A couple of years ago, I got the chance to cash in on another grandparent benefit: my grandson Calvin’s weekend basketball game where I watched a bevy of 10-year-olds dribble up and down the court like those small shore birds running back and forth with the tide. While this was pure pleasure, I also had my eye on the father-coach who seemed to me overly charged, overly critical and underly aware that his players stood at best five feet tall and only if standing on their tippy toes. Turning to my son-in-law, both a teacher and a coach himself, I questioned what I was seeing. “It’s OK, Mimi,” he answered. “I’m watching, too, just to make sure that Calvin doesn’t start playing not to make a mistake.”
This reminds me of what Coni Fichera, our Athletic Director, tells our athletes, “the team that makes the most mistakes wins.” And this story has, of course, an academic partnership as well as a “Not just for school but for life” one. Controlling for mistake-making removes perhaps the most important tool for all learning: trying something that may not be “right,” experimenting with options and taking appropriate risks. How can you broaden the landscape without moving into dark corners while feeling for the light switch? Actually, you can’t.
Eric Zahler, our Director of Teaching and Learning, speaks about this important balance emphatically. Describing this tension between learning and making mistakes, Eric comments on the importance of productive struggles in learning, ones in which we, as teachers, offer good and many challenges but not impossible ones. As in athletics, where there is always the next game, frequent low-stakes learning opportunities to make mistakes can make all the difference. And then there’s practice, practice, practice. Again, as Eric shares with us, learning calls for repeated opportunities to hone new learning while still reaching for that next level of understanding, all with a freedom to make some mistakes. No wonder the word “coach” has expanded to capture teaching and learning beyond the court, beyond the field.
And it’s easy to move these important pieces of learning into our COVID lives. Our current world is a place where “normal” fails and control is a myth. But it is also a land calling for a sustained resilience that is far from staged, far from artificial, making it the very gift in our daily lives, even if uninvited. Because we have no choice in all of this, we have no opportunity to surrender, and…well…we just have to make it work, even without the comfort of familiar contours within our days. And this everyday resilience moves us into growth and innovation like nothing that has come before. I recently heard Dr. Stephen Mak, our History Department Chair, say, “First I learned to be a good teacher; then I learned to be a good remote teacher, and now I’m learning how to be a good hybrid teacher.” Emphasis on that word: learning.
In our halls, in our classrooms and in our homes, I see both resilience and innovation every day. I see a school balancing learning between in-person and remote, a school that has hired an army of wonderful teaching aides who keep us safe while both metaphorically and literally keeping us all going up the up stairways only. I watch our COVID Command Team, our Board Virus Task Force and our Physicians Consulting Team take one question after another as every new and different COVID situation has us in new lands. And I watch parents live with different schedules, different buildings and different ways to manage parenting through everything from 6-feet distancing to how to quarantine with a 7-year-old who feels perfectly fine. And I also see the two proud seniors riding the two-person only elevator. I witness the Lower School children take over 91st and 93rd Streets for recess, running with a new sense of streetwise. I see the new ninth grader who is on double-duty, learning about a new school while making new friends, all masked. I watch the unimaginable scale of us all making a new way of being our everyday.
So back to that athletic analogy. When interviewing for a new Department Chair of Physical Education, one candidate spoke about what he says after mistakes were made. He calls out, “Next play, next play.” Not a bad mantra for us all because right around the corner in our land of athletics, learning and COVID life, we recognize what it takes to keep moving forward. Next play, next play.