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When My Heart Dropped

Last week I was privileged to sit in on a meeting with education administrators. What they have in common is that they are new in their position: brand new administrators or experienced folks that are in a new position or are newcomers to the district. Both individually and collectively, they represent the promise of expertise that will take the mantel of leadership into the next generation.

What was revealing about this particular gathering was the permission granted by the facilitator to communicate their “gut.” What were they feeling? What were they observing? What challenges were they facing? It was, in every way, both a sobering and exhilarating experience to hear their honesty, candor and insights.

There was a nearly unanimous celebration among the school-based leaders that kids were finally in their buildings. Following thirteen months of shuttered schools and a reliance on remote instruction, the emergence of a hybrid model offers a glimpse of what we all hope may be on the near horizon - full time, in-person instruction. Having spent my entire career in the noisy, boisterous and exuberant climates of school buildings, I can easily imagine how welcome the sound of student voices must be, supplanting the echoes of vacant corridors.

One of the participants spoke eloquently of her appreciation toward her teachers. She acknowledged the tremendous challenges they faced trying to offer meaningful instruction while building relationships with kids during remote learning; challenges that this principal offered accolades for both their efforts and their effectiveness. She went on to marvel at the skill, energy and expertise she is observing as teachers resume in-person instruction. She reported satisfaction in seeing their genuine pleasure and passion for the work (I’m paraphrasing here) as they resume teaching the way they always have.

That’s when my heart dropped.

Let me be clear. I honor teachers and revere their work. And I am genuinely pleased if they are experiencing a measure of comfort in getting reacquainted with the familiar. But, if we are satisfied with the resumption of teaching the way it’s always been, we have missed the lessons offered by the pandemic and the opportunity to, quoting President Biden, “build back better.”

The past year has pulled back the veil on practices, attitudes and shortcomings of pre-pandemic schooling. If we’re totally honest, we would admit to a long list of issues that needed to be attended to, but for unstable funding, political agendas, mandates that promote standardization, an over reliance on testing and other distractions that suck up the available energy - leaving little time or resources for some of the more substantial and difficult issues. We have known for a long time that zip codes determine opportunity and that inequity runs rampant in school systems across the country. And, we have recent evidence that proves that many of our assumptions and practices work to disadvantage children of color. If we merely look at these issues, but fail to see them for the weight they posses, and fail to act appropriately, we have missed the boat. (Please see last week's post.)

If we care enough to listen, kids will tell us that much of what they experience in school lacks relevance and stifles their creativity and curtails their pursuit of things they are curious about. If we look around and truly see what is before us, we’ll recognize that schools look and behave today much as they did fifty, seventy-five or a hundred years ago. We cling to the practices we know and are comfortable with. And, we expect that students forced to occupy our classrooms will simply comply and make do with what is offered.

For the last four years I have been pleading to reign our system of public education into the realities of the 21st century. Still, twenty-one years into it, we hang on to the past. That was true long before the pandemic forced our attention. And, it will definitely be true post-pandemic. Despite what we wish or hope for, we are not going to “return to normal.” The notion of “normal” moving forward is yet to be defined. That could be a good thing if we take the bull by its horns and strive to replace the status quo with something better.

Let me clarify why my heart dropped upon hearing satisfaction that teachers have resumed teaching as they always have. My heart dropped because this observation, no matter how comforting, is adult focused. That may be the fundamental flaw in the way we have, and continue to, operate American schools. Our schools exist to serve children, not adults. Unless, and until, we come to grips with this, the meaningful and contemporary education of our children may be in peril.

Teachers must teach content that children need to understand and will use, not what adults prefer to teach. Teachers need to organize their instruction to meet the needs of their students, not merely to satisfy their personal or professional preferences.

I am not dissing on teachers. As I stated previously, I respect them and the challenges of their work, and I contend that the vast majority of them strive to see their students enjoy the aura of success. That said, I do think we need to be deliberate in polishing the correct side of the coin - the kid’s side.

I, too, can celebrate that teachers are resuming their preferred practices and teaching as they have previously IF the student side is also evident: that the kids in the room are thriving, they’re questioning and thinking, they’re creative, they’re growing and become increasingly confident in their abilities and the satisfaction of their interests. If the needs of all kids in the room are being nourished in a child-centered classroom, as opposed to an adult dominated one, I, too, can celebrate the return to in-person instruction and learning.

It’s the education kids deserve.


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