Teaching with an equity mindset is a challenge in the best of times, but this crisis has added another layer of challenge to an already daunting task. We’re joined by two high school teachers – Zoe from Philadelphia, and Kara from Minneapolis. They discuss the challenges of moving to online learning while trying to keep equity at the forefront.
We discuss the ways that White and/or privileged parents can be helpful in this moment, and how we might think about what comes when this is all over.
For more on Zoe’s school – check out this article.
To read some of Kara’s reflections on teaching and education, check out EdAllies.
Join our Patreon to support this work, and connect with us and other listeners to discuss these issues even further.
The Integrated Schools Podcast was created by Courtney Mykytyn and Andrew Lefkowits.
This episode was produced by Andrew Lefkowits.
Audio editing and mixing by Andrew Lefkowits.
Music by Kevin Casey.
Andrew: Welcome to the Integrated Schools podcast - I’m Andrew, a White dad from Denver, and this is: COVID-19: Teacher Check-In. We continue to work to get out episodes, while also staying at home, and trying to be teachers. So, apologies for the delay in this episode. However, I’m very excited to share this conversation. One of the many challenges in this moment is thinking about educational equity with our kids at home, trying to engage in online learning. So, it seemed like it might be helpful to reach out to a couple of teachers who are trying to make this shift, while keeping equity at the forefront of what they do. We’re joined by Kara and Zoe - two incredibly thoughtful high school teachers from very different schools- Kara in the Minneapolis area, and Zoe in Philadelphia. While the schools where they teach are quite different, the challenges they are facing in this time of crisis hopefully get at some of the universal challenges we are all facing. So, let’s hear the conversation.
Andrew: Why don't we start out by you introducing yourselves?
Kara: Thank you for having me. My name is Kara Cisco, and I am a teacher and a parent in the Minneapolis area. I live in Minneapolis and I work in a suburb of Minneapolis, and I've been teaching for 15 years. I teach ninth grade Civics and 12th grade Ethnic Studies. My children are 10, and then I have one that's five that'll be going into kindergarten next year.
My children are biracial, and my children attend a school that is just a few walks from our house that is 99% free and reduced lunch, and a good 75-76% English language learners.
Andrew: Awesome. Zoe?
Zoe: My name is Zoe Rooney. I am a biracial mom of two boys in Philadelphia. I am also a ninth grade teacher. I teach Algebra I, and my kids attend our neighborhood public school here in Philly.
Andrew: So prior to schools closing, social distancing, the COVID outbreak, what were your days like as teachers in your schools?
Kara: In terms of my day to day, I teach four sections of ninth grade civics, which is like my passion. I think that civics is the most important class right now.Like, I think algebra is important too, so Zoe, I don't want to step on your toes. But I just, I feel like in this space there's like a 20-25 year gap where people that are our generation just did not receive civics instruction that was intended for social discord. It was intended for pure, raw American exceptionalism in its most egregious form. So I think that we're just trying to build some of that back. A week before the school closures, three of my students testified at the capitol with regards to the disproportionate number of Black and Brown students that are suspended in Minnesota schools. And so it's tough to not be able to close the loop on that because their testimony was amazing. But here we are here.
Andrew: Yeah. How about you Zoe?
Zoe: Yeah. So the school that I work at in Philly is a really interesting place. It's almost entirely Black students, a couple of Latinx students. It is in one of the highest poverty neighborhoods in the city. And it is a school that was slated for closure within the last couple of years because it has been under-enrolled and it has not performed especially well on the standard metrics that schools are judged by.
So our day-to-day is really different I think from a lot of other schools, because we were already focused pretty heavily on things like building relationships with students. And we have students who are on a whole range of academic levels coming in. More than half of our students have individual education plans, so they receive special education services.
We have a large number of students that bounce in and out of the juvenile justice system. So our day to day really is heavily focused already on issues of equity because our students are, on a daily basis, left out of opportunities that are afforded to other students, even within our own urban district.
