The teachable moment is a term much used and loved by all teachers. It refers to an often unexpected moment in our classrooms when events and personalities coalesce to present the teacher with the perfect set of circumstances for teaching kids an important lesson. Usually that lesson has more to do with life skills or ethical and social issues than it does with solving a math problem or understanding a literary text. Only sometimes does the lesson relate to the subject matter being taught. Like when I was teaching a science fiction novel set in a totalitarian society the year of the Tiananmen Square massacre. But I talked about that particular teachable moment in an earlier post, so I won’t go there again.

Normally teachable moments don’t come along every day… except this year. This year these often rare moments seem to be presenting themselves every week. In fact, 2020 has been one big teachable moment. And not just for kids, but for all of us.

Three friends walking in our masks.

I mean, look at what the pandemic has taught us. Not just about virology and the spread of disease. Or how long aerosol droplets can hang in the air, and the importance of hand-washing. But about the value of science. And, if we’ve been paying attention, how science really works. That it’s not a hard and fast set of answers. But a series of questions, of hypotheses, of finding evidence, drawing conclusions, finding more evidence, and then altering those conclusions. We’ve watched the body of knowledge about the novel coronavirus and how it works grow week by week before our eyes. I’ve long understood the scientific method and taught it to grade nines. But I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed such a perfect real life demonstration of how science works, let alone on the nightly news.

We’ve learned the importance of political leaders being able to work together. Leaders on the right and the left, and in every level of government. When our leaders put aside their differences, problems can be solved. When they let partisan politics get in the way, things can get very bad indeed. I think all Canadians should be pleased at how our provincial governments and federal governments have worked together this year to solve problems. That doesn’t mean they’ve done everything right. But I know that hearing our right-wing Premier in Ontario praise our left-wing Prime Minister kind of warmed the cockles of my little political heart. Doesn’t mean I’m going to vote for one or the other in the next election, just that who I vote for isn’t important right now.

The other day, I listened to Michael Unger, a researcher in the field of social and psychological resilience, speak on CBC radio. He talked about how the pandemic provides parents the opportunity to teach resiliency to their children. How teaching kids to cope with adversity involves pushing them past their comfort zone and then providing them with the resources to solve the problem. He called this the “parentification” of kids. And said that asking kids to help with chores, giving them more responsibility during this time of greater stress on families is not a bad thing. That creating a “fairy tale world” for our kids doesn’t help them to grow. The interviewer sighed with relief at this. She said she felt guilty because, while working from home, she had begun to ask her kids to do more than she ever had. And Unger had assuaged her fears.

But I guess the biggest lesson we all should be learning during the pandemic is the importance of thinking not just of ourselves, but of those around us. The idea that we are a small cog in a very big wheel, and that our actions (or inaction) can have major, and often devastating effects on others. Oh, I know this all sounds obvious. But why are we wearing masks if not to try to be part of the solution, instead of the problem? Why are we making sacrifices, like staying home more, not travelling, not visiting loved ones who live far away, even at Christmas or Thanksgiving, if not to try to stop the spread of Covid-19? To try to give our health care system a fighting chance? To give others in our society a fighting chance?

So when I see a mum and her daughter in front of me at the grocery store check-out, both in masks. And that little girl sees me in my mask, and others in the line-up behind me in theirs, I think what a valuable lesson this child is learning. Of course masks are scratchy, and awkward, and annoying, and I don’t want to wear one. Who would? But I do wear one. And I hope the mum is telling her daughter that she wears her mask to protect me, and the elderly man behind me. And vice versa.

Not all the teachable moments this year have been as a result of the pandemic. This afternoon while I was writing this post, I listened to the CBC noon-hour call-in show. The guest was Hugh Segal, a well-known and well-respected Canadian academic, long-time Conservative party member, and former university professor. Hubby thinks very highly of him and so do I. Segal is what they call a “red tory.” A moderate conservative whose views are very much at odds with neo-conservative ideology. Today Segal was talking about the importance of being a good loser in politics.

Now I’m sure I don’t have to tell you how listening to that particular show was a teachable moment. How lovely it was to be listening to an objective view, a historical view, an educated and dispassionate view of how to lose gracefully in politics. Segal praised losing (and winning) party leaders from both sides of the Canadian political spectrum, and criticized others whom, as a conservative, you might expect him to praise. Seriously folks, we need more people like Hugh Segal in government. I can’t help thinking that the students who came under his influence were pretty lucky.

There have been so many other teachable moments this year. The Black Lives Matter protests. The tragic events which sparked them, and the ensuing outpouring of emotion. The lessons we all learned, and are continuing to learn, about history, and racism, and anti-racism. Lessons that I hope we all remember.

Remembrance Day 2015. A teachable moment for kids.
Remembrance Day 2015. Photo by Arlene Angel-Blair.

So, tomorrow is Remembrance Day. Remembrance Day has always been a big teachable moment. For my classes when I was still teaching, for our school, and I’m sure for most schools. The memories of working with staff and students to produce our school’s event, for it was far more than a simple assembly, will always be close to my heart. And the lessons my students learned when they researched and wrote about real-life soldiers, and wars, and sacrifice will hopefully stay with them their whole lives.

But, you know, oddly enough, on this Remembrance Day it’s not the sacrifices made in war that I’m remembering. My thoughts are with the people whose lives have been adversely affected by the events of 2020. And all the sacrifices made by so many. Let’s not forget those.

