Educators, students, policymakers, activists, and entrepreneurs reflect on a tumultuous year as they prepare for the new year.
December 17, 2020
If Jolynn could go back in time to last spring and give her seventh-grade self advice, she would tell herself to finish up anything she needed to do in person. Because doing those things in 2020 was about to get more... complicated.
“For the rest of my seventh grade year, and at the beginning of my eighth grade year, I will not be at the school. And I probably won't get to say goodbye to my seventh grade teachers and interact with anyone. So I just want to get things done and not leave anything behind,” she said over a Zoom call from her home in Nashville.
The events 2020—the pandemic and the inequities it has laid bare, the protests for racial justice, and the economic downturn—will have a lasting impact on students’ educational trajectory and may very well change what education looks like going forward. Teachers, school administrators, policymakers, parents, and students are all saying the same thing: We can’t go back to the old ways of doing things in schools.
So what have we learned from this year? And what lessons are we taking into the future?
School Leaders: Embracing a Constant State of Change
Last spring we spoke with school leaders, just as they were hitting the brakes on all they’ve known about a typical school year and preparing for an abrupt transition to remote learning. Some had little more than a weekend to plan. The full scope of the pandemic and what lay ahead was unimaginable.
At the time, STRIVE Collegiate Academy in Nashville was just reopening after being closed for several days due to a devastating tornado that tore through the city, killing 24 people and leaving half of the students without electricity, some without homes. When the school building had to close again a few days later due to COVID restrictions, the school’s founder and executive director, LaKendra Butler (Metro Atlanta '05), lamented not having much time to discuss these traumatic events with students in person. “It was a very weird transition,” she said at the time.
Meanwhile, in St. Louis, Head of School Sarah Ranney (St. Louis '06) was organizing food drives at Lafayette Preparatory Academy, surveying families about internet access, and supporting teachers as they developed lessons students could work on independently when school closed.
Now, more than nine months later, we reconnected with these two school leaders and asked them to reflect on the lessons they’ve learned since last spring that they’ll be taking into the new year.
We need to prioritize adults’ mental health and wellbeing, so they can do the same for kids.
Butler: “I intentionally found a counselor for my staff, so they could take care of themselves first in order to support their students’ social-emotional needs. By getting feedback and talking to the grownups in my building, I know that they weren't all in a good place with what was going on. I felt like it wasn't fair for me to sit here and say, let's create all these structures for kids if the people who are going to be driving the conversations are not in their best space as well, mentally.”
Ranney: “As adults, I think we are having a much harder time in general than most of the kids. The kids are certainly significantly impacted. But the kids—especially the younger ones—don't have these preconceived notions of what first grade is supposed to be like, whereas my staff does... I think a lot of the time my work does seem more focused directly on children. But in a pandemic, there’s been a lot of focus on how are the adults around the kids? Our staff have a weekly check-in with a coach. The format starts with a check-in on how they are doing as a human. Then we talk about their people and projects and wrap up with collective responsibility and support from the coach for the upcoming week. Because if we are okay, then our kids are more likely to be okay. And probably to a certain degree, that's going to be true all the time.”
Adapting to the different ways that students learn is now more possible.
Butler: “When I started STRIVE, I really wanted to focus on personalized learning. We’ve always said it, but I think we have opportunities to actually unpack what that means and what that looks like. Now that we have the computers and the hotspots and the infrastructure sort of in place, how do we truly start personalized learning for students? We are capturing the data so we know where kids are now. Creating an instructional program that caters to where students truly are is what I want to move towards.”
Ranney: “What this has caused us to do is what felt humanly impossible before, which is completely redesigning something basically overnight. And a lot of the things that we pulled into instruction are things that we’ve always talked about doing someday because we think this is really important for kids.”
“One practice we should do away with is over-relying on schools to solve every problem.”
Students: Ready For the Next Chapter
Last spring, seventh graders at STRIVE Collegiate didn’t have a chance to say goodbye to their teachers and friends in person before their school building closed. Now as eighth graders, they are attending their last year of middle school online before making another big transition into high school next year. Butler connected us with some of those eighth graders over Zoom, and here, they share how they feel about remote learning and the hopes they are holding for the future. (We are using students' first names at their family's request.)