So day to day, the logistics of that are that I go in and I teach three 90-minute sections of Algebra I to all of our ninth graders. But that also looks like a lot of talking to kids about what's going on in their lives, and helping them access resources whenever they need resource, talking to families, working with colleagues, managing a whole host of things that come up at any given day in my students' lives, that impact their ability to succeed at school.
So it's been interesting because, in some ways that's changed since we closed down, and in some ways it's really just highlighting the sort of things that we already felt were important, but we weren't able to prioritize as much as we wanted to, given the other structures that, you know, need to be in place in a day to day school.
Andrew: Mm, right. . . So let's talk about the school's closing. What was the transition like from, okay, we're all going to school in the same building to now we're doing some form of online learning. How long did you have to work that out? What expectations were there in your districts?
Zoe: Yeah. Here in Philly, it was really abrupt. So on Thursday, March 12th, the neighboring, suburban county shut down and that day all the people in that county were instructed to stay home. And we have a large number of teachers in our district who live in that county. So that presented kind of a conundrum for our district, for Friday. But we weren't shut down yet. So on that Friday, what the district decided to do was they shut down 63 out of the 200 something schools in the district because those schools had a percentage of teachers from that neighboring county that was high enough that it was going to be hard to run the schools, and the rest of the schools stayed open.And so it was kind of a scramble on Friday where nobody really knew - I mean, my school was open, but the school that my kids go to was closed. So it threw a whole bunch of wrenches into this system of people being able to show up for work or not, or having to find childcare for their own kids or not.
And so then part way through that day, at I think around like 1:30 or 2 PM the announcement went out district wide that all schools were gonna close. And so that was effective the following Monday, and we've been closed since then.
We haven't been doing anything formal yet. So technology access is a real struggle for our district, both in terms of having devices and having access to internet. Even though we're in a big city, it is the poorest big city in the country, and some people just don't have the devices and the access. So the district put out these learning guides, which are basically packets that are available both online and in hard copy at sites that meals are being given out at, and they are essentially meant to be review content for core subjects for all grade levels. So, students have been working on those independently, but nothing counts for grades and we are not allowed to give any credit in any way for anything yet. I'm not taking attendance yet.
Last week was spring break. Over the last two weeks and then going into this week, we've been working across the district to distribute laptops to students and to get kids hooked up to internet. And then next week we are supposed to be starting additional review content that will go out through online mechanisms, but we aren't going to be grading anything or taking attendance until the beginning of May, at the earliest.
So we're still, we're still very much in the middle of a transition.
Andrew: Trying to figure out how to reach kids and get them something, but none of it really formally structured at all yet.
Zoe: Yeah. I think the priority right now is getting kids hooked up and then I think one thing that I think our district has done really well, is that they have thought really intentionally about the challenges that online learning presents for students beyond just the connectivity piece of it, into the what their lives look like at home and what things are going on outside of school, and taking that into account as they try to be really deliberate in what they ask of students. And then also really deliberate in what they ask of teachers. So understanding that, you know, a lot of us have kids too, and we have stuff going on.
My spouse is an essential worker and still has to go to work. And so, I think they are trying to be really deliberate about what they roll out and how, keeping in mind the needs of all of the populations. But it is, it is a really slow process.
Andrew: Yeah. Kara. How about you?
Kara: Our governor initially made a speech saying that they weren't gonna close, but then at the same day, released recommendations about staggering passing periods so that there wouldn't be more than 30 students in the hallway at a time. So a friend of mine who is a dean and I were kind of doing the math on that, and I think he said that we would need to have at least 20 passing periods in order to follow that recommendation.
Andrew: Just like, constantly kids moving. Yeah.
Kara: So with that recommendation, because we sort of saw it coming, the next step for us was to develop a grassroots group of scrappy teachers that were willing to put together some recommendations early.
The amazing staff at our media center got involved right away in like tagging the Chromebook carts that we have, imagining that they'd eventually be deployed to students. And I'm so grateful that we, you know, we did that. And I'm also grateful to work in a building that really is responsive to teacher leadership. I think that’s important.
And what ended up happening, surprised no one. So this all happened on a Friday, and then that Sunday governor Waltz came back to announce that schools would be closed, the upcoming Wednesday.
However, Waltz also directed teachers and districts not to start until two weeks after that. And he did that mindfully, like wanting to give teachers professional development and learning time in order to prepare and do it right. So our district, to their credit, did ask teachers to make contact with students, like from day one. We wanted to keep the relationships going. We wanted to be able to take a temperature on how students were doing. Because as Zoe mentioned, I mean, it's a situation where we have students all across the spectrum, in terms of how they're doing with their social emotional health and also what their home environments look like right now and what their responsibilities look like in terms of childcare.
A lot of our students are essential workers too. You know, if they had a grocery store job that was just their grocery store job, it's not just a grocery store job anymore, you know? And so we wanted to be able to assess some of that stuff too. And so despite having two weeks for professional development, at home learning together, we had daily contact with students, little team buildings, and officially, officially we started last week.
Andrew: Okay. So some ongoing outreach over the past couple of weeks, but nothing official until last week. And then Zoe, it sounds like nothing official for at least another couple of weeks, maybe? How many of your families have you been able to reach?
Zoe: So, my school really focuses on parent and student outreach a lot, anyway. Although I will say, it was still a struggle to get in touch with everybody, more than I expected, not being face to face with students. So we were fortunate that once we actually went through and looked at all of our laptops at school, we had enough for all of our students in our school already, which is not the case across the district by any means. So, in preparation for getting out the Chromebooks, we went through and made a really concerted effort to get in touch with every single family so we can talk about when they could come and pick one up.
I think out of my 65 ninth graders, maybe two already have laptops at home. So we really needed to reach all of them. And, it took a couple of days between myself, one of our counselors and a couple of other people, but we did get pretty much all of them. I think there were maybe like two that still weren't communicating back with us. So I think we've been pretty successful. I don't think it's consistent at all across the district. And that's, I think one of the big problems we're seeing across our district is that there's huge variation across the city.
Andrew: Kara, have you guys reached all of your students? Do you know?
Kara: Well, similar to what Zoe had mentioned, although much more of our students were connected or had technology at home, but we were able to survey students with regards to laptops, Chromebooks, tablets, et cetera, on that Friday We distributed them on the Monday and our office staff and our support staff and our media center staff have been working tirelessly in order to make sure that students who were not able to pick them up on Monday have them in their hands. It's just a Herculean effort and using the school buses to run their normal routes and drop stuff off to students. And it's just been absolutely just incredible how quickly that came together. And I've been working just from home, you know, thanks to their effort doing all that in order to actually just try to contact the families that I hadn't heard from yet after their first few initial assignments. And it's taken a while,, but now I think I'm down to five or six students that I haven't heard from. Out of the 135-140.
Andrew: Yeah. I mean, that's, that is both pretty good, and also five or six kids who you would have seen at least most days in school, and you don't yet have contact with.
Kara: It's terrifying, because I mean the more layers of intervention that the ninth grade team and I did to contact kids - we’re talking about like emails, phone calls, reminder messages, text messages to parents, text messages to parents is Spanish and in Somali. You know what I mean? You just try everything. And so at that point, that's when you really, really get concerned, you know.
Zoe: Yeah. It's been interesting too, like you just mentioned Kara, as far as outreach through multiple methods. That's really something that we've had to kind of work through as well. So while most of our students didn't have access to a laptop at home, a lot of them had smartphones.
So we've been really relying a lot more heavily on things like text messages and Remind. And then also Instagram, we've been relying really heavily on, and that's been really effective for us because almost all of our students are on Instagram. And so we've done some, we've done some kind of fun things on Instagram to try and get the kids to engage more with the school. Where we did like baby pictures, guess who this is kind of stuff just to get kids there and looking at it. And that's been a really good way to kind of keep tabs on kids as well.But it has been interesting to try. We, we've had to think more widely about how we're keeping in touch.
Andrew: The kids who you can't reach, I'm guessing that those are your most vulnerable kids, most likely, and I know you mentioned Kara, it's just like there's sort of a bit of terror when each additional step doesn't yield contact, but what is our, and, I don't mean you personally as teachers, but sort of as a society, as sort of an educational system, what do you think about our obligation to those kids in this time? And is it just impossible to live up to that given the circumstances?
Zoe: Yeah. I don't think it's, I don't think it's any less possible now than it was before school closed. Although you do lose the opportunity to kind of grab them in person when you see them. But the students who I have not been able to get in touch with, not all of them, but some of them are also students who had some issues with truancy.
So it wasn't always a given that I would see them day to day. And they kind of came in, sometimes didn't come in other times, came in late sometimes. So some things are not, are not especially different about this, but it has really highlighted the ways that our other systems are failing, which I think so much of this school closure has highlighted is the way that all of our systems around our schools and around our kids as safety nets are sort of failing them.And the schools are stepping in.
Because the kids that I can't reach should be reachable through other social services. And they're also not through those social services right now. And so that's, I think partly what's scary about it is that we're doing probably the best out of a lot of the services available to those kids as far as reaching them, and we still can't get them all and it doesn't seem like anybody else's is really stepping in either to have that contact.
Kara: I mean, here's the deal. Like, of course teachers are gonna be concerned about that because that's, we can't not, otherwise, we're in the wrong job. And I wonder how much we're learning because I agree with Zoe's sentiment that like all of the flaws, right, of our, our society as a whole right now and particularly the individualism, I mean, it really speaks, it really says a lot to me that this was maybe our very first true lesson in public health and community responsibility. Right? And
I hope that we can take a lesson from this experience in terms of the way that we see responsibility as a community because our social and societal health is critical. And also it's a canary in the coal mine in terms of how our society is functioning in general, and teachers in schools do way too much.
I think if anything, this crisis has laid that bare for all of us to see. Just the way that we saw, schools across the nation scrambled to put together lunches or to get technology in homes, to overcome the digital divide, which is something that we shouldn't even be talking about. It's 2020.
Everyone deserves to be connected to the internet. Right.
Andrew: And certainly we shouldn’t be turning to schools to solve that problem. Right?
Kara: no, no.
Andrew: That is a big, society wide problem, not a school problem.
Kara: This is the lesson. This is the thing that I would like us to emerge, you know, a better, healthier society from: Of course, teachers that are going to worry about their kids.Of course we're going to care, but there's no kid on the planet that wants to be truant all the time, or that wants to be like quote unquote big air quotes, a bad kid or a wants to display behavior that constantly finds them, facing more exclusionary discipline or what have you.
Those are all symptoms of larger problems that are supposed to be solved by way more people than the ones that are in our school buildings.
Andrew: Yeah. I mean, if this crisis has shown us anything, it is, all of the inequities that exist that we now see so clearly, because kids are sitting at home all day every day that, like you said Zoe, it’s the same stuff that was happening before the crisis, but now we can't hide anymore.And, we used to think that if you just put them all in the same building that teachers and administrators could just like fix all of these big massive underlying problems.
Zoe: Right. But I think, what's a little scary about this is that there are still huge populations that are very hidden in this and that are really hidden from the majority of parents and even from a lot of educators. And so I would say that those are largely the students who have significant special education needs, and the English language learners, and then to some extent, some of our LGBTQ students who, in a previous episode of the podcast, you talked about how our home school situations are more segregated than ever, right? And what happens with that is that unless you have a student or a child in your home that is in one of those kind of groups of students, you are completely not aware of what the struggles are for those families and those students.
