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Education Trends, Equity Resources, Mindset & Motivation, Truth for Teachers Collective   |   Feb 2, 2022

Forget “learning loss.” What we need most right now is healing.

By Gerardo Munoz

AP World History + Social Studies

Forget “learning loss.” What we need most right now is healing.

By Gerardo Munoz

I have a scar on my forehead.

It sits about an inch above the bridge of my nose, and about the same distance from my hairline. It’s dead center of my forehead, as if someone carefully placed it. It seems intentional.

I jokingly call it my “third eye” and I am told that it gives me character, makes my face memorable, makes me instantly recognizable in a crowd.

I remember very clearly how I got this scar. I was playing with my friends in front of my house in Denver’s East Side. My neighborhood had a mix of working-class and lower-middle-class families. As it is today, Denver was a profoundly segregated city. My neighborhood was predominantly African American, and it is my understanding that they moved into the city in a couple of different waves.

The initial wave, as I understand it was what we would come to know as Black Cowboys; the Bill Pickett rodeo originated in Colorado and prospectors, adventurers, and fortune-seekers after the Gold Rush, such as James Beckwourth. The iconic Black American West Museum, located in the house of Dr. Justina Ford, Colorado’s first Black woman doctor, bears witness to the rich history of African Americans in the west, and sits a quarter of a mile from my childhood home.

Across Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard is a predominantly Mexican and Mexican American neighborhood. I didn’t venture to that side, not out of fear or restriction, but habit. Segregation in Denver was such that even when the “No Dogs or Mexicans” signs came down, we minded the invisible fence around our spirits. My first friends at Mitchell Elementary lived on that side. Jaime and Maria, my two closest friends from ECE to Kindergarten, lived on that side. Tory and Domingo lived on my side.

It was dusk. If memory serves, it was summer. I remember those summers with a lot of fondness. A few of us from the block would meet up. I don’t know how this happens. I don’t remember my parents arranging “play dates” with other parents from the block. My parents both worked, so my younger sister and I were home alone most of the time, as was the case with our friends. We lived in an old Victorian house on the south end of Humboldt Street.

Next door were two men, Bob and Alan, who, as it turns out, were a couple. On the other side was Mrs. Moseley, an elderly woman who rarely smiled but somehow made me feel comfortable and safe. My friend Jacoby lived on our street, as did Carl and Amber. Their father, Carl, was a welder. He had this sweet Step-Van with a metalworked logo, “Carl Carter: The Metal Mender” on it. My guess is that he was self-employed. He might have been the coolest dad on the block. Whenever I saw him, he was wearing tight jeans, a t-shirt, and a vest. He always had a bandana around his neck, dark sunglasses the foretold Blue Blockers, and a motorcycle cap to go with a million-dollar smile.

In the summer, we basically ran around, hung out on each other’s porches and in each other’s front yards. It was actually rare that we ever entered the home of a friend. Our world was outside, sidewalks, asphalt basketball courts, and crab-grass on the parking.

We were chasing each other around as the sun began to set. I don’t know what game we were playing. Tag? Or were we just being free? Someone pushed me from behind, or maybe I tripped, or maybe I was an awkward skinny kid with a big head that lost his balance, and I fell forward.

Along the sidewalk were these bricks that were used to landscape the edge of the lawn. They had been pushed into the ground at about a forty-five-degree angle, so that the sharp edges angled upward in the same direction. We were used to obstacles. In front of the Lenox house, a tree had gotten so big that the roots pushed the sidewalk up, and we used that space as a ramp for jumping bikes and skateboards. But I fell quickly and my forehead met the corner of a red brick.

I don’t remember crying, but I am sure that I did. My parents will tell you I cried a LOT as a child. My spouse and daughter will tell you I don’t.

I remember being in the emergency room, with a kindly doctor stitching me up, smiling as he said, “you’re really being a champ,” because I didn’t cry. I was patched up and on my way (though shortly after my stitches were broken in a confusing rock-throwing game that Jacoby and I engaged in).

It has probably been forty years since that injury, since a questionable bit of landscaping altered permanently the surface of my face. It has a partner now, another, more subtle scar, on the bridge of my nose (this is why table corners are now child-proofed, by the way). I touch my scar.

Sometimes my students ask about it (hence the “third eye” nickname), and I touch it again. It is a part of me. It doesn’t embarrass me, nor am I proud of it. It simply is a part of me.

When my daughter was a toddler, I was mindful of where she was running. Places she could fall, places that seemed unsafe. I remember my mother wondering incredulously why someone would landscape with angled bricks. The incident lingers in my memory, and I suspect that it always will.

