Given the tragic events in Uvalde and that there is nothing I can add to people’s shock, outrage, or suggestions for reform, I continue to think about what we, as parents and educators, can do for our schools. This is not an exhaustive article, nor does it claim that implementation of these values and strategies would somehow mitigate the overwhelming pain that comes with the unnecessary, tragic loss of life.
The world continues to force our hands, with neither our consent nor our control. That means we have decisions to make that determine whether we wake up and put our feet on the ground or curl up and collapse into ourselves. On paper, the choice is obvious. In reality, however, it’s not so clear. We are more vulnerable and susceptible to our anxieties and worst-case-scenario imaginations. We need courage just to make it through the day. And we need to figure out how to teach our kids to make it through, as well.
I don’t watch The Ellen Show, but I was struck by a YouTube clip of her last message to her audience. In it, she said, “I hope [you are] your true, authentic self, and if someone is brave enough to tell you who they are, be brave enough to support them, even if you don’t understand. By opening your heart and your mind, you’re going to be that much more compassionate, and compassion is what makes the world a better place.” The idea resonated, and it makes me wonder how to infuse this value into our students’ habits of mind, both in school and out.
Now seems like a good enough time for that kind of self-reflection and change. You don’t have to be in education to see the impact Corona has had on our children, our teachers, and our schools. While many are busy hand wringing about how behind the students are and how responsible the adults will be to make up lost content, our kids, who were “stuck” behind a screen are discovering new social-emotional deficits, crippling anxieties, and a lack of compensatory skills when it comes to facing hard things. I wonder how many of these difficulties are a reflection of the same fears that we, the adults in the room, are also navigating.
Beyond Judaic Studies, Math, Science, and Humanities, let’s actively teach our students to reintegrate into communities by demanding a deep and purposeful sense of empathy, kindness, and respect from them. Let’s not make it a platitude. Let’s bombard them. In order to be successful in this place of learning, they must actively shape their emotional intelligences, resiliencies, and their abilities to rise to the occasion, even when the difficulties and discomforts they face seem impossible to overcome.
As the pandemic crawls towards whatever comes next, I see in education a tendency to crave a return to normalcy, to get back to business as usual. It seems that this desire is inevitably coupled with the hope that if we “will it,” we can make the last two years disappear. But turning back time is not a luxury that we can afford. The world has changed, and as a result, our children have changed, as well.
We have seen a referendum on 20th-century methodologies play out. We had a 21st-century problem (How will we teach during Corona?) and a 21st-century platform by which to solve it (How can we utilize online learning?), but we retreated decades into the past by asking kids to turn on their screens, mute themselves, and pay attention. For the most part, it didn’t work, not for students, and not for their teachers and parents, and we found ourselves with too many lost opportunities for students to collaborate, solve real-world problems, and sharpen their creative and critical thinking skills.
Educators are entrepreneurs who are working to design 21st-century classrooms that meet many important, yet competing, goals while also addressing the realities of the children who are in front of us at any given time. To do that, we ask ourselves what we want our students to acquire, and only once we’ve affirmed those values, can we develop curricula that teach and assess those very skills. Beyond what we want our students to know, we must ask ourselves what we want our students to do and ultimately, who we want them to be.
The non-standardized classroom is tricky because it demands agency from the students over their learning. It takes the locus of control away from the teacher. It’s still not happening enough in our schools, mostly because we haven’t demanded a change and we can’t assume that teachers, who tend to teach how they learned, are inherently prepared to innovate. Professionally, they are not rewarded for it, even if they did want to infuse a culture of vulnerability, moral empathy, and critical thinking in their classrooms. As is true for all of us who have, for one reason or another, had to make brave and difficult changes in our lives, in order to do so in school, we would have to agree to sacrifice something known in favor of something else, something that won’t have immediate payout or evidence of success for many years to come. It’s an unbelievable risk.
In the end, those opportunities and lessons will inspire within our kids the most interesting and innovative ideas and points of view. It will allow them to engage in messy, nuanced learning and ultimately, give them permission to use those skills and harness the courage they need to authentically lead us into tomorrow.
Lesson number 2: Emotionally intelligent leaders embrace the mess.