For the past year, my mother-in-law, her sister, my wife, her brother, and various grandchildren have met weekly on Zoom. The banter is familiar, and occasionally someone holds court on a particular topic or news item. Most recently, Mare of Easttown was central to the conversation as the Philadelphia natives commented on the accents (mostly acceptable), Wawa, and notable landmarks. The conversation veered onto the Schuylkill expressway and why, after more than twenty years, many of the exit signs still include the former numbering system (to get to my wife’s childhood home, take ‘‘Exit 340A—old exit 32’). One would think that, two decades later, the citizens of the great state of Pennsylvania and the city of brotherly love would have picked up on the change and committed it to memory. Yes, we all hold onto plenty of “that’s where…lived” or “that’s where the...used to be,” but save for a moment of nostalgia, we move on.
If we aren’t careful, education can fall into this trap of nostalgia. It is often said that if someone woke up after having slept for a hundred years, the only industry that might look familiar would be education with remarkable consistency in classroom setup, modes of instruction, and the curriculum. Fads like ‘new math’ disrupted the conversation and subsequent teaching modalities, but they proved not to be ‘teacher-proof,’ and we doubled down on the tried-and-true approach of our past. This isn’t all bad, but the last year and a half challenged us to rethink our understanding of ‘school.’ The precarious balance between skills and content, synchronous (teacher driven) and asynchronous (student-driven) instruction, mental health, and experience was more evident than ever. What is essential? was our north star as we adjusted to the unfamiliar landscape of remote learning. Our sextant guided us and offered multiple pathways through the year as we changed course numerous times, voluntarily and involuntarily. Over time we learned that respecting the resilience of the human spirit was essential. Trusting our teachers was essential. Appreciating the weight of parenting was essential. Hearing our students’ laughter when they returned to campus was essential.
The highways and throughways that bring us together and transport us to new adventures are apt metaphors for the path forward. They will propel us on great journeys if we take the time to remember where we have been and what we have learned about ourselves and our community. Still, the roads will look familiar even though some of the signs have changed, and the paths they etch into our surroundings and psyche will be captivating as they steer us to embrace fresh experiences and perspectives. Of course, they will also lead us home to Babcock Field, which is where we will be this week to celebrate promotions and commencement—the place it has always been.