Reimagining School For Us, By Us
Updated: Jun 26, 2020
by Kathy Lebrón
Schools across the country have been closed for two months now and states like Massachusetts have already announced they will not reopen until the fall. Educators, students, and families alike are grappling with the realities brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, scrambling to figure out how to do distance learning, let alone how to do it well. Many of us are worried about our loved ones’ health, job security, affording rent, balancing work and childcare, on top of now having to virtually teach and/or homeschool kids. It’s a lot.
As educators: How do we take time for ourselves while adjusting to this new normal? How do we support students socio-emotionally while also pushing academics? How do we ensure that our most vulnerable students like students with special needs as well as Multilingual and English Language Learners (MLLs and ELLs) don’t fall through the cracks?
As for our students and families: How do we make and hold space for the grief, the confusion, the uncertainty and myriad of other emotions our students and families might be feeling at this time? How do we ensure equitable access to virtual learning and “measure academic outcomes” during a pandemic when so many people are just trying to survive?
Well, what if we spent less time trying to recreate “normal” school virtually, and focus our efforts instead on UNschooling(1) and reimagining what learning can and should look like in a post-pandemic world?
Now, I’ve noticed this conversation has recently found its way to the mainstream with white, wealthy men in suits claiming that “we have the opportunity to reimagine and build back our education system better.”(2) But here’s the thing BIPOC teachers have long dared to dream for better alternatives to our schooling system; alternatives that centered the humanity of our students who could most stand to benefit from this radical reimagining - Black and Latinx kids, students with IEPs, MLLs and ELLs. This ain’t new to us! Where was all this talk from powerful white men when Black girls were being pushed out of school at alarming rates? Where were they when superintendents willingly handed ICE information about undocumented students? What about when children as young as six years old were placed under arrest on school grounds and taken into custody without family consent? Nowhere is the answer you’re looking for.
If we’re being honest, our normal wasn’t working before and has never worked for students most impacted by educational disparities. These are the very students (along with their families) that need to be centered in these discussions about reimagining our schools anew. So, how do we do this? How do we take on this work in a moment riddled with barriers but also fertile with possibilities?
Leading with Empathy, Grace, and Compassion
We’re living through unprecedented and uncertain times, which can be frustrating, anxiety inducing, and scary for anyone. Recently, a friend surveyed her students about how things were going personally and academically many expressed frustration over teachers and adults not understanding how they, too, are stressed out and overwhelmed by this pandemic.
I mean, if you’re feeling overwhelmed, worried, and stressed, guess what? so are you students and their families. Ask yourself, “How are anxiety and fear showing up in my teaching and interactions with students? How can I acknowledge and shift this? How can I show empathy towards my students who may be feeling similarly?”
Show compassion for students and their families, and extend grace when checking in with them.
Connecting and Building Relationships
While your district may be pressuring you to meet what seems like impossible deadlines and benchmarks, the reality is that students need YOU right now; not more worksheets, assignments, or consequences because they’re uncomfortable getting on Zoom.
Building and maintaining positive relationships with students and families should always live at the core of our teaching. Carve out ample time for check-ins with students and also for them to foster relationships amongst themselves. Play some games, exchange funny stories, get up and dance with them even if you look and feel like a fool trying to get those TikTok moves down. Get real about what’s happening in the world, share your fears and anxiety, and hold space for them to do the same.
With all of the competing demands teachers are forced to deal with on a daily basis, we rarely ever have time to just connect with one another. Prioritize human connection over academics and cherish the fact that you now have the time to do so. Not sure where to start? Check out these circle prompts for ideas.
Encouraging Pausing and Resting
Some of us are literally working around the clock, on back to back Zoom meetings, and being forced to keep up with the capitalist grind for the sake of “productivity”, but as @thenapministry so poignantly exclaims:
“Y’all keep hollering about this New World that will emerge post pandemic, yet you won’t even rest or slow down enough to receive the innovative thinking necessary to build this World. You think you can create a new liberated world while being exhausted? It’s not possible.”
I don’t know about y’all but I am TIREDT (yes tired with a t). We can’t move forward if we’re not taking care of ourselves mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. So go on and take that personal day, slow down, meditate, and take that much needed nap. I encourage us to not only pause, rest, and reset ourselves, but to also encourage our students to do the same. Maybe incorporate a guided meditation, some mindful breathing, or a yoga flow into one of your sessions.
Empowering Ourselves to Take Charge
“Nothing About Us, Without Us, is For Us”
White men with suits who have never taught a day in their lives do not have the answers to our education system’s most pressing issues, but we know who does. It’s US. Students, families, and teachers most impacted by structural oppression and education disparities need to be the key reimaginers and decision-makers when we talk about divesting from our old school system and reinventing it.
Ask yourself: do my actions as an educator lead to healing and liberation or do they uphold the status quo? Imagine a world full of possibilities, what could education and learning look like for our most marginalized students? What steps can I take to get us one step closer to this vision?
Ask your students: what do you have the power to do and change? What do you wish teachers and people with power over your education knew? In a world full of possibilities, what do you wish school and learning looked like for you and your peers? What’s one thing you could do to get us closer to this vision?
Ask your students’ families: What do you wish teachers and people with power over your child’s education knew? How could learning be better designed for you and your child? In a world full of possibilities, what do you wish school and learning looked like for your child? What’s one thing you could do to get us closer to this vision?
If we want to co-create a liberated and whole vision of learning and education that will work for ALL of our kids, we need to put the power in the hands of those who have always lived on the margins. The time is now y’all. Let’s take care of ourselves first and then do the work collectively!
(1) Unschooling is a style of education that allows the student’s interests and curiosities to drive the path of learning. Rather than using a defined curriculum, children gain knowledge organically and via self-driven activities.
(2) Washington Post
Kathy Lebrón is an anti-racist, culturally responsive educator, curriculum writer and consultant whose goal is help educators, families and students use education as vehicle for healing and liberation. With over seven years of teaching experience, she has developed culturally responsive, and social justice based and has facilitated dozens of workshops on topics that include: Anti-Racism in Schools, Student Identity Development, Culturally Responsive Education, the Decolonization of the Dominican Mind, Restorative Practices and Fostering a Healthy, Anti-bias School Culture.