Virtual school has some benefits. But it’s also just really hard.
Jolynn: “Something I like about virtual school is that we kind of have more personal time because there are office hours between our blocks. But something I don't like about virtual school is that some classes are a little more difficult, like math, because we don't have enough time to go over things and it's also just very difficult to learn math online.”
Amanda: “I learned less because I do better on paper than I do on the computer. Because it helps me visualize it more.”
Samaria: “I would like to agree with Amanda because I actually do well with paper instead of online because that way you can actually keep track of everything and you can actually gain more knowledge than just looking at a computer and forgetting everything the next day.”
Having a virtual space for human connection during the school day has made a big difference.
Caleb: “I kind of just miss seeing people overall, like teachers or friends or other people. It’s like, we're lacking human interaction at the moment and we're just staring at screens, not other people.”
Amanda: “Some things that our teachers do to help us is in the morning they let us take a breather and sometimes they let us talk to our friends in breakout groups to help each other at work. But it's mostly breathing because sometimes a lot of us get stressed over a lot of work and when we take a breath, it helps calm us down. When I finish my independent practice, I just talk to my teachers since I've been going through a lot of stuff lately with family drama and stuff like that. And they just helped me get through it.”
Jolynn: “[My teachers] usually do check-ins like on a scale of one through 10 stuff like that. Every day in Spanish, before we begin class our teacher would ask us how we're feeling on a scale of like some really funny image and we get to put it in the chat. It's like a nice check-in and breather. In physical science, we did a scale of Squidward. It was like, on a scale Squidward, how are you feeling today? It's just kind of funny and it's nice to check in sometimes.”
Looking ahead: A new year, new president, and hope for change.
Amanda: “I feel like [our incoming president] can understand a life of not being able to do whatever you want and like not having a lot of food when you can't have it because of money and resources that you don't get because of jobs that aren't paying very well.”
Caleb: “If you look back in the past, most vice presidents and presidents overall, they were men—specifically white men—until Barack Obama. And now the vice president is a Black woman. She kind of symbolizes that there's more opportunity for everyone to make a better change.”
Jolynn: “I look forward to the vaccine being released and being able to step outside and go back to school again. But also, I look forward to January because the high school application process is opening up and I got really excited for that. Because one more year and we're leaving middle school and going into high school.”
Teachers: Testing Resilience
During an ordinary year, teachers are masters of problem-solving, time management, empathy, and unwavering compassion for students. This year all of these things were still true, only we saw teachers demonstrate these qualities on an extraordinary level, unlike any before. In a matter of days and weeks, teachers scrambled to learn new platforms, and adapt their lessons for remote learning, all the while calling parents, making home visits, and supporting their students through multiple traumas that unfolded this year.
Rosaura Estrada (Rio Grande Valley '13), a high school math teacher in Dallas, and Tyla Daniels (Memphis '15), a college counselor at Ewing Marion Kauffman School in Kansas City, share a few of their biggest takeaways from 2020.
Adapting to seismic change.
Estrada: “What has changed [since COVID] is my view of technology. I believed I was not knowledgeable and didn't have enough time to learn but having to learn about Google Meets, Peardeck, Nearpod, Quizziz, Google Slides, Go Formative, Google Forms, break-out rooms, Google extensions, etc., has made me realize I can be resilient and innovative. I realized also that despite technology, students need connections and strong relationships above everything. Maslow before Bloom!”
Daniels: “I would say that teaching virtually is extremely different and extremely difficult. Teachers have had to go way outside of the box with their approach towards access and reaching their students. I would say one of the key words in my shift in thinking around education would be just learning how to be more transparent. Technology presents a lot of challenges and unpredictability. Incorporating transparency into your teacher persona is a way to get through those hurdles.”
Authentic relationships always come first.
Daniels: “This past year, I've grown a lot in my authenticity as a leader. I think it comes from all the co-stressors we're experiencing right now. There are so many things to be overwhelmed and stressed out or frustrated about. It just doesn't feel right to add on the extra stress of not being yourself. I found that it makes my class and colleagues more comfortable when I'm most authentic and we're able to come up with some great creative ideas to support our students during a time when they need us the most.”
