When Human Life is Quiet, We Can Hear What’s Important

May 26, 2020

I listen to NPR frequently in the mornings (self-confession of a middle-aged woman). One story in particular this week pointed out something I have been noticing lately—it sounds like my neighborhood birds have multiplied and found microphones. During the past eight (gulp) weeks of hunkering down at home, the songbirds in my small Massachusetts town are in full force and not practicing social distancing—but chirping loudly, early, and in a beautifully large symphonic nature. 

People are noticing this phenomenon in more places than my sleepy little New England town. In one call with a colleague in New York City, he had to mute his mic due to the avian cacophony. He replied that he had never really heard birds before, but now they made it difficult to video-conference from his rooftop patio (yes, a first world problem). A post on Facebook from a friend in Estonia stated how she had never heard so many birds, and one of my former graduate students who lives abroad in a large metropolitan area noted the same thing.

This NPR story highlighted that my colleagues and I are not the only ones noticing this; it’s a worldwide trend. Here’s the research and reason behind it: it’s not that the birds are louder, in greater numbers, or even that they are coming out in a braver fashion since human bodies are scarce. It’s that there is less human noise to cover up their melodic chirping—as the NPR piece pointed out, human life is remarkably quieter.

As I listened to the story, my ears pricked up. I heard a direct parallel to what is happening in public education with teachers.

Here’s what I’ve noticed: It seems like everyone is suddenly attuned to what teachers really do and how hard teaching really is. Parents are posting funny memes about the trials and tribulations of “homeschooling,” honest journal-like Facebook entries outline the complexities of teaching math, pleas for virtual educator support are popping up. Heck—even alcohol sales are through the roof (which I would attribute to parents due to my friends’ posts on Facebook and Instagram). One of my favorite photos that is going viral highlights this as well:

It seems like the whole nation is suddenly beginning to catch a glimpse into the hard work teachers put in every day. Now that kids are at home sharing a learning space with their caregivers at the same kitchen table, the world can hear a tiny bit more about what teachers really do.

Just like the birds, the bustle of human life has quieted down so we can hear the complexities of learning and teaching. In my own house, where both my husband and I are former elementary school teachers, I am struggling to feel good about how we are supporting my four teenage stepchildren with their schoolwork. In addition, there are so many things that I am noticing due to the quieter pace of our life. A few highlights: The value of the teacher-student relationship has become evident by the way my stepson lights up when talking to one of his teachers, changing his mood for the rest of the day. The complexity of learning has surfaced in the way choice has become a big part of motivation, and realizing how hard it is to let go of control with learning as a teacher. The depth of content knowledge has emerged front and center, as I can’t recall the process and steps of transpiration and germination, nor the layers of complexity behind the novel The Giver. I see the value motivation has in the learning process (especially with teens who aren’t people pleasers), and how motivation can come to a halt when students no longer see any accountability to their learning or have choice in a learning pathway.

So my call to action to educators and to those who support educators now that we have a captive audience: 

How will we use this moment, when human life has quieted and the noise and busyness of life has subsided, to change the narrative around public education?

Megan Allen, NBCT

Megan M. Allen, NBCT, EdD, is the 2010 Florida Teacher of the Year and a finalist for the 2010 National Teacher of the Year. Megan most recently served as the Director of Partnerships for the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY) and is a Professor of Practice at Mount Holyoke College. She is a National Board Certified Teacher who has worked in several roles in education, including 9 years as an elementary school teacher in Florida. She was also the director of the Master of Arts in Teacher Leadership at Mount Holyoke College, where she envisioned, pitched, and developed two graduate level programs to support teachers across the world in their informal and formal leadership capacities. She is also proud to serve on the Board of Directors for the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. @redhdteacher