Working Together To Make Change

Let Students Lead

By | Allan Tellis, Chief Writer, Denver

After a year of rapid adjustments to schooling triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic, educational systems hope to establish a sense of normalcy in the coming school year. Traditionally, school days require students and teachers to show up in-person at a school and conduct coursework around a very clear and regimented schedule. The pandemic, however, forced most schools to provide instruction online. Navigating such a significant shift in schooling proved to be difficult for many families, teachers and communities as it required people to rapidly adjust during an uncertain and stressful time. The burden of quickly shifting to remote education was especially difficult for students and parents from historically marginalized communities because remote learning required significant resources such as high-speed internet, updated technology, and especially for younger students, parents that could be available to support their children. However, not all of the changes that were triggered by the pandemic had negative impacts on students and their families. In fact, some feel that having had remote options positively impacted their interactions with the educational system. In some cases, these new possibilities of how the educational system can function allowed for students, parents, and educators to thrive. Yet, if the need for pandemic related protocols continues to subside, so will the necessity of maintaining these non-traditional modes of engagement In many ways, the educational system will have to determine if the alterations made to traditional school systems are sustainable and worthwhile. If the changes are worthwhile, school systems will have to create mechanisms to incorporate these new modes of educational engagement with the existing systems. 

Traditionally, decision making processes for the educational system have excluded the voices of those most impacted by the consequences of changing practices in the system. People deeply embedded in the educational system, like students and teachers, are often the least privileged when advocating for and dissenting from school practices. As one student put it, “the way I see it, the education system is supposed to serve the student, but we’re also on the bottom of the hierarchy when it comes to decision making and policy. So I think that if we really want an educational system that’s going to do the most for students and prepare them for life and prepare them to be good people, I think we really need to center student wants and needs and have that be the guiding force. Overall students are not consulted in any type of decision making, at least in my district. The people in power should be students, teachers and parents, it shouldn’t be an administrator that doesn’t really know anything that’s going on in the schools or at home.” For many, the hierarchical nature of the educational system disempowers those most equipped to determine the needs of students, teachers, and community members. The dynamic need to rethink the effectiveness of these hierarchical relationships has never been more apparent than it is now as educational systems are faced with making critical decisions about what novel modes of engagement within the educational system will continue to be implemented as we move forward. towards life after the shock of a worldwide pandemic. 

At stake in this transition is the question of how the value and sustainability of educational practices are determined and who has the opportunity to have their voice heard and implemented in relation to those assessments. In large part, community members suggested that students’, parents’, and teachers’ concerns should be the most heavily weighted in relation to the adoption or ending of novel covid-related protocols. Many community members suggested that those groups are best situated to evaluate the effectiveness of any school related practices as they are routinely engaged with educational systems in meaningful ways. As one community member put it, “I selected teachers, students, parents, guardians, and school communities as key stakeholders because it is this group of people together who are able to identify, define, assess, ideate on approaches and make the changes schools need.”

Community members noted that students have a particularly good vantage point to assess what is going well within the educational system as well as what is not. Given their high volume of interaction with the school system, they are primed to have some of the most insightful takes on what changes ought to be kept and which ones should become a thing of the past. Over the last year, no group has been more affected by the protocol changes than families. Despite the obvious difficulties of shifting their ingrained routine and incorporating new modes of learning on the fly, some students found the novel ways of engaging useful and pleasant. According to one teacher, traditional schooling tends to privilege certain types of learners which leaves many students and educators frustrated as they’re at times punished for their learning style. For instance, one student, who identifies as less social, noted that the remote transition allowed her to learn in a more comfortable environment. Different learners seem to need different setups for a variety of reasons and many community members suggest that having choice and flexibility in modes of engagement with the school system could help facilitate the development of students as scholars and people.

School systems often recreate the social relationships that can be observed in the social world outside of the school. For parents, students, and teachers from marginalized communities this means schools can often be purveyors of harmful and oppressive treatment. For some, having the opportunity to not physically occupy space in unwelcoming institutions produced a level of comfort and safety which created a more positive and productive environment for learning and teaching. As one parent noted, “I would like to see more remote options for our students. I believe that many students feel safer at home where they do not experience bullying and are better able to focus etc. The same is true for educators. BIPOC educators may have benefited mentally and physically from working from home because they did not have to come into contact with as much racial battle fatigue as they would in the physical workplace.” This phenomenon seemed to be especially true for teachers, many of whom expressed frustration at the toll working in an antagonistic environment takes on their physical and emotional health. Not only can it be draining, it can limit their capacity to teach to the best of their ability. Leveraging the opportunity for change is a priority for community members. As one community member said, “I decided that a safe workplace for educators is most important because without physiological and psychological health educators can not provide the type of teaching children need to experience self-actualization”

Many community members suggested that fortunately, the pandemic reminded us of the valuable role teachers play in not only educating children but allowing the normal flow of daily life to function. As one community member put it, “Our teachers need to be paid well. If we can see anything from the pandemic, it is that parents rely on schools to not only educate their children but keep them safe and fed. Teachers are also in a position to empower young people of color and close the achievement and racial gaps formed from the deeply embedded inequities in our society — but they aren’t paid enough to do all they must do and therefore society doesn’t value teachers on a day to day basis the way that they should. Pay our teachers more. Get the right people in the classroom. Make teaching a desired career and watch our world change!” For many students, the relationships they develop with their teachers is pivotal to their success in the educational system. For instance, one student suggested one of the flaws with her school’s attempt at remote education was having students watch pre-recorded lectures from a random assortment of teachers throughout the district. Although students may have received the same quality of instruction, their education may be enhanced by familiarity.

Unfortunately, the shift online exacerbated existing inequalities in the educational system. In the remote environment, some students were clearly better resourced to continue their education than others. Some families were able to equip their children with impressive technology and provide additional assistance, while other families were concerned with properly allocating limited technological resources. Without the requisite tools some students found it quite difficult to keep pace with their online curriculum. As educational systems consider what pandemic changes can continue to be implemented, community members suggest that there must be an appropriate level of concern about what this does to the educational playing field. As one community member put it, “wealthier families were able to make accommodations to keep their kids on track. Lower economic families were not able to do that and those students missed a lot of educational opportunities. I hope to see more focus and resources on that demographic of students.” For many, it seems tremendously disadvantageous for some students to try to learn with less advanced technology in vastly different environments than others. One parent noted that they would like to see an intense focus being put on how equitable any changes have been in order to determine which changes should be left in place. 

For many community members, it is highly important that  people have access to free and fair public education in order to ensure that all children are given the opportunity to develop and actualize themselves. If schools are to maintain flexible learning options, community members suggest all of these options must be equivalent across various students’ experiences. Such equity measures are very difficult to enforce when the burden of ensuring that the learning environment is adequate is levied onto parents but it may be a necessary aim going forward. As one community member put it, “the most important changes, which are critical to the evolution of education, have to do with access. Too many students (mostly of color or low socioeconomic status) were left behind because of little to no access to the virtual classrooms. And even when computers, laptops, WiFi, etc. were made available, often times students didn’t have the extra level of support to foster being educated outside of the traditional teaching methods. I have heard whispers about learning pods and think this may be a realistic goal of the future.”  A student echoed that statement suggesting that it is not the expansion of educational possibilities that’s the problem; rather, the problem is the reluctance to supply students who are already underserved with adequate resources.

The changes during the pandemic also allowed many community members to reflect on the values of the educational system. As opposed to preparing students for critical engagement with new and useful information, for many, the school system seems to be geared towards perpetual discipline. Many students report being bored in their classes and having difficulty engaging with the significant amount of lecture time they are exposed to each school day. “We need to be much more forward thinking as adults and from the student perspective we just heard loud and clear from them, it wasn’t working form before…They said ‘ I’m bored, teachers talk too much, hard to find our passions, we just learn to memorize for tests it was such a depressing list of things they said… We would be remiss when we come back this year and settle into the norm so to speak, if we don’t take some of those ideas about how this old 1950’s style education we have is not caught up for the modern world.”  Even outside of the educational system, the strain the pandemic was taking on the mental health of students, parents, and faculty has become clear. Going forward, community members would like to see an emphasis placed on monitoring and enhancing students’ mental health as we return to more traditional educational setups. As one community member said, “if a child’s emotional and social health is well cared for, they will naturally grow in all other areas—learning, career and education pursuit and advancement, and even in test scores. The most essential education piece is to create safety and emotional health out of which a child can explore and grow.” A student noted that if students were franchised in decision making processes school systems would begin to reflect students needs.