Estrada: “Relationship building is everything. No matter how awesome the content is, if there is no relationship building, students will not turn on their cameras or stay in class the whole time.”
Rethinking what matters most for students.
Estrada: So much testing needs to go away! Our kids do not to be so stressed about tests. Teachers' time needs to be spent doing formative assessments and rigorous lessons instead of prepping for state tests.
Daniels: “We can hold students accountable while also understanding that there is so much happening outside of the virtual school walls. Obviously, there's COVID. But there's also the election. There's Black Lives Matter, which reached a heightened point in the movement earlier this year. I think when we move forward in the future, that same mindset around understanding that students have stressors and lives outside of school is something to always consider. I would say, keep that same energy.”
“The community knows best what they need and it's time that those in positions of power listen.”
An Ed Policy Expert: Getting at the Root of Systems Change
Manny Lamarre (Miami-Dade '09) is a senior program associate at WestEd, a national nonprofit focused on creating more equitable schools and communities. In his role, Lamarre focuses on pathways to postsecondary education and workforce opportunities in K-12 schools.
As Lamarre reflects on the past year, he’s thinking about the unfair burden placed on schools to fill so many gaps in our social safety net, such as food security, broadband access, and mental health support. He also reflects on how the pandemic has further exposed inequities built on a legacy of systemic racism in the U.S., and what lessons we are taking into the new year as we continue to work toward dismantling these systems.
Schools are not positioned to fill every hole in the social safety net.
“One practice we should do away with is over-relying on schools to solve every problem. Schools should be critical partners, but they just aren't positioned to solve all inequalities, such as food insecurity, broadband, and healthcare. And if we want them to do those things, we need to restructure and fund a new education contract.”
Disruptions to education will have long term implications that we need to plan for.
“Those first graders who didn't learn to read, we know what's going to happen to them in third and fifth grade. Or those 10th and 11th graders who weren't positioned to continue their education and get a job, we know what's going to happen. I just hope that after we get out of the fire mode that we really think strategically about how we get them back on track to prevent and mitigate some of those issues that we'll see.”
Tackling wealth inequality must be a priority for the new administration.
“One of the reasons I left the classroom was because I felt like I had no control over the inequitable systems that impacted my students and their families. And so for the new administration, if they could focus on one thing, it would be thinking strategically and thoughtfully about wealth inequality. And when we say wealth inequality, not being afraid to name how it is disproportionately tied to race and class and systems like redlining that were designed to disenfranchise communities of color. The reason why I think that's important is because we know that household income is a proxy for education outcomes.”
Forbes 30 Under 30 2021 Honorees: Thinking Big About the Future of Education
Earlier this month, four Teach For America alumni were named to the 2021 Forbes 30 Under 30 list:
- Raby Gueye (Phoenix '13), a former middle school teacher and founder of Teach For Senegal, an organization that recruits and trains leaders to teach in her hometown of Podor and is working towards a formal partnership with Teach For All.
- Xavier Henderson (Dallas-Forth Worth '15), the co-founder and director of strategy at For Oak Cliff, an organization focused on liberating residents from systemic oppression in Dallas’s Oak Cliff neighborhood through education, advocacy, community building, and arts.
- Aditya Kaddu (Houston '12), founder of EdStruments, a tool that helps school administrators budget more equitably and collaborate with those who have direct input on what students need most.
- Kyra Mungia (Bay Area '13), deputy director of education for Mayor Libby Schaaf in Oakland, CA, who is spearheading efforts to expand access to technology for remote learning and increase the number of teachers of color in the city’s public schools.
Each of these alums is part of an ecosystem of support for kids and communities most impacted by the pandemic. Here they share what they’ve learned from this year, and what changes in education they hope will endure beyond 2020.
We need to sustain the momentum and collective effort around educational equity we saw this year.
Henderson: “It’s been powerful to see institutions respond to the needs of communities. We should be giving out food. We should be giving technology. Whatever that continues to evolve into in terms of large institutions, like our school districts and cities—that has to be a huge takeaway. We should be much more responsive and quick to address the needs of students and families whatever they might be over the next one to five years and beyond. That should just be baked into our culture. It shouldn’t take a pandemic for us to wake up and do that.”
