As states begin to ease social-distancing restrictions and the school year comes to a close, the uncertainty of in-person learning for the fall looms over teachers’ heads. To add to that dismay, a recent study by NWEA projects that students will retain only about 70 percent of their reading progress compared with a normal year—and these are conservative estimates that don’t account for students’ traumatization. If we’re not working now on what Sonja Santelises, the CEO of Baltimore’s schools, calls “education recovery planning,” we are sure to continue to perpetuate the opportunity gap.
Moreover, the anxieties of the pandemic are now just one part of the immediate distress for students, especially students like mine in a school district just north of Minneapolis, students who are largely low income and of color. George Floyd, the unarmed Black man who died after a Minneapolis police officer pinned him to the ground by his neck a week ago, and Philandro Castile, shot dead in his car in 2016 by a police officer in a suburb of St. Paul, Minn., are alive in my consciousness. My community is beset by endless cycles of grief, rage, and a hope of justice that never comes. We are tired of being tired.
I want to tell my students that this horrific war on Black people, this real threat to their lives, is also the very reason they must fight distraction and disengagement from education. State-sanctioned murder, the pandemic’s disproportionate effect on people of color, and economic anxiety—in my mind, these are all reasons to insist that our schools be more than sites for social services, however important those may be. Our schools must be places of real learning driven by evidence for how to best teach and improve outcomes, not last week’s education fad.
Even when we focus on academics, we too often target low-hanging fruit like graduation rates rather than teaching and learning. Shallow successes allow us to pat ourselves on the back. But a high graduation rate is meaningless when our graduates enter the world without a fundamental grasp of the tools and knowledge necessary for full participation in life and citizenship. We can hope for a reimagining of schooling during this time, but nothing will change in our schools until we prioritize the education of our students.
Yes, there is trauma: from pandemic fear, from centuries of racism and violence. We will likely need a trauma-informed approach as school begins in some form again. Some say that means educators should let relationships be the focus. But that does not necessarily mean relationships outside of content—the “I teach kids, not content” approach. I would reframe that to say: I teach my students content. That’s my job and what my students trust me to do.
Doug Lemov of the Uncommon Schools charter network writes that “relationship building starts in the classroom with attentiveness to the craft of teaching and with attentiveness to the progress and experience of the learner.” I knew my students’ lives because they decided to tell me, not because I made them do an emotional check-in. I provided them with routine during distance learning by greeting them and giving them a brief overview of the day in a synchronous setting. I created an opportunity for hope by not overly dwelling on the woes and news of the present. And I continued to build relationships by capitalizing on the trust that I had earned from doing the best teaching I could.
And in all this, I was helped by the subject I teach: literature. One of the beautiful things about literature is its ability to center isolating and abstracted fear in previous human experience. Albert Camus wrote in The Plague: “There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet plagues and wars always take people equally by surprise.” Literature attests that people have been here before, and their experience can strengthen us —if we know how to access it.
We’ve some harsh realities to face next school year. For the vast majority of students, especially those in low-income families, distance learning has not been a success. Add to this the outrage, pain, and trauma associated with centuries of oppression that is now on display. While unarmed Black men and women continue to die at the hands of police, our schools first started by killing their minds. Black educators, parents, and students are tired of having to accept mediocrity in all its forms.
As educators, we owe it to ourselves and our students to not cast aside learning, no matter the challenges. Communities like mine do not have the privilege of being indifferent. There has never been a time in American history when Black people were not having to simultaneously learn and fight for our right to be alive. Yet, we are the first to be given a choice between academics or social care in times of turbulence. We choose both.
Educators must demand a higher standard and culture of education, require leaders to listen to what our communities need, and refuse to lie down when those at the top tell us “no, not right now.” If we don’t and instead wait for the pandemic to be over or for our neighbors or colleagues to get the big picture, we will have stifled another generation. Students will pay the price of our failure to do what it is in our power to do.