Traditional school days can be inflexible and quite demanding especially for teachers and students. For many, it appears that educational systems were not set up to equip young people with the necessary skills to articulate and pursue their interests. In some cases, the shift online during the pandemic allowed students to engage in their school activities in a more flexible manner. Some students were able to engage in activities like eating and exercise with more autonomy giving them a more natural relationship with their school day.One teacher noted that the school system highly privileges certain styles of learning and the structure of the school system can make it difficult for teachers to respond to the individual needs of students. If school systems maintain a commitment to the continued proliferation of diverse modes of educational engagement, that may allow for a more diverse set of learning types to thrive.

Furthermore, students disengage when presented with course material they deem irrelevant and monotonous. It seems that many community members have a shared perspective of one major cause of the lack of substantive engagement of students in our schools: an outdated curriculum. As one teacher observed, “when digging into the majority of the curriculum in our schools, the majority of the curriculum is still written to white, middle-class/upper-middle-class students. The curriculum content needs to be chosen with the views of culturally responsive education so that the curriculum meets the needs of all students, all races, all SES. Teachers in the classrooms need to have more say in what curriculum is approved, rather than just school boards and CDE. In order to improve academic outcomes, we must start with the main resource teachers are using: the curriculum.”The environment inside of schools could also benefit by a commitment to providing a diverse faculty and culturally relevant curriculum. As one community member put it, “for students of color to feel accepted and seen, we must mirror our society’s racial structure with our faculty’s composition. For this to happen, teacher pay must rise as those who are coming from poverty struggle to choose teaching because prospects are limited. (For this to work, all teachers/faculty must be taught to be anti-racist so that there isn’t a hostile environment for faculty of color).”

The pandemic also allowed for community members to more genuinely engage with their schools. Given the accessibility that technology allows for, many felt that there were easier and more natural channels of engagement with the schools. In traditional educational settings, many community members feel as though they are shielded from engaging with school unless there is a disciplinary issue. As one parent put it, “the collaboration between the people inside the building and out is the key to our success. When parents and teachers/administrators partner, the students are more likely to succeed. Open dialog on curriculum as well as course content will help our children be ready for life after DPS.” The expansion of remote methods of communication added new opportunities for parents to engage and allow for that engagement to come at more flexible times for parents and students. 

The safety of all those involved with the school system must also be a priority as educational systems are presented with the unique opportunity to reset its core imperatives and functions. For community members, this safety has both physical and mental components. People must be able to advocate for sustainable practices within the educational system that allow for students and teachers to live full lives. For many community members, this means having school systems continue to be looking toward creating environments that support the positive and holistic development of the child as pandemic protocols fade away. One parent suggested, “After this pandemic and isolation I would like to see more support for the children’s social and emotional development. That means all grades get a time slot during class to be silly (be a kid!!) Loosen up, feel happy to be in class and around other people. School is so much work as it is, they need a chance to relax and wind down.” Although more work in the area of mental health awareness would be necessary, a student found their school’s newfound commitment to addressing students’ mental health was admirable.

One community member said it this way, “Students need to be developed emotionally and intellectually. The labor market is changing so rapidly because of technology, students need to be strong in character and able to learn, adjust and adapt to these changes. They need grit. Specifically, they need education on personal finance as that is a major source of pain for many American adults.” A teacher noted that students are fundamentally aware that the education they are receiving is inadequate in terms of preparing them for the future. For instance, their curriculum  does little to prepare students for the media saturated world they exist in.

Community members have suggested that it is important for the educational system to prepare students for the labor market that is forming around new ways of working and communicating. Community members also suggested that the pandemic helped identify major issues in our social, economic, and political order. They would like to see the school system equip students to tackle these problems as they enter the workforce and adulthood.Obviously, the effects of the pandemic were not contained to the educational system and the ramifications of these shifts will be felt for many years to come. 

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