The era of COVID-19 has wounded us, and continues to wound us as a human race. We found ourselves wounded by a nation-wide shutdown of schools. These wounds happened individually and globally. Our close ties to each other were strained and even severed. The pandemic ended lives. It ended traditions.

I’ll never forget having a drive-through senior check-out, followed by a drive-in outdoor graduation for the Class of 2020 and how sad it all made me feel. When we could no longer see loved ones, we were wounded. Zoom dinner, happy hour, those were fun for a moment, but then served as stark reminders of our isolation, thereby wounding us again.

I contracted COVID-19. Before I fell ill, I could run a mile in 8:00-8:30, sometimes under 8 if the circumstances were right. Now, my lungs in tatters and persistent coughing, I am satisfied with under 11 minutes per mile. Wounds.

In the summer of 2020, the lives of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Walter Wallace, Philando Castille and so many others were cut short by police violence, leaving us with a deep stab wound, which continues to hemorrhage.

I learned later that there are surgeons who can not only repair injuries, but they are also able to make the scarring go away. Cosmetic surgeons began to finish the work that conventional doctors and surgeons began. Not only can we repair your wounds, but we can also erase them.

I’ve been asked if I ever considered cosmetic surgery for my forehead scar. I haven’t. I wouldn’t do that. The scar means too much to me.

The mislabeling of our pandemic wounds

“Learning Loss” entered the educational lexicon about four months into the pandemic, when we were still quarantined, still trying to learn the difference between PearDeck and NearPod, still with most students keeping their cameras on.

Concern began to emerge in quasi-educational spaces about how far behind students would be academically when they returned to school in the fall.

This bewildered me.

There was no vaccine in sight; cases were spiking in ways that would strain reason in science fiction. But somehow we assumed that COVID-19 would abide by the traditional school calendar: however sideways the spring was, fall would be new. We thought it would be that class that we never solved, a brand-new start with all the pains of spring 2020 firmly lodged in the past.

If you have read this far hoping for a bullet-pointed list of best practices for healing during a pandemic, I apologize for wasting your time. The fact is that we are still navigating a new frontier for which there is no template.

But one thing is clear to me: the events of the last two years have wounded us physically, spiritually, psychologically, emotionally, culturally, and intellectually. These are open wounds. These are wounds that we have not tended to.

What would have happened if my parents had looked at the gash in my forehead and said, “oh, man, your grades are really going to suffer” or “I know you’re bleeding, but you need to take out the trash”?

We must first take responsibility for education in our country. The process of schooling impacts everyone, everywhere.

As my friend Sara Wyffels, 2021 Arizona Teacher of the Year reminds us, “everyone’s story includes a teacher.” And I would reflect deeply on that truth. I would extend it to “everyone’s path includes a school.”

Our school buildings have been many things for many people. For some, they have been sites of imagination, creativity, freedom, love, and affirmation. For others, they have been sites of harm, carceral practice, trauma, exclusion, and pain.

We all experienced COVID-19. We did not all experience it equitably. Healing must begin with our young people, and we are all responsible, whether we have children of our own or not.

We must engage in multiple reckonings, beginning with our students.

The pandemic had wildly different impacts on students.

Student #1’s story

I saw one of my students the second week we returned to in-person classes. I asked him how he was doing, and how it felt to be back. This young man wanted to return to in-person school in early 2021. He is very social and learns best by interacting with classmates and teachers. However, he lacked transportation. So he remained a remote student from March 2020 to August 2021. Sixteen months. When he left the building for the last time, he was a ninth-grader. Now he’s an eleventh grader.

He answered, ‘I don’t know, Mister, it’s weird. It’s just … weird. Like I had this other life. It’s not good or bad. But I could go to class if I felt like it, but if I didn’t feel like it, I didn’t have to. I’m pretty smart, so I could do a lot of the work on my own. I got a job, worked a lot of hours, helped with the bills. Like, that’s how I’ve been living. And now to just come back … it’s weird.”

Something shifted in this young man, and he was struggling to name it.

Student #2’s story

I had a different conversation with a senior recently. We got to talking about how she’s been feeling lately. “I’ve been like really emotional. Like my mental health isn’t the best. But I actually had a good experience in quarantine. Have you noticed that I don’t hang out with the same people anymore? When I couldn’t be around them, I realized that they were kind of toxic, and I really let them make me feel bad about myself. Now I’m my own person. Like quarantine was bad and it was hard, but I’m stronger.”

I can confirm that this student changed. Before quarantine, she was meek, quiet, lacked confidence, and gravitated to strong personalities. She always looked a little intimidated, a little self-conscious.

Now she seems much more adult. Much more centered. She still struggles with her mental health but continues to seek and welcome support. Something shifted in her, and she absolutely gets what it is.

Student #3’s story

Another student has truly shone in her return to in-person school. An essential worker living in a home with essential workers, she has repeatedly been exposed to COVID-19. During remote teaching, she was quiet. She would force herself to speak on the mic, but I could hear the weariness in her voice. A few times we chatted when class was over and she shared how hard things were. Her service job was demanding, and she was trying to deal with a co-worker’s racism. Her parents were stretched to the brink. Her little brother needed support that only she could provide. Now? She says that being back in person “is the best thing that could have happened. I have energy. I care more. I’m mad at people who aren’t taking school seriously. Like, that was so hard, but I feel so strong.”

Something shifted in her, and she seems wiser, she endured, she overcame, and is committed to using her voice and being seen and respected in ways that she wasn’t before.

I want to very clearly point out that the three stories I shared are stories of wounds, of trauma that each student experienced. While they have gained perspective, they all have expressed that “things are moving too fast” in their return to school.

They, too, are concerned with “learning loss” in the academic sense. They fear that they lack the skills to be prepared for college.

At the same time, they ache for healing, even if they don’t always realize it.

My eleventh and twelfth graders want to talk about how they have changed, and many schools across the system are providing that space.

However, when we see tweets from the Secretary of Education that encourage us to share our favorite memories of back to school, many of us roll our eyes.

A willfully naïve approach that puts cognitive dissonance on full display is toxic. This is what toxic positivity is: cheer up and ignore your pain and the structural trauma that you’ve had to face.

Districts, realizing that “Learning Loss” is a trigger, have instead adopted “accelerated learning” un-ironically as a way forward. Instead of declaring our students to have lost learning, we are saying that they now must gain more learning. Two sides of the same naïve coin.

I propose that we center healing in our communities. And before we can begin to heal, we must acknowledge that we are wounded.

Some of us have irritating little scrapes, others of us are on the brink of bleeding out.

If we cannot acknowledge the myriad ways in which we are hurting, then we will never heal.

A wound that remains unstudied, ignored, and minimized gets infected. It seeps toxins. It festers. It sometimes spreads, contaminating other areas. And while the host may move on with life for many years, the wound is always there.

This is not a time of healing, but we have the opportunity to heal.

To do so, we must accept ourselves, our students, and communities.

I have heard many say that students are about two years behind in their social-emotional development. In other words, ninth graders may be in 14-15 year old bodies, but they haven’t socialized in an uninterrupted way since they were twelve. Big difference between a 12-year-old’s ability to manage social situations and that of a 14-year-old.

And as “learning loss” and “accelerated learning” continue to circulate in spaces largely peopled by decision-makers still working remotely, I propose that we consider a healing process. What does it look like?

  • Center students’ emotions. I remember when I was a younger teacher. When a student was upset or had a difficult emotional moment, my first priority was to calm them down. My second was to get them back to work and get back to “my actual job.” Now, I sit in the space with my student. I try to understand. I ask questions. I tell them that it is okay to be not-okay. I invite further conversation. I remind them that I want to support them as humans first, students second.
  • Pause your staff meetings. I’ve heard stories across the system of schools and districts continuing to march, lemming-like, despite the fact that so many attempting to work in the system are in crisis. Pause. Read the room. Be willing to say, “you know what? I can tell this is not the right activity right now. Do you all want to talk?” Be willing to veer off course in the name of humanization.
  • Listen to students’ and staffs’ stories, and believe them. There is no playbook for returning to school during a pandemic and in this context. We have to be willing to write it as we implement it.

Healing can only happen if we admit that we are wounded.

We must be willing to be in community with each other, to look at the wounds, individual and global, and re-build our systems in ways that allow us to begin a healing journey.

Healing isn’t the erasure of an injury. Healing is treating the wound, understanding it, and developing a diagnosis. And once we have formulated a diagnosis, we can talk about treatment. It is apparent that policymakers, bureaucrats, and decision-makers want healing. But they want to heal the system.

We must heal people, and if the traditional practices and policies do not promote the healing of humans in the system, then those practices and policies must be set aside.

I will always have this little scar on my forehead. My third eye.

When I touch it, I feel the smooth skin where a scar formed. There are little bumps underneath it; I don’t know if they are in the skin, the muscle, or on my skull itself. I imagine when I have died, it will be clearer. I touch this scar every morning.

I kind of love it, but more than anything, I can’t imagine myself without it. The wound is healed, but I will always have a scar. And my scars remind me of every wound my body has healed from.

Let’s do the same in community … for community.

Gerardo Munoz

AP World History + Social Studies

Gerardo Muñoz teaches AP World History and a variety of social studies electives in Denver, CO. He welcomes full community participation in his classroom. He has undergraduate degrees in history and Latin American Studies from the University of Colorado–Boulder and...
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