The pandemic caused many people to pose existential questions about the United States’ education system, and some predicted that the pandemic could launch the reimagination of the system.
But a large-scale transformation doesn’t happen overnight, especially because educators are up against some of the biggest learning challenges the education field has faced: concerns over student mental health, staffing shortages, and a divisive political landscape, to name a few.
During an Education Week K-12 Essentials forum Sept. 15, educators and researchers talked about what can be done immediately and feasibly to incite lasting and productive change that will make a difference in the lives of students.
The recurring theme from panelists’ answers centered around building better relationships with the whole school community: students, parents, teachers, and administrators.
Renee Owen, an assistant professor of education leadership at Southern Oregon University and an editor of The Holistic Education Review, said that one way the education system can be transformed is by turning it from an “industrial system” to a “living system.”
Instead of a hierarchical system, where all the power and information flows from the top, the education system should have more of a feedback loop, where information can easily move from the bottom up or vice versa, Owen said during a panel titled “How Can We Break Down the Barriers Standing in the Way of K-12 Transformation?”
Let students lead
Even our traditional views of teaching are hierarchical, said Joy Patton, the behavior and restorative practices facilitator at LaVergne High School in Rutherford County Schools in Tennessee. She was a featured guest on a panel titled “How Can We Break Down the Barriers Standing in the Way of K-12 Transformation?”
“We as the teachers are the authority, we are content experts, and it’s our job to disseminate information to students and develop their little minds, and we have all of the power,” Patton said.
One practical way to transform that hierarchical system is by giving students more autonomy in the classroom, according to some of the panelists.
“It’s really important to involve the students in making those decisions,” Patton said. “I have to share authority with my students. We make up our classroom community and we decide how we’re going to treat each other and what the standards are going to be in our classroom.”
Andrea Kane, a featured guest on a panel titled “Why Can’t We Talk to Each Other Anymore?,” also talked about elevating student voices as one way to create an environment that is conducive to civil discussions about hot-button issues.
“We need to hear from our students and give students a platform where we are absolutely elevating their voices,” said Kane, a professor of practice in educational leadership at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education and a former superintendent of the Queen Anne’s County schools in Maryland. “Let them lead, because so often, adults get tied up in our ways of thinking that are sometimes stagnant and certainly not always open to ideas that are not like our own.
“If there are relationships that have been built in classrooms with students—with students and teachers, with students and administrators—kids know if they’re in a safe place, and they’re able to voice their own opinion in the way that feels right for them,” Kane added.
Chris Dier, a history teacher at Benjamin Franklin High School in New Orleans and a featured guest on the forum, said that a more student-centered approach will engage students in ways that they wouldn’t in a traditional learning environment and it “breaks down barriers in unimaginable ways.”
Build community support
The education system also relies heavily on the rest of the school community. The panelists talked about the importance of building relationships not just with students, teachers, and administrators, but also with parents, businesses, and organizations based within the community where the school is located.
Patton, when planning how to fund student incentive programs at her school, said she knocked on businesses’ doors asking for donations, but she has also looked to parents who might be able to provide funding.
“It’s going to take time for me to build some relationships with some community partners,” Patton said.
Change doesn’t happen through a “Superman effect,” said Patrick Harris, the author of the book, The First Five: A Love Letter to Teachers. Change “will require you to reach across the aisle and to build a coalition. Change in education will come from the ground up and inside out.”
Don’t lose sight of what’s most important
And when it seems like there isn’t a lot of community support, such as in areas where parents and educators have been pitted against each other, the panelists’ advice is to not lose sight of what’s most important.
“And what’s most important is that we’re serving children,” said Kane. “Decisions need to be made that reflect that we as educators are working in the best interests of children. The community will see that by and large. They can disagree with you all day long, but when you are doing the right thing for children that speaks volumes.”
Harris said the pandemic challenged parent-teacher relationships because there were no opportunities to interact “on a human-to-human level.”
Panelists said now’s the time to repair those relationships.
“For teachers, I would just say, keep trying, don’t give up,” Patton said. “And be careful what you assume about parents. I know I let a lot of my assumptions about what all parents were thinking keep me from communicating. And so I’ve just really challenged you to put those assumptions aside and keep trying and keep communicating and keep reaching out.”
At the end of the day, “parents and teachers want the same things,” Harris said. “We want for students to reach their highest potential. We want for students to be able to have autonomy over their thoughts. We want students to be able to be academically challenged.”