Change is Good, Unless it Isn’t
Imagine an elevator pitch from a company looking to differentiate itself five years from now:
“Hire us for a competitive edge and benefit from our revolutionary approach. Our organization believes that a face-to-face, in-person relationship will give you a qualitative advantage over all our competitors. We offer an in-person, personal touch. Not just a face on a screen.”
This theoretical elevator pitch would have been nonsensical just over a year ago. After all, isn’t that the way most of us conducted our business? Today, however, listening to pundits confidently forecast how business will change dramatically as a result of the pandemic, one can imagine a future where this elevator pitch makes sense. We hear the predictions: There is no need for office space anymore. People can work at home. Virtual meetings and home offices will save hundreds of hours of unnecessary commute time and thousands of dollars in office rental fees.
The recent pandemic has forced us to rethink how we live, how we work, and what we value. I have no doubt that our shared experiences over the past year will lead to significant changes in our lives. I am skeptical, however, of the certitude with which these pundits are able to describe exactly what those changes will look like and more importantly, what they should look like. We must consider the many consequences, especially the unforeseen negative consequences that could arise from some of these anticipated changes. I offer a few examples:
My board members have loved holding board meetings virtually. It is easy to just turn on a screen and join a meeting. If you are not done with dinner, you can finish eating while the meeting is being conducted. (We did have snacks at our in-person meetings, but they can’t compare to a stocked fridge and home cooked meal.) Additionally, a higher percentage of our board members participated in these virtual meetings. This uptick is likely a product of both the convenience of virtual meetings, as well the curtailing, due to COVID concerns, of other activities competing for a board member’s time.
Should we make virtual board meetings a permanent update? I think this would be a mistake.
For one, I miss the social and bonding aspect of our board meetings. Conversations before and after board meetings strengthened the social bonds among the various members. These board members were chosen, among other reasons, to represent various school constituencies. Natural bonds were created among diverse and different groups, thereby strengthening the fabric of our school community.
I also miss the minyan for Maariv that took place immediately following every board meeting; a reminder of our religious mission as a Jewish day school.
Additionally, we have noted less active participation in virtual meetings than during in-person meetings. As advanced as the technology is, people seem more hesitant to raise their voices in virtual meetings. The back-and-forth flow of conversation that occurs naturally during an in-person discussion seems to be harder to navigate on Zoom. The discussions and debates that used to occur in board meetings are not as robust, intense, or animated as they used to be. Without these passionate exchanges and debates that helped refine past decisions, I worry that the conclusions of board level discussions will be poorer.
And finally, I worry about the tendency that many of us have to multitask while on virtual meetings at home. A number of months ago, I tested an instinct by not shutting down our virtual meeting once it had ended. Most of the participants ended their meeting and went on with their night. Two participants who had turned their screens off for the meeting (a common occurrence in online events) remained on the screen. It was clear that they had kept their screen on but were not even there to realize that the meeting had ended. While we could easily solve this by asking all board members to keep their cameras on, the story does highlight this tendency to attempt to multitask or merely focus on other things while on a Zoom call.
Similar arguments apply to other school functions that have been conducted online. Many of our parents loved the convenience of parent-teacher conferences online. They were able to speak to teachers from the comfort of their home, or if necessary, to speak to them from a car in between other Sunday errands.
But at what cost? What will the relationship between a teacher and parents look like when personal interactions are less frequent. The trust that is built between teachers and the home is critical to the educational experience, especially at those times when challenges arise. Without those face-to-face interactions, I worry that the teacher-parent partnership will suffer.
I fear the loss of parent relationships, not just with the teachers, but also with the physical environment. Our school is more than just a building. It is an educational habitat, shaped deliberately as a warm, conducive, and dynamic second home for our students and faculty. We invite all stakeholders, including parents, to participate in experiencing this second home and to shape relationships with the location where their children will learn, grow, and develop. We see this as an important element of our partnership with parents. I am saddened that over forty new families who joined our school last year have not been able to enter our building. I look forward to the time when all our parents will be allowed back into our building, developing in-person relationships with our faculty, with other parents, and with the wider community and school environment. I worry that curtailing opportunities to interact in our building will have a negative impact.
The primary area of school life where we anticipate major changes is in the role of online learning. Our teachers spent extensive time this past year undergoing intensive training in online teaching. The results have been extraordinarily positive. Even at the most constricting stage of this pandemic, learning continued and subsequent assessments demonstrated that our students are on target to reach all grade level goals in skill-based areas such as math, reading, and limudei kodesh. I regularly hear excited voices describing the endless possibilities that online learning now holds. While online learning has existed for some time now, the copious amount of teacher training and exposure to this medium may be the catalyst that allows for all types of new usages. Students who are absent for the day can Zoom in, snow days need no longer exist, and a student can even participate in class while on the way to a dentist appointment. Most importantly, we can now imagine a future where a child who needs to be absent from school due to a serious illness has a lifeline into our world through virtual learning.
I would advise moving forward with caution here as well.
Under challenging circumstances our students thrived online. But facing a choice between in-person learning and online learning, do we really prefer to be online? We now have the experience to compile a list of the challenges with online learning and the questions that must be asked before this mode becomes an ideal in any form.
While technology is now naturally embedded into our educational approach in so many ways, most teachers can manage a technology glitch when students are in school. They can always pivot to paper and pencil if necessary. When students are not in school however, a technology glitch, whether on the side of the school or the student at home, can become debilitating.
Additionally, the success of our teachers this past year was due to significant professional development, creating a comfort level among our teachers with the technology and even more importantly, the pedagogy of online learning. When we return fully to physical school, will we have the time and funds to continue keeping our teachers up to date and fresh when using technology? Without regular practice, will teachers be able to promptly pivot back to online learning? Even if they can, will the anxiety created over this change of routine be worth the benefit?
We have also learned over the past year that teaching to a class where some students are in person and others are on Zoom is quite difficult, and impacts negatively on the students who are in class. Ensuring that students online are set up for learning, focused, and engaged requires significant attention and effort and takes away precious classroom time from other students. What impact will cameras in each classroom and regular opportunities for students to Zoom in for all sorts of reasons have on the students in the classroom?
Finally, I fear negative social impact on students who use online learning. We saw that some students fared more poorly while using remote learning than others. That issue can be addressed. I am more worried about a different phenomenon: students whose parents think that they fared better while being online. I believe that many of them are mistaken. A student who struggles with social interactions will often prefer to sit at home on a computer where they do not need to worry about the challenges of interacting with peers. This avoidance, while comfortable in the moment, removes the necessity to learn to interact with others and can stunt his or her growth and ability to be a functional member of society, which is another one of the many learning opportunities that a school provides. A student who seems to be better behaved while online is often simply focused on other distractions. An online class may be easier to manage, but students may not be learning and don’t have the opportunity to learn how to behave in a classroom environment. These missed opportunities simply “kick the can down the road,” leading to more challenging situations in the future.
I don’t believe that all technology and all change is bad. On the contrary, our school has embraced many new educational tools; some of those involving technology and some on the cutting edge of pedagogy. We will continue to embrace new tools, while working to understand what we can learn from our experiences over the past year. My warning, however, is that we need to make these changes thoughtfully and deliberately, keeping in mind all the short-term and long-term challenges and ensuring we have solutions to these challenges. For those who are convinced that we are there, I would argue that the road ahead of us is still very long.
Daniel Alter is the Head of School of the Moriah School in Englewood New Jersey. Rabbi Alter was formerly the founding Rabbi of the DAT Minyan in Denver, Colorado, and the Head of School of Denver Academy of Torah where he founded a new high school as an extension of the existing lower school.