Gueye: “In order to address the widening equity gap, we need to look at education and equity as a collective effort. Teachers alone cannot solve this problem. We need excellent principals to support those teachers. We need to inform parents to stay engaged with the learning process in schools. We need visionary bureaucrats, and politicians to create an environment in which principals and teachers can thrive. And we need active civil leaders to hold stakeholders accountable and committed corporate leaders to mobilize the resources to support school systems. Every single one of us has a role to play.”
We need to dismantle school policies that penalize students of color.
Mungia: “We need to do away with unfair disciplinary practices that disproportionately impact students of color. Even with virtual learning we still see this happening, which is wild to me.”
Henderson: “I remember being a student and going to track meets in schools that were mostly in predominantly white neighborhoods. And I remember wondering where their metal detectors were and why they didn’t have police officers. And I remember feeling like, what are you all trying to say about me and my classmates, that we have an armed officer and we have metal detectors at every entrance? I never wanted armed officers in our schools. It just sends a harmful signal to kids. At least it did to me and some of my friends. I'm not a criminal.
I know it's a touchy subject, but I'm hoping in the future we figure that out. We don't need officers. We absolutely need more counselors and social workers in our schools.”
We need to radically change the way we support teachers.
Kaddu: “We’ve seen this year more than ever the value of a really high-quality teacher. How do we get more of our nation’s best and brightest people into classrooms and make it a sustainable profession? It’s a really hard choice for someone who has the real opportunity to make double (or more) in another profession to walk away and become a teacher. What incentives can we create at the federal level to get really talented, engaged, passionate people into the classroom? And how do we really value the teaching profession not just with words, but with resources? If we want more high-quality teachers to enter and stay in the classroom, we need to compensate them for the professionals that they are.”
Gueye: “Parents, teachers, everybody realized how difficult it is to be a teacher this year. Teachers put on several hats: they’re the psychologist, the therapist, the parent. They're everything. They play a central role in society, and yet as a society, we devalue teachers. We need to really focus on how we support our teachers, mentally, physically, and professionally if we want them to stay in the profession.”
And we need to do more to support administrators as well.
Kaddu: “One of my biggest takeaways from this year is the importance of strong administrators. A lot of the decisions around when and how to reopen schools and subsequent communication and execution lies in the hands of principals, district leaders, and boards. So often we think about innovation in education from the lens of teachers, students, and parents (and with good reason). People largely ignore the needs of K-12 admins, and when it comes to major budget cuts these positions are often the first to be reduced. We are proud to be building best-in-class innovations to support the important work of school and district leaders.”
We need to do more to involve local communities in decisions that impact them.
Mungia: “I think that COVID and all the other pandemics that we are in, especially with the fight for racial justice, just emphasize that we need to be listening to and working with the community to develop solutions. It shouldn't be coming from our ivory tower acting like we know what's best. But we really need to be listening. The community knows best what they need and it's time that those in positions of power listen.”
Gueye: For me, this topic of Indigenizing and decolonizing education—the fact that people are talking about it—is giving me hope. I’m seeing this in the U.S. and I'm thinking about it more in Senegal because while we got our independence, we still kept the same colonial education system. Now there’s talk of a more localized curriculum that represents the community, our language, and culture. I'm excited that Teach For Senegal will be able to be a part of this as we work alongside our communities.”
My students are what gives me hope for the future.
Mungia: “What always gives me hope are my former students who I'm super lucky to stay in contact with and are now all in middle school. COVID is really tough. I think they're having a hard time and they're incredibly resilient and smart and they just continue to push through and do the best they can. They are the ones that give me hope. They're the ones that drive my work every day. Even if I don't interact with them on a day-to-day basis, everything that I do is for them.”
Henderson: “I'm blessed to be around a lot of youth in my work and there’s a lot of energy about social issues… It's cool to see another generation that's really unapologetic and understands there’s this collective power that you should operate with, and are trying to be locked in together. It’s going to be exciting to work together towards things like educational equity with such an energetic group.”
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