The Mile: A School Superintendent's Thoughts on Distance Learning by Erik Burmeister

Updated: Sep 26

Originally published in Erik's "Sup's On" blog for the Menlo Park City School District.


A contentious election season, a struggling economy, a stubborn pandemic, rising COVID case rates, closed classrooms, more hours on a computer screen. As if that weren’t enough, we’ve now added devastating fires and suffocating air quality to the mix. Exhausting. Hard. Deflating.  


Last spring, I was given some great advice early on in the pandemic. The advice was from a marathon runner who said, “Run the mile you’re in.” This advice has gotten me through some of the most challenging times of the last six months. I offer it to you because I think it might also help you. 

If I have learned anything since March 11 of this year, it’s that I can’t put my confidence that what is true today will be true tomorrow. I’ve learned to better roll with the punches.

To be fair, I am not a marathon runner; I only run if someone is chasing me. However, I must imagine that in the midst of the most difficult miles, runners intuitively know and find comfort in the truth that the race is only 26.2 miles and will have an end. At some point, the grueling nature of the run will be over and they will feel a meaningful sense of accomplishment. And so it is for COVID. So it is for Distance Learning. So it is for masks, and social distancing, and temperature checks. This, too, will pass. There will be grueling miles, but someday we will look at our situation in retrospect. Let that knowledge that there will be an end to this provide you comfort and stamina when you need it most. 


As I see it, there are three important ingredients that are essential to our ability to thrive amidst the challenges and run the race ahead of us. The first is flexibility. We must all, even those of us for whom change is hard or for whom “planner” is our middle name, remain nimble amidst the changing guidance, policies, and health conditions. If I have learned anything since March 11 of this year, it’s that I can’t put my confidence that what is true today will be true tomorrow. I’ve learned to better roll with the punches. My flexible mindset has allowed me to lead through these challenging times and I think it will assist you, as well. 

If this crisis passes and our families look exactly the same as they did before or our schools and communities look exactly as they did pre-COVID, then I believe we will have missed the biggest opportunity we’ve ever been given to do better and be better.

The second essential ingredient for this year is creativity. For many of us, it’s not often that something comes our way that shakes our routines, perspectives, plans, and expectations to the core. I think this moment will call for a fundamental shift in how we frame our challenges and opportunities. Lessons will need to look different. House rules may need to adjust. More time may need to be taken to name and process emotions. We may need to take more breaks, say sorry more often, admit we don’t have all the answers. Our expectations for what can be accomplished in a finite amount of time may need to adjust. However, perspective is everything. It’s also in moments like these that our creativity can blossom. Maybe this is the season to take some risks, to try things our gut told us was best for kids, but maybe we were too afraid to test it out. Maybe now is the right time to connect with our children and our students more as people. We can and should use this historical moment in which we find ourselves AS the lesson or the teachable moment. If this crisis passes and our families look exactly the same as they did before or our schools and communities look exactly as they did pre-COVID, then I believe we will have missed the biggest opportunity we’ve ever been given to do better and be better. I encourage you to be creative this year. 


And the last essential ingredient for a successful year this year is self care. Never has it been more important for us to care for our own physical, emotional, and mental health. We cannot be what our families, friends, coworkers and communities need if we are not finding ways to be whole ourselves. In my mind, this will require each of us to do three very specific things: schedule time for our own wellness, seek support from others and be a support for others, and offer grace without reservation. 

We have a long 26.2 miles ahead of us, but we are focused right now on the first one.

We are living through a time when most of us find ourselves moving in and out of emotionally dysregulated states of being. MPCSD has been diving deeper into the work of the Yale Center on Emotional Intelligence, and particularly the RULER method of social emotional learning. If you haven’t already, consider picking up Dr. Marc Brackett’s new book, Permission to Feel. You’ll thank me for it. 


While better understanding emotions and becoming emotional scientists will assist us in developing the social emotional skills of our young people, it’s also a particularly helpful frame for the times in which we live. People are scared. They are feeling insecure. There is so much unknown. It’s a time ripe for misunderstanding. We can better teach, parent, and support into these unsettling feelings when we take the time to help ourselves feel settled. Take care of yourself so you can take care of others. 


We have a long 26.2 miles ahead of us, but we are focused right now on the first one. We are warmed up, stretched, and ready to go as soon as that buzzer sounds. Together--teachers, support staff, parents, and neighbors--we got this. Have a great first day of school!


Erik Burmeister has served as Superintendent of Menlo Park City School District since 2017. He holds a Master’s Degree in Educational Policy Analysis from Stanford University. Erik was named Middle Grades Principal of the Year for the Association of California School Administrators, one of three finalists for NASSP National Principal of the Year, and Multiplier of the Year in Education by the Wiseman Group. In partnership with Stanford Design School, Erik is a leader in applying design and innovation strategies to solve a variety of education challenges.


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