and in our communities, is a step toward moving beyond survival mode.

Check out Long Distance CALL to learn more about engaging in school improvement during learn remote teaching and learning.

Contact The CALL Team for more information and to schedule a one-to-one conversation.