School & District Management Opinion

School Cannot Go on This Way. Education Leaders Need to Step Up

4 ways to get started
By Nicole Mirra & Antero Garcia — November 10, 2021 5 min read
Illustration of leaders planning a course of action
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A veteran middle school teacher reports that a mix of COVID-19 fear and prolonged social isolation has left some of her students so unwilling to be in physical proximity to each other that collaborative learning is nearly impossible.

A new student-teacher worries that she is betraying her commitment to differentiate instruction as she pushes through a curriculum that her 10th graders aren’t ready for so she can meet the deadline for the next benchmark exam set by her assistant principal.

A high school literacy coach spends his planning period researching how to support a student whose guardian died of COVID-19 because grief counseling feels more urgent to him than writing instruction.

We are two former high school teachers turned teacher educators who hear stories like these each day from the preservice teachers in our classes, our former teaching colleagues, and our educator friends. They all return to the same themes: Student needs are unprecedented. Teaching responsibilities are overwhelming. The old ways of doing things are just not working.

For all that it has taken from us, wasn’t the pandemic at least supposed to offer our country the opportunity to transform schooling? Why haven’t we seized it?

Despite the talk of “reimagining” that took place in our field (once educators were able to raise their heads from managing one crisis after another), we are distraught and angered by how quickly our country’s public schools have retreated into familiar routines. Districts are racing to diagnose what they are erroneously calling “learning losses” while glossing over what students may have gained. Standardized testing is ramping up again. And according to Education Week’s tracker, school shootings this year could surpass prepandemic levels. Back to normal, indeed.

We cannot go on this way.

But we also cannot simply ask teachers to do more to compensate for the shortcomings of our school systems. Teachers already have their hands full covering for staff shortages, addressing student trauma, and placating community members threatening them when they teach about race and racism in American society. Before we ask anything else of overburdened teachers, we need school, district, and state leaders to step up and refuse business as usual. Because, at the end of the day, the buck stops with them.

We know that leaders are struggling, too. But instead of straining to hold broken systems together with Band-Aids and a prayer, we encourage them to focus on blazing new paths.

Instead of straining to hold broken systems together with Band-Aids and a prayer, we encourage them to focus on blazing new paths.

Though it is tempting to blame the economic struggles and divisive politics making the work of educators more difficult, we believe that everyone must take a hard look at what our school policies are prioritizing right now. Each of us must address our complicity in the disconnect students and teachers are feeling in the classroom. While many teachers and leaders do transformative work, the broader adherence to rigid accountability structures and rushed pacing calendars can render us unable to address the challenges of today and tomorrow.

Faced with the crisis of COVID-19 shutting down school buildings, our profession reacted with heroic grace under pressure. Yet, now, as the long-term consequences of the pandemic start to emerge, it is time to shift from being reactive to being proactive. It is time to integrate sustained attention to mental health, empathy, and healing into the fabric of instruction. It is time to support teachers with the creation of new learning opportunities that help students make sense of a changed world, instead of requiring classroom educators to push ahead with prepandemic curriculum.

We also understand how difficult being proactive can be when the pull of going back to “normal” can feel safer.

Recent research we have conducted suggests that there is no cookie cutter curriculum or set of policies that will change things overnight. Being proactive requires collaborating with students and being brave enough to imagine teaching and learning (and living) beyond the way things have been done for so long.

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Superintendents discuss ideas at a roundtable.
Vanessa Solis/Education Week and Getty Images

Our plea to the school leaders of this country is both incredibly simple and incredibly hard. We ask that in ways small and large you throw a wrench into the normal workings of schooling because, really, it’s the only way to make sure we move forward.

Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  1. Listen to students and teachers. Toss out the planned agenda of the next faculty meeting about benchmark results and compliance data. Instead, encourage discussion with your staff about the shock waves of trauma rippling through your building and ideas for responding to them. And then, listen. Tokens of appreciation and mental-health days are nice. Addressing the roots of teacher burnout and student hurt is better.
  2. Change the goals of teaching and learning. Interrogate whether the curriculum in your district gives students meaningful opportunities to tackle the challenges that affect their lives and threaten their futures, from climate change and political misinformation to systemic racism. If it does not, work with your staff and students to develop a more responsive and engaging one. Stand up to anyone who seeks to sow fear and division.
  3. Communicate with the stakeholders who aren’t in schools every day. The further away that district and state leaders are from schools, the less they understand the reality on the ground. Instead of grinding yourself down trying to meet metrics that no longer make sense, level with policymakers, state representatives, and community members about the challenges your school faces and what your staff and students need.
  4. Partner with those who seek sustainable change. Real change must be systemic change. This requires adjustments across the educational pipeline, from funding early education to transforming teacher education. No one can do this work alone. Seek out community organizations and university partners who can help you with your goals, even as you demand change from elected representatives. Ask for what you need.

Another way is possible and necessary. But do we have the imagination, courage, and will to finally learn what we have repeatedly ignored? For the sake of our children, we must.

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