From Crisis to Transformation

Earlier this afternoon at the suggestion of my friends Nathan Strenge and Ben Owens — who I had the chance to work with during our time together a few years back as part of the Bill & Melinda Gates’ Teacher Advisory Council — I had the chance to take part in “A critical conversation -Moving From Crisis to Transformation” — a Zoom chat made possible via a partnership between @TranscendBuilds @FieldingInt @HundrEDorg @EdReimagined @OpenWayLearning.

Over the course of our 60-minute meeting, more than 100 educators tuned in from around the world to talk about the Coronavirus and its myriad effects throughout our schools and education systems all over the world. Through the power of videoconferencing, authors, administrators, educators, and researchers from every corner of the globe connected to share our concerns and our hopes for how to stay ahead of the pandemic in these unprecedented times ahead.

Today’s post will be recap of the key takeaways. Part highlights, part food for thought, and part stream of consciousness as we all work together to “build the ship as we sail it” through these uncharted waters of education. The conversation started with an icebreaker that I found really powerful. Take a look:


To me, it looks like this team was hauling a wagon full of tires… all while rolling along on square wheels. If I’m reading the image correctly, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Dorothy with her Ruby Slippers. Though we find ourselves in an upside down world of color, it might just be true that we’ve carried the incredible power for change within us all along.

(Spoiler: it’s not more teacher-directed teaching).

But more on that in a second. To make sure that everyone had a better chance to connect, our 100 person Zoom meeting broke off into 10 different discussion rooms simultaneously to focus on practical solutions and common pain points.


Each room took about 10 minutes to tackle each of three questions.

  1. Question 1: With as much depth as possible, what defines the problem we are trying to solve? 
  2. Question 2: What is the role of current students, educators, and parents in this transformation? 
  3. Question 3: What specific actions can we as individuals can take to intentionally move from crisis to transformation? (10 mins)

Our big takeaways?

This is an unprecedented paradigm shift in education. Teaching is a highly relational profession, an interdependent community that thrives in shared partnerships and depends on as much clarity and consistency as we can possibly offer. For many educators, launching into such a radical turnaround with limited (or in some cases, ZERO) training as a workforce has caused a cascade of ripple effects of confusion throughout our schools. Worse, sending mixed signals as we are handling a rapidly evolving crisis where both children and adults are being forced to confront very real and very scary challenges with new concerns and misinformation arriving every single day can be a nightmare for folks hoping to plan or maintain some semblance of  routine or consistency — be they students, parents, or educators.

With so much information arriving at every second of every day, it can truly feel overwhelming and almost impossible to know where best to start.

So here’s a list of things that we learned from today’s meeting for sure:

  • 100 participants is the limit for a single Zoom chat
  • 250 participants is the limit in a chat session on Google Hangouts
  • Zoom might not be FERPA compliant (uh oh)
  • Google Hangouts might not be easy to close when we leave the chat. Though Google claims to have addressed this issue in the past week, that’s bad news if it means students can simply hang out completely unattended in a video chat while we’re away.

Again, this is just what we know for sure at this time. Everything from this point forward is purely a collection of suggestions, tips, and “best practices” (still in beta form) from the collective group of teachers who shared their thoughts on the call. For the time being, it may be best to treat everything that follows in today’s post as food for thought versus matters of strict policy as we are all trying make sense of the “new normal:”

Things for teachers and schools to consider in this crisis:

  • Blowing up grades! Moving to alternate means of assessment. If this crisis is showing us anything, it’s that there are MANY ways for students to demonstrate mastery. And we can’t depend on all students having access to the same resources or materials from home. We likewise can’t assume that all students will master the same material in the same timeline.
  • Everyone is re-imagining their identity and their roles in education. But it’s vital to remember that we are all human beings FIRST. Focusing on social emotional support of our students (and our families) is essential. Some have just lost their senior year. Their prom. Their last season as a varsity athlete. Their time with a teacher who provides them safety and support away from a home environment where these things may be lacking. Maintaining perspective will be critical.
  • Communication! Clarity and consistency in our preferred communication channels helps break down isolation and facilitate dialogue. Consider sharing updates that are both related to your curriculum AND simply reaching out to relate to your students lives.
  • Scale back your expectations! Online learning does not have to be perfect on the first try. Likewise consider scrapping those regularly scheduled novel study units or history lessons to instead offer your learners the chance to tell THEIR stories. Mathematics has always been offered as a “brain workout” class — consider pivoting away from the narrow confines of “algebra” and challenging your students to find applications of these same brain-building techniques outside of the traditional teacher-directed curriculum — perhaps even by discussing the practical math required to fight the spread of COVID-19.
  • Too much of online learning is simply spent trying to replicate what’s currently going on in schools — but this is a chance to use the tools to build something BETTER. More self-initiated, more autonomous. Don’t simply use distance learning to make a bad photocopy of a system that is only barely working the way it is.
  • Focus on large scale systemic relevance going forward (isolation, equity, and opportunity to bridge divides) to push major reform in policy across the board.
  • Bring students into the conversation! Let them have a real voice in their own learning. Consider student blogs, podcasts, and video diaries — let them know that they are seen and heard, especially in a time where they might feel even more powerless than ever before.
  • Use this time to back away from your content and encourage instruction that helps your students learn how to interpret the world around them. Get families involved in education! (They can do this in a different language and have it count for a Spanish class, for example. Or they can practice future tense verbs by describing what they hope things will look like once the pandemic has ended).
  • Collaboration (again). Take a good hard look at what we’re experiencing to re-evaluate outdated or antiquated pedagogy. What’s working? What needs to go?
  • This is our opportunity to redefine what we believe the purpose of an education to be. Take the opportunity to ask: what are you trying to do as a school (as an educator, as an administrator, etc.)? Then focus on that inequity and use it as the driving force behind your initiatives in this challenging time.
  • Encourage experimentation. From crisis to transformation, there will be missteps and mistakes. That’s part of the drill. Be patient with yourselves and with your students.

Here’s the detailed notes from this Zoom chat if you’d like to read more.

Author: John

John Meehan (@MeehanEDU) is an English teacher and school instructional coach at Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington, Virginia. He began his teaching career in 2010 as a career switcher through The New Teacher Project, after spending five years working in social media and event marketing. He is a 2017 ASCD Emerging Leader, and an alumnus of the 2016-2018 Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Teacher Advisory Council. In 2016, he was named one of Arlington, Virginia’s “40 Under 40” by the Leadership Center for Excellence. He is a past presenter and regular attendee at educational conferences throughout the United States, including the annual conference for National Catholic Education Association, ASCD Empower19, and the Play Like a Champion Today: Character Education Through Sports summer conference at the University of Notre Dame. He’s an avid runner who’s completed more than three dozen marathons, half marathons, long-distance road relays, mud runs, and obstacle course races. John lives in Silver Spring, Maryland.

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