Yep. 2020 has been one big teachable moment. I guess adversity and change always do produce teachable moments. At least that’s one way of looking at this very odd year. Of seeing how good can come from bad. Or is that too Pollyanna-ish even for me?

P.S. I try really hard to NOT get political on the blog. Sometimes it’s hard not to go there because, of course, I do have political opinions, and a political ideology. I feel strongly about the role that governments should play. I have never, ever NOT voted in an election. Not since I was eighteen and eligible to vote. But I also believe that others have the right to their political convictions which may be at odds with mine. I respect that, and expect to have my views respected in return. I just wanted to say that. If you want to make a politically motivated comment, feel free. But please don’t lecture me or other readers. Okay?


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36 thoughts on “When the Whole Year Is a Teachable Moment”

  1. What a lovely and thoughtful post. As a recently retired US political science professor I can echo your statement that this year has been full of teachable moments, and that we need more leaders (especially in the US) who will help us work through these difficult times. This year has been full of highs and lows. People looking out for each other and fighting for justice and a better world, and others who want to deny science and injustice and think only about themselves. My hope is that we have turned the corner in the US toward a brighter future in which science, collaboration and respect for each other finally play a role.

  2. A wonderful post. Yes, mask wearing signals to others that it’s the right thing to do. The same with not littering, or obeying traffic rules, or holding open doors or letting someone with only two items cut ahead in line. A lot of people do things because everybody else is.
    Re what we’re learning about COVID, I fear it’s never going away. A relative who had it in spring has it a second time, worse–to the point of going to the ER because of chest pain. He said the doctors told him they are seeing more repeat cases, that immunity lasts only a few months.

  3. Well, hurrah. I was musing on resilience only this morning as I strolled back from work. Resilience, tenacity and objectivity. These three attitudes are what we need right now but the world just seems to be screaming Me! Look at Me! I’m finding this hard! No shit, Sherlock. Join the (masked) queue.
    I read up on the science of the pandemic quite a lot, to stay informed. It can be alarming but not nearly as alarming as the mad theories going around. It’s a virus, very successful, highly adaptable, it’s going nowhere and we must shift with it, hard as that seems. I envy you your country’s attitude and efforts. Not so here. Thanks for the breath of reason and the moderate tone.

    1. Resilience is such a necessary and unappreciated quality. And how many times did we fight for the right of students to fail when we were teaching? Sigh.

  4. โ€œHow lovely it was to be listening to an objective view, a historical view, an educated and dispassionate view….โ€. Yes! How I yearn for more of this in our world and especially here in the United States.

    1. I agree with you wholeheartedly. Since you said that so well, I choose not to add anything but my thanks, to you and to Sue.

  5. Love this post. As an earlier commenter said, we can certainly use a more thoughtful, considered, and compassionate tone in our leadership in the U.S. But change is afoot here – exciting news about a vaccine and new possibilities with an experienced and open-minded new president. Though it may be a bumpy ride through the process, we are at least in motion. So glad to have you, keen observer that you are, on the lookout for teachable moments that ease our way, wherever we may be.

  6. Thank you for articulating your sane perspective. What is happening here in the US is baffling, heartbreaking, and dangerous to our democracy.

  7. I have to agree with everyone else here . You have got the tone just right again . I wonder how the youngsters will remember this strange period in years to come . Will it be a time of worry or fun & freedom ?
    Youโ€™ve built up a great group of commenters here Sue – a reflection of your thoughtful, personal posts .

  8. Thank you Sue for this ever so thoughtful post. The perfect tone. I feel so fortunate to be a Canadian. We are not perfect, but most of us try to do the right think, even though we sometimes donโ€™t always succeed.

  9. Having just discovered your blog last week, and being a US resident/citizen, I wholly agree on the importance of: kindness, personal responsibility, respectful discourse, voting, compassion, wearing masks, quarantining, being guided by scientific expertise, and eradicating racism. Thank you for emphasizing this is LIFE! We must roll with the myriad punches it throws our way, cope, and learn. It breaks my heart our current president has so little regard for what is important.

      1. Indeed- we certainly reached new pinnacles of learning, all while dodging those prickly points! A little peaceful respite is needed now.

        Love your fashion sense! My pandemic project has been “Embrace The Grey” as I turned 67 and stopped coloring my hair. COVID quarantine is perfect for the not pretty transition process plus an edgy pixie cut to hasten the big change. I updated my entire wardrobe to enhance my new silvery ‘do and green eyes. Vowing to reduce my wardrobe by half and INTENTIONALLY wearing all of it became my mantra. The day I discovered your blog, you wrote of this very subject!

  10. Teachable moments indeed,for us all and for me personally,sometimes I have to pinch myself,thinking it must be a nightmare,not a reality. Thoughtful post,as always
    Take care,all of you

    1. I think in a year or two we won’t be able to believe that some of the 2020 moments actually happened. At least the political ones. 2020 has for you been extremely challenging, I think. Take care of yourself, too, my friend. We so appreciate your presence here.

  11. Love your post, Sue. As a teacher, I also remember the wonderful Remembrance Day ceremonies at our school. They filled all of us with sorrow for the sacrifices made and pride in our people. At the ceremony there would be hundreds of teenagers and you could hear a pin drop. We are going through a terrible time, but the upside may be a revived interest in the importance of compassion, sacrifice, knowledge, truth, and democracy.

  12. thank you for this post and for your handling of politics at this time. so many bloggers are happily chatting away about clothes or whatever and trying to pretend that everything is normal. while i am all for distraction it is important to acknowledge the seriousness of the times we are living through

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