December 24, 2020 The year 2020 has been a remarkable and incredibly challenging time to be an educator. It has been characterized by so much loss on a collective, global, and individual level. The world we once “knew” has changed indelibly. As educators, the feeling of sadness that so many of us have felt for not being able to hold space for our students in a physical capacity has been palpable and heartbreaking. However, this time has also been a remarkable and pivotal moment; we have an opportunity to make history by reconceptualizing what education in the 21st century means and looks like from both a professional standpoint and the student experience.
Despite all that is possible moving forward from this period of change, inequalities in education have been exacerbated and brought to light this past year. At least twenty percent of elementary-school-aged children lack consistent and reliable access to high-speed internet. This has rendered them unable to access school, a right promised to them through generations and generations of educational reform. This reality forces us to see, quite poignantly, that despite the miracle of Zoom enabling educators to bring schooling to many children’s homes, very little has changed over the years with regard to equity and schooling in the United States. There is much work to be done.
In so many ways, the challenges associated with moving an entire generation of in-person school children to online learning have made it clear that the in-person practices that we have relied upon for generations are not serving our students well. This is particularly true when it comes to children from historically disenfranchised groups. As an educational leader committed to social justice, I am thrilled about the potential to reshape old schemas and beliefs about what curriculum, assessment, and educator-student interaction look like in schools henceforth. Relationship-driven teaching, trauma-informed praxis, finding love and curiosity for learning, cultivating individual passions, fostering feelings of belonging and empowerment, normalizing counter-hegemonic narratives, and providing student choice in assessment have all come into extreme focus during this truly remarkable time. When it comes to my own practices as an educator, I acknowledge first and foremost my own “unfinishedness,” a concept immortalized by Paolo Freire. The humble knowledge that, as educators, we are never perfect at our craft is what drives educational change. To that end, it has never been easy to summarize the whole myriad of evolving beliefs and dispositions I bring to my work, especially during such a tumultuous and thought-provoking time. That said, some distinct themes have emerged from the conversations I have leaned into thoughtfully and compassionately over the past year, which I believe begin to paint a picture of the intersection of my pedagogy and thinking pertaining to social justice, marginality, equity, and reworking old narratives of teaching and learning that this pandemic have brought to light. They are as follows: first, that relationships and learning go hand-in-hand; second, attachment to colonizing curriculum and practices must be challenged and reformed; and third, learning and assessment (especially in a global pandemic) must embrace flexibility and embody research-based best practices related to memory, cognition, and neuroscience.
❋ Relationships and learning go hand-in-hand. When a student feels supported and safe, that student will be more willing to take academic risks. In order for both students and educators to grow and thrive in educational environments, students and their teachers must be encouraged to try new things, not just become skilled at doing things the way they have “always been done.” Feelings of belonging are pivotal. Schools and individual educators must do everything possible to encourage an inclusive culture of respect, collegiality, and civility inside and outside the classroom. It is also integral that faculty and students feel supported when raising their voices against injustices and normalized institutional practices of invalidation.
❋ This is particularly true when it comes to what and how we teach, and the value we place on specific narratives and practices within educational spaces. Attachment to colonizing curriculum and practices must be challenged and reformed. Open-heartedness and open-mindedness to learning from the perspectives of “others” is essential. Curriculum, instruction, and assessment must reflect that. Young people must be taught how to navigate through opinions and perspectives that they do not share, and be able to responsibly and respectfully articulate their own. Educators become stewards of social justice when they model sharing thoughts in a manner which ensures others will be willing to “remain at the (figurative) table” long enough to engage in a productive conversation. Modeling and allowing students to practice really listening and thoughtfully responding to one another is a central tenet in decolonizing educational praxis.
❋ Finally, a powerful lesson that has come from pandemic schooling is that students need to be able to demonstrate learning through varied and student-centered assessments. High student achievement is positively correlated to students encountering assessments that take their diverse strengths and interests into account. Learning and assessment (always, but especially in a global pandemic) must embrace flexibility and embody research-based best practices related to memory, cognition, and neuroscience. Humanizing, trauma-informed, student-centered practices are paramount in 21st century teaching and learning. In many conversations this year, I have pushed colleagues to investigate the “why” behind their curriculum and methodologies. I have asked them to be deeply honest about the end goals, and many of these conversations have been transformative with regard to how students are assessed and how success is measured. Attachment to content rather than student outcomes is commonly the culprit. Of course, this practice of finding “why” certainly relies on collaboration among colleagues, which has been adversely impacted this year. But, as a matter of faculty and administrative culture, administration should seek to support and empower faculty to utilize emancipatory teaching practices in their classrooms, supporting professional growth and development in this area whenever possible.
Education in this post-modern, post-pandemic, and consistently-changing world means we must fully embrace the lessons, experiences, and hard conversations this past year has brought to light. These are the conversations worth having, in order to ensure our respective institutions are places where equity, inclusion, and trauma-informed practices are realized and normalized. Our future depends on it.