Teachers, We Cannot Go Back to the Way Things Were
Schools were failing students even before the pandemic
The impossible is becoming possible. As we all stand in the midst of a world crisis, those of us who can dream must dream. And after we dream, we must demand and act. I want to acknowledge my privilege from the onset of this essay. I am a tenured college professor with access to the internet, university resources, and a reliable income.
But I am not writing about dreaming oblivious to the crisis we are living in. As a Black woman, I am keenly aware of how this virus is disproportionately killing Black people because of environmental racism, medical and housing discrimination, and a racist educational school system that leads to low-wage jobs for Black and Brown Americans, which is why Black people are a large majority of the essential workers in this crisis and those dying on the front lines. In the face of that racism and resistance, it may seem pointless, but this is the perfect time to radically dream.
We must radically dream because before COVID-19 closed our schools and dismantled our way of life, schools were failing not only children of color but all children. High-stakes testing, large class sizes, and the disproportionate expulsion and suspension of Black and Brown students were the norm. Teachers had low expectations of Black and Brown children and high burnout. School shootings were disturbingly common. Schools lacked both adequate funding and inclusive classrooms for students with disabilities. Segregation and corporal punishment persisted. There was a scarcity of educators of color. There were more police in schools than counselors, and racism permeated every inch of our nation’s school system.
We all knew it was happening, but it felt too big to take down, too big to rescue. This pitiful existence of the education system has become normalized to the point that many teachers are broken, fighting to just survive, and working to protect children from the very system that is intended to uplift them. This situation is what we have been given, but that does not mean it is what we have to take.
We cannot go back. We now have the opportunity not to just reimagine schooling or try to reform injustice but to start over. Starting over is hard but not impossible; we now have a skeleton of a playbook. It starts with creativity, teacher-student relationships, and teacher autonomy.
When schools reopen, they could be spaces of justice, high expectations, creativity, and processing the collective trauma of COVID-19. Some school leaders are stepping up. In my home state of Georgia, the state’s school superintendent issued a letter to teachers and parents calling for “compassion over compliance” as we all try to reach students during a pandemic. In mid-April, Atlanta’s superintendent moved the district to a four-day teaching schedule. Teachers are to use Fridays for professional development and to be available to students who are behind. We need that same energy, understanding, and creativity from our school leaders when schools reopen.
As I watch my wife—a 4th grade teacher—teach and my kids—two 4th graders—learn during this crisis, I see the possibilities for an education system now forced to trust teachers, give students autonomy, and rely on the ingenuity of parents. I also see the loss of schools as places of refuge, safety, family services, and invaluable social interactions.
My social-media timeline is filled with stories from teachers around the country finding innovative ways to reach their students. School districts are giving out laptops and books to students–items that were never allowed to leave the building before. Companies are offering free internet to families. Communities are rallying together to support families in need. Schools are relying on different indicators of achievement other than standardized testing to measure improvement, such as parent engagement, teacher-outreach levels, and interactive lessons. Teachers are making the social-emotional learning of their students their top priority. Students are having more time for physical activity and art. And they are researching and learning about things they feel passionate about but never had time to explore before.
The virus has made this new system the expectation of teachers, parents, and school districts. Asking teachers to be creative, react to the needs of students and families with resources backed by the district, and provide instruction driven by a teacher’s pedagogy rather than a test is our new norm. However, this new normal will be short-lived if we do not fight to keep it when we return to school.
Educational testing companies stand ready to profit from this crisis. They will introduce tests to measure gaps in learning after school closures. They will market tests to close these gaps, even though those tests have never closed the so-called achievement gap before. Schools will insist on surveilling teachers to make sure they are getting students back on track instead of trusting teachers and their skill sets. Education technology companies will try to convince school districts that moving an entire nation’s educational system online was beneficial and can continue in some variation.
Schools will expect parents to go back to homework duty and be less involved. The creativity of teachers and the trusting of students will be replaced with standardized testing, rote learning over critical thinking, and punitive school policies.
Our education system is allergic to change and comfortable with oppression, so if the system is not physically and theoretically pushed to stay in the direction of progress, it will revert back to its obsolete purpose.
We cannot go back. We must return to teaching in schools with a deeper understanding of how racism and capitalism limited our reach in offering all students the resources and instruction they needed and deserved before and after schools closed. This is more important than ever as COVID-19 exacerbates the educational opportunity gap.
The alternative ways educators are learning to exist in our new world cannot be lost when we reopen our society because that world only worked for some and was consumed by racism. What was said to be impossible in education is now here, and we must act for it to stay our reality.
In 2016, Bettina L. Love, the author of this essay, spoke to Education Week about African-American girls and discipline. Here’s what she had to say: