Missing School and Those ʻAha’ Moments

May 4, 2020

Dear parents,

You have amazing children. I’m not exaggerating. Here we are, in a situation none of us has ever had to face, and your kids are killing it so far. For all the crap they take about the inanity of what entertains them (and seriously, have you seen the garbage they watch on TikTok and YouTube?), they are warriors right now. They have every excuse in the book not to do schoolwork, but they’re collectively knocking it out of the park in my classes. Can you imagine if we could’ve used “internet issues,” someone with a cough, babysitting siblings, etc. as an excuse to avoid math homework? About 75% of my friends would have watched M*A*S*H reruns all day and raised a figurative middle finger to our teachers in a situation like this.

Here’s what’s happening right now, from my perspective. I’ve been recording math lessons and posting them. I’ve been suggesting “homework” assignments, but not collecting them. I’ve given multiple quizzes on that material. The vast majority of your kids have scored as well or BETTER than students in past years. Sure, there could be cheating — how hard is it to use other resources or compare answers with a buddy before submitting answers online? But even that takes more effort than most of us would have conjured in middle school. The mantra BEFORE all of this was that middle school grades don’t count. How about now that they’re not even getting grades? What your kids are doing right now gives me goosebumps. Seriously.

I realize what some of you may be thinking. “This means these kids could be doing this on their own! There are so many online resources that are exactly the same as what you’re providing. Better, actually, because you’ve never had to deliver instructions like this before and you don’t know what you’re doing. You’re basically making the case that your job is expendable!”

Sure, a lot of that is true. If what you care about is pure acquisition of skills and information, then traditional “school” is unnecessary. Students can get that for free online, and that’s been true for years now. But I’d urge you to ask your kids what they miss right now. They’re getting the skills/information stuff, but what VOID do they feel? Because to me, that void is the core part of learning.

I can teach them with an animated video how to solve systems of equations word problems. But I can’t laugh with them about an example they find funny, or collaboratively create a new one on the spot. On the video I’ll edit out my own mistakes to avoid wasting their time, but then they don’t get to see me make those mistakes and own them. I can’t ask and answer questions in real time and help them achieve an “aha” moment. Maybe they’ll hit pause and go back 20 seconds to hear something again, but that’s not the same as someone else (a teacher or a classmate) listening to what they don’t understand and then helping clear up their confusion while making connections and deepening their understanding at the same time.

I think adults sometimes forget that kind of magic in the classroom. We’re more likely to remember our own experience as pain and drudgery. But as someone who has spent his last 30 years living for magical moments in the classroom, I can assure you that they’re real (and they’re spectacular, Seinfeld fans). I believe they’re actually what makes “school” meaningful and purposeful. I’m not foolish enough to think the kids understand that right now. But I am optimistic enough to believe they feel it, especially in its absence.

I hope we can seize this unique moment to illuminate and celebrate what “school” really means. It’s not just a content-delivery and skill-building apparatus. It’s a connection-fest. Connecting content and skills, sure. But also ideas, friends, parents, teachers, coaches, mentors and relationships of all kinds. School is where kids and adults can be fully human together, and we need it back.

We’re doing our best to keep delivering the brain part of school. That’s the info/knowledge stuff, and it’s undeniably important. But delivering the heart and soul part? The essential part? The memorable, magic part? We’re trying. But we need to be on campus with your kids to really do that.

We can’t wait to get back there, I promise. It’s killing us not to be with them. We all complain about our day-to-day when we’re stuck in our routines. But when those are gone and you realize what you miss, and what the kids are missing? That’s the void, the absence of “school.” And the grief for that loss is visceral.

Thanks for doing your part to help us get back to campus as soon as we can. I can’t wait for that day. Instruction isn’t why any of us wanted to become teachers. School is.

And thank you for raising and supporting such terrific kids. Please take a moment to remind them how proud we all are of them right now. 

— Gib Fitzpatrick, Middle School math teacher