In one of Breaking Bad episodes, Walter White visits Jesse Pinkman to drop off his cash share. During this visit, Walter recalls their starting days of cooking meth in an old, barely-functioning RV, which nearly landed them in trouble several times. Jesse had a “whole system” of what to do in emergencies, like praying that the old, junk-of-hunk wouldn’t “crap out” on him at a red light. Jesse wonders why they didn’t just buy a new RV even though they had made enough money by that time. Walter explains this away with one word, “Inertia.”
In physics, inertia is described as any physical object's resistance to any change in its velocity. According to the Oxford dictionary, inertia is a tendency to do nothing or to remain unchanged. This is the word that comes to mind when I think about the current state of education. I am seeing inertia take over individuals and entities. After all, the entities are composed of individuals. If individuals are resistant to change, how can the systems at large change?
The COVID-19 pandemic forced most of us on the planet to rethink our ways. Just like inanimate objects, humans, too, need an external force to get them going again. For us, this external force came in the form of a pandemic. Some of us fought to accept the new reality. Some of us did nothing and hope that things will get back to normal after the virus is gone. Some of us chose or were forced to find new ways to adapt to the new situation.
When we went into lockdown first time in March of 2020, everyone in my locality was hopeful that we would be back to school by September 2020. After two weeks of lockdown, I requested learning materials from our preschool for my child. Some parents joined in to ask for virtual supports for at-home learning. Some parents saw the lockdown as an opportunity to spend more quality time with their children and advised others to take it easy. Pandemic or not, we have always made an effort to spend quality time with our children. My virtual learning request did not make some parents and teachers happy, but I knew that we were in this for a long run while others continued their wishful thinking. One of our children is on the spectrum and does well with structure and schedules. Not only children but adults also need some organization or a daily routine. For my children, the structure helps them feel less anxious. With schools closed, the world was already unpredictable. So more than anything, the children needed some predictability to lower their anxiety. Keeping a routine during the pandemic has also reduced my anxiety as a parent. Why was it so difficult for some of us to accept and adapt to the new situation while others remained in a stupor?
I saw people come up with innovative ways to deal with the pandemic while others refused to change their behaviors even in the face of death. When the medical-grade masks were in shortage, the sewing machine army went to work. When indoor dining became impossible, neighbors encouraged take-outs from local restaurants to prevent them from going out of business. When vaccine appointments were hard to schedule, vaccine hunters secured slots for those who did not have time to sit in front of computers for hours.
Despite things being difficult, I saw people adopt new routines and seek new solutions to everyday problems. Yet, some entities have chosen to drag their feet. During this pandemic, many school districts across the country have taken this stance. They either chose to do nothing or kept extending the timeline for return to in-person learning. They hoped that the pandemic would magically go away, and they restart once the world was back to normal. Children all over the country have lost learning opportunities because of this wishful thinking. I know a few teachers who are encouraging return to the classroom, but for the most part, schools do not want to take the risk.
I recently ran into a special needs teacher who has found a new level of comfort of working from home during the pandemic. She is hoping to continue teaching from home for as long as she is allowed, despite being vaccinated. She did not feel that in-person learning would make much difference for most of the students. She thought that in-person learning might help special needs students but not the rest of the children. Even though she feels this, she would prefer to continue virtual teaching to her special needs students because she is worried that her students will refuse to wear masks in the classroom. She is worried that the children she works with have behavior challenges and will refuse to follow COVID safety measures. She had worked with these children before the pandemic, and they had the same challenges before, so what is so different now? Would the behavior change strategies to teach special needs students before the pandemic not apply to the post-pandemic situations? If they don’t apply anymore, should they be updated or modified?
The teacher had listed all the problems and reasons why she did not want to return to the classroom despite being vaccinated. However, she did not go one step further to propose any solutions. Maybe she had other reasons for remaining virtual; however, I continue to learn about other teachers who, despite being vaccinated, plan to stay virtual while their students return to in-person learning.
Like Walter White, I feel that inertia is at play here. We can learn to think differently. We can outline multiple solutions to a problem. We can adapt and evolve, but more and more, it seems that we need an outside force or a little push to help us out of our inertia. Let’s not stay stuck anymore. If we are in charge of teaching the next generation, we have to be just as much resilient as they are.
Please know that I do not mean any disrespect to educators. I understand that the teaching profession is not easy. The factory model of the current education system makes it difficult. While I hope that we can improve the entire education system, it may not happen overnight. In the meantime, we still have students who rely on us, looking to us for guidance, leadership, and most importantly, reassurance in a time of crisis.
My great-great-grandfather was a teacher. In the 1950s, he found innovative ways to teach his children and his grandchildren. I never met him in person, but I know he was a gentle teacher and always pushed boundaries to help his students. Some of his students learned English from him and were early migrants to western countries. Though he never had a chance to travel out of his home country, his students found new opportunities in faraway lands with the language he taught them.
When I first migrated to the US, I had an ESL teacher like my great-great-grandfather. She taught a new language that opened many doors for me. I had another wonderful teacher in high school, and he believed in me so much. Despite my low self-esteem, he recognized my potential. He is the reason I became an engineer. These teachers showed me the way when my parents were unable to.
I try to imagine what it is like for the kids right now, trying to learn virtually. Technology is certainly helpful during these times. Our school district tried its best to provide Chromebooks and internet access to every student; however, it is nothing like in-person learning. I have taught students both in-person and virtually. As an instructor, I found it more rewarding to teach in-person. Every time my students understood the concept, they became more confident and less afraid. Many students are suffering right now. They feel less capable and more frustrated than ever. They need not only teachers but entire communities to lift them and give them hope.
I am planning small-group outdoor homework help sessions in nearby parks and even in my driveway. I can do it easily on Zoom, but I don’t enjoy it as much as I enjoy teaching in person. And I know that my students find this helpful as well. There are so many professionals in the communities who can provide such supports to the students in their local areas. Passing on your knowledge feels very rewarding. It helps students gain control of their learning. And most importantly, it will help reduce the load on the teachers and the education system.
Remember, we need a little nudge to get us out of our inertia. Just one person taking the initiative will motivate many to follow. Let’s get started. Let’s not wait for someone to rescue us. We can rescue ourselves.