And that is really hidden right now. And I think that was another thing that was largely hidden before, but even more so now when people are kind of confronted with their own struggles, but are not cognizant of the struggles that entire schools and entire districts are faced with.
That's something I'm pretty concerned about as we continue with this.
Kara: I'm glad you mentioned that, Zoe, because one of the things that we've been thinking about as a building a lot right now is the dead naming of our trans students on online platforms.
Zoe: Yes, that's something that has come up recently for our district too, as we are moving towards those platforms . . .
Andrew: Before you get into that, can just sort of explain what, what the problem is with dead naming and technology platforms?
Zoe: Yeah. So, our district uses the Google suite of apps and students have to log into those with their school district email accounts, which are tied to their ID number and, and it populates with their display name with their legal name. And, there's no way in our system for students to change the display name or for adults in the school to change the display name.
So, there are lots of examples of why this could be problematic for kids who don't necessarily use their legal name for a wide variety of reasons. But particularly for, for transgender students who use a totally different name, every time they log into the system, their display name is going to be their legal name in the system. And what that could do, is it could out them to their peers, if, if that display name doesn't match their gender identity, or what they've been using in school. So that, that's just one example of how that's a really problematic system.
I’m sure there are many others.
Kara: It’s just generally traumatizing to see that name that maybe you haven't used since you were in, you know, middle school or before every single day in the context of a school environment.
Andrew: In the context of ongoing stress and trauma and the chaos of late, like the last thing that we need right now is to be adding to the stress and chaos of kids' lives.
Kara: It's one thing to be able to exclude kids from certain assignments so that their name isn't on display for the entire class. Righ? So I could theoretically just have them do the assignments where it's only me and them that are seeing it and, and that's it. But now that we're almost exclusively online, we're really talking about a huge educational equity issue with regards to the students that are left out.
Zoe: And I think that when we talk about the kids who are not participating, so I know there was an article, I think it was in the Los Angeles times, that came out that highlighted the number of students that they have in high schools who are not participating in online learning.
And it just, when I started to think more about this dead naming issue, it just highlighted a whole other set of reasons why kids may not be participating, and that has nothing to do with their desire to participate in school, and with their teachers and with their peers. And I think that's just one example that really highlights that there are a multitude of reasons that kids may not engage in online learning right now and it's dangerous to put motives on that or put reasons on that or put pressures on that for students, without having that context. Because if we have some parents who are saying, well, we need to be having a really structured school day where everybody logs in and it's accounted for and there should be consequences if they don't, and they're saying that because they need that for their kids. They're ignoring the reasons, the very valid reasons that other kids may not be able to, or be willing to participate in those systems and they're putting a lot of pressure on the system to perform in a way that may be harmful for other students without realizing it.
Andrew: So It sounds like there's a lot of reasons for school districts to be really thoughtful about the systems that they're implementing and things they're putting in place, but maybe there's also some role for parents to play in terms of thinking about these bigger pictures here. Like what, what should parents be doing?
Zoe: So I think one thing I would really like parents to think about is if there are things that they feel like they need from teachers or schools, is to try and be really reflective about what the sort of root level of need is that they're trying to have the teacher or the school address.
Because I see a lot of things on social media that seem to me like they are root level need for structure in their child's day, right? Like I need my school and my teacher to be providing a certain level of structure for my kids, or that they're occupied cause I have to work or because they benefit from structure or whatever.
And I think if parents can be really thoughtful about what the actual need is, then that would allow us as teachers to help them problem solve that need, while also accounting for all the other students and families and needs that we have. Because I can address a need for structure with a family who really needs that in some way, that may not mean my whole class needs to have that same structure and that same schedule. Right?
Andrew: Needs to log in at 9am and have a class meeting at 9:45, and get your stuff done by noon. Yeah.
