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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Student Well-Being Opinion

Educators, Be Future-Ready, But Don’t Ignore the Present

By Peter DeWitt — September 08, 2021 5 min read
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The future. It’s an important focus for schools. The use of technology within instructional practices, an understanding of the need to curate and not just consume information, media literacy, and collaboration are all important aspects of a brighter future for students. What we learned through COVID-19 is that not every school was ready to pivot into remote learning, and future-ready was something they found they were not.

The lack of understanding how to pivot, of course, was due not only to a lack of time to plan but also to inequity when it comes to the resources that schools have access to. Yes, there are loads of other valid reasons as well, but those two are a good start. It’s also important to keep in mind that in a 2018 Price Waterhouse and Cooper study, only 10 percent of teachers felt confident using technology to offer deeper-level learning opportunities to students.

Future-ready is definitely a proper focus, but to get there, we need to be present-ready as well. Our immediate needs in school are on student, teacher, and leader mental health, along with an understanding of where students are academically at present. What we know is that 42 percent of principals have considered leaving their position, and 92 percent of teachers are more stressed than they were at the beginning of COVID.

To understand the gains that students made and the possible areas of growth they need to work on, we need to be present. To not just cope, but to thrive as teachers and leaders during this increasingly stressful time, we need to focus on not just what we control, but how we react to what we cannot control, which needs to be a present focus. We will never get to the future if we don’t pay attention to learning the tools on how we cope or thrive in the present.

The Future Can Be Consuming

We seem to be programmed to always focus on the future. The questions in school and in life are all focused on the future. We are asked:

Are students prepared for the jobs of the future when those jobs don’t exist yet?

What do you want to be when you grow up?

What trade do you want to engage in when you graduate from high school?

What college or university do you want to enter when you graduate from high school?

Where do you see yourself in five years?

As kids, we are focused on the next baseball game or the next birthday. We have milestones as teenagers like getting our learner’s permit and then the ultimate goal of our driver’s license. Even as adults, we are focused on the next best thing that will come our way like the new iPhone or the most current and technologically advanced car.

All of these are very important milestones, but it seems that we have such an uber focus on all things future that we forget to be uber-focused on our present situations. Simply focusing on how we are breathing can help us alleviate some of the stress and anxiety we feel.

Even Times We Want to “Get Through” Offer Us Lessons

In the spring, when having a conversation about COVID, a school principal said, “We just need to get through this time.” The problems that were overwhelming the principal were that students were ghosting teachers; some teachers were giving F’s to a high number of their students at the same time those same teachers were asking not to be observed—and for grace for their current situation; and teachers and parents were on edge from the constant pivots.

“Getting through this time” is a coping mechanism to get through a difficult experience, but focusing on the future when things may be better may also prevent us from seeing a learning lesson in the present. Why are students ghosting us? What can we do about the number of F’s we are giving to students and why are we doing it? Those are present questions we should be asking. Merely hoping for a better future isn’t going to help. Even our worst crisis can offer us a great learning experience but only if we are present when experiencing it.

As much as we need to get through this time, we are missing out on the small victories that will get us through our larger battles. Every day there are small victories such as:

Lessons that go well

Collaboration among students that leads to new ideas and deeper learning

A conversation that begins a new friendship

Being present is hard these days and not just because of COVID. All we need to do is look around to see that most people carry their phones like an extra appendage. Even though they are sitting next to a friend or partner, they pick up their phones to text or read an email about future plans, which can begin to give the impression that what is on their phone is more important than the person they are actually with.

Controlling Our Reactions

For full disclosure, I have a difficult relationship with the present. As a way to cope through situations, I focused on the future. As a struggling student or a young person struggling to pay bills and put myself through college, I focused on how things would just be better in the future. As I look back, I missed some important lessons that only come from being present.

What I was really doing is trying to control the future because I felt out of control in the present. Over time, what I realized is that I needed to focus less on controlling my situation and focus more on how I controlled my reactions to my situations.

If you frequently read this blog, you will know that I engage in a daily practice of meditation. Over the years I have been engaging in meditation, I have become better at being present. That ability to be present has transferred into conversations with friends and loved ones. Instead of merely waiting for the next time I could speak, I have learned to listen much more intently.

In workshops, when I get asked questions, being present allows me to listen to the questions and make sure that I am present in the conversation, which helps me become better at answering and tying in the question to the rest of the day. I’m less concerned about what the future holds and feel more content about living in the moment and enjoying it.

In the End

Being present is not a groundbreaking thought. Three years ago, I wrote a blog focusing on how educators need mindfulness because their mental health may depend on it. Being present helps us connect with others in deeper ways and provides us with the space to ask better questions and listen more intently on the answers that we receive. Those conversations actually can help us gain an understanding of the needs of the people we are with, which will ultimately help them in the future.

But there is a much more important reason to be embedded in the present, and COVID provided us with this unfortunate but very real lesson. We never know when the last conversation we have with a friend or a loved one may be the last conversation we ever have with them. We don’t know if our trip to the mountains may be the last trip we take to the mountains.

So, focus on the goals of the future, but just don’t forget to focus on all of the great aspects around us during the present.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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