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Uncategorized   |   Jun 18, 2023

Emerging from the fog of our pandemic school years to look toward a true reimagining of education

By Kyair Butts

Emerging from the fog of our pandemic school years to look toward a true reimagining of education

By Kyair Butts

Teachers are coming out of the fog that has blinded and consumed education for the past two or so years. This wretched “covid state” finds teachers almost permanently in the disillusionment phase often prescribed to first-year teachers in the winter months.

Yet, here we are washed down by the gulfs, touching the happy isles and while we are not exhibiting the same strength before the pandemic, we can still move heaven and earth to do our jobs. Maybe Alred Lord Tennyson was onto something – our strength cannot yield, our passion cannot buckle – “that which we are, we are.” We are change. We need to be disruption.

As we plot a course of action, we need systems to cease being those very gulfs that Tennyson mentions in “Ulysses” because we find ourselves once strong and triumphant, now beaten, broken, withered, and battered. We are, however, ready for change. There’s a reason so many teachers are leaving the profession — read the news, listen to the conversations. Change and disruption can stem our losses.

Consider some of the research conducted by McKinsey & Company when they found, “The pandemic widened preexisting opportunity and achievement gaps, hitting historically disadvantaged students hardest. In math, students in majority Black schools ended the year with six months of unfinished learning, students in low-income schools with seven.” Pause for a second and consider this information.

Consider the true affront to education that happened when learning was interrupted. Deficit thinking maintains that our kids, especially our kids of color cannot recover from this pandemic. I reject that thinking. Our kids come to us with brilliance, magic, and desire. There is so much capital they come to us with — even after the pandemic, however, there is work to be done.

When factoring in issues of access, opportunity, and technology equity, it could be said that there are some students who were and are still reeling from the effects of the pandemic. This is not a student problem. Let me be clear here, while the pandemic is of no blame to any one person or group in education, moving on from its effects is an adult problem to solve, it’s a district problem to acknowledge, and a state/federal problem to invest in for the future. Anything short of acknowledging, planning, investing, and reimaging is consigning to being a complicit actor in the miseducation of thousands.

There was some hope that the pandemic would give pause then rise to an almost Renaissance of rebirth and reimagination of what education could be as opposed to what it had been. Looking forward with new hope and no longer stuck looking back wishing what could have been. Virtual learning was tough, yes, but it afforded so many of us from teachers to other education staff to those in district offices to truly rethink the “brick and mortar” approach, to ask tough questions such as: Who is left behind? How can we redesign more equitably? Virtual was the pause we desperately needed to take a breath, think, disrupt, change.

The question now becomes: How do we move from disillusionment to true reinvention? How can teachers find that former strength which in the past has moved heaven and earth? We do right by kids and their families day after day, year after year, but when will the moment come for the system to do right by teachers?

Business as usual has hurt black and brown students, left those with disabilities and special needs behind and yet we are told to march and soldier on. A major disruption is needed to heed the call of new. So where and when does it begin?

The research is pretty clear again in areas where we can improve, rethink, and ultimately shake things up. McKiney & Company go on to say, “Students didn’t just lose academic learning during the pandemic. Some lost family members; others had caregivers who lost their jobs and sources of income; and almost all experienced social isolation. These pressures have taken a toll on students of all ages. In our recent survey of 16,370 parents across every state in America, 35 percent of parents said they were very or extremely concerned about their child’s mental health…”

Our next steps are clear if we are brave enough to stop, name, replace the existing, and do something bold for once. There is a difference between helping students process their mental health and providing resources versus a school having a social-emotional learning (SEL) program, but no one trained to implement the program, follow up with teachers, families or help students. At that point, our programs are no more than lip-service to make us feel better so we can continue our complicity. This leads me to argue what McKiney & Company also agree with, “Beyond these foundational elements, districts may consider reimagining other aspects of the system.”

Teachers, leaders, and families need to come together and understand the trauma of the last two-plus years. Deep healing and coping have not been fully processed by children or adults. Mental health needs to be at the front of any disruptive charge or change to education. Further, teachers should be empowered with high-quality instructional materials that invite students in to learn. Teachers need high-quality professional development to refine their skills and begin to interrogate their own biases to make them more critically conscious and aware.

The school day itself needs to be structured around being aware of time (time to learn, time to plan, time to heal, etc.). Schools and districts should also design with inverse thinking: how can we design with an equity lens, an anti-racist lens? This equity lens by design can change an entire building when we design with universal design principles, special education tenets because we know these can raise all boats and prioritize some of the most left behind groups. The list goes on, but this is just the beginning to what kinetic disruption could be. At present, we are living with potential … just waiting for that push.

In life, we have these “remember when” moments. Wouldn’t it be great to ask the collective, remember when education did something bold? Our moment is now, lest the gulfs wash us down and we see no happy isles and we no longer can move heaven or earth. We can do this. We must do this because we are, that which we are and WE are teachers. WE change lives. WE make things possible. The call is now, will you pick up?

McKinsey & Company Covid Education Research

Kyair Butts

Kyair was the 2019 Teacher of the Year for Baltimore City Public Schools. His work has included curriculum development with a diversity, equity, inclusion lens and has facilitated equity conversations for schools and districts. Kyair also leads content professional development...
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