Zoe: Right? So I think that if parents can have that level of honesty and transparency back with teachers and say, you know, I'm asking for these things because I'm having trouble with X, Y, and Z, then that, that allows us to problem solve in a more collaborative way that is more generative and based on my understanding of all my students versus just saying, I need you to have a schedule where they're logging in and I need them to have grades. That's not the same thing. And that's going to penalize some of my students in a way that that isn't that what we're going for?
Andrew: There's this piece of the importance of relationships that you need to know your students. And I, you know, I'm struck that you guys and your districts, I think, you know, to their credit, have both put a lot of time and thought and energy into figuring out how to reach families - the right methods of communication, the right content to deliver to them so that they will engage, the right platforms to use. And there seems to be a real intensive effort around that. But it seems like that should be what schools are doing all the time.
There's like a, a sense in normal times that if you don't show up, it's because you don't care. Or if you don't respond to the message from your teacher, it's because you're not a good parent. And now in this sort of brief window, we have this sense of well, everybody's got different needs and different stresses in their lives, so let's find a way to reach out and, and get in touch with them.
But it seems like we should be doing that all the time. No?
Zoe: Yeah. I mean, I think, I think to an extent, a lot of things had to get out of the way for that to happen.
Kara: I guess my question to you, Andrew, and I mean, I agree with you, but with regards to the, you know, that thought, I think that sometimes pops into, into people's heads about like, well, if this parent doesn't respond, it's because they don't care, if this student doesn't respond, it's because they're bad kid. How often is that a racialized comment? Right? I mean, I think Zoe and I represent two teachers that have put in a lot of work, in terms of understanding the function of White culture and White supremacy on all of our systems. The education system included.
And so I think it tastes kind of a certain awareness to put aside the excuses and the shame, blame kind of culture that develops around communities and to be able to say, no, we're going to get to the bottom of this. Because if you say, oh, it’s because they don't care, what you're doing is you're, is, you're passing off that responsibility. You're saying, well, they don't care, so I don't need to worry about it. And that's, I mean that it's not fair to the schools. It's not fair to the kids. It's not fair to the families, but it's perfectly inline with our school system.
Zoe: That's true. And I would also just highlight that it's not like you were saying, I think both of us have spent a lot of time thinking about this, but there are unfortunately plenty of teachers in my school district who do not think that way, and there is still a lot of shifting of blame or shifting and responsibility.
It seems like one of the things that is helping you guys is this ability to build community with the students in your school, and also with their families. Even just to know the challenges that trans kids might be facing with logging into a system that uses their legal name, like you have to know a kid well enough, have a trusting enough relationship that they will share something like that with you, that you can even see that as a problem.
And it seems like whatever ways you guys are able to be successful in this crisis, in this transition to online learning, has to do with building those skills, and those relationships. And like you said, Zoe, a lot of things had to get out of your way to be able to really focus on that. And it seems like those things are the things that make, at least in my mind, an actually good school. But those are not the things that make what is sort of traditionally considered a good school. Those are not things that get, at least as far as I'm aware of, don't get measured in any meaningful way, don't play a role in anybody's accountability, in teacher evaluations and in any of those things.
Zoe: I think, I think that's true. I think what I've had to learn and what I'm still trying to figure out is the idea that taking away some of those more objective measures. It's great in some ways cause it does get out of our way and it takes away objective measures that are built on White supremacist ideas and that are not reflective of anything meaningful about our students.
So that, that's good. But on the other hand, all of the subjective metrics we have in ways of judging students are also often racist. Right? So it is also scary to take away all of the objectivity in all of this as well. And I haven't figured out how to balance those things yet, so that, that is kind of scary to me.
Andrew: Right.. White supremacy is everywhere, right? Like if we only rely on subjective metrics, then all of the underlying racist assumptions that we bring about kids have even more of a chance to show up. But the objective metrics are also plagued by White supremacy. Like we want our kids to feel welcomed and be themselves and, and be known in community in their schools, but we also want them to be ready for the next grade.
Zoe: So I used to teach eighth grade and I am really concerned about our eighth graders who are coming into high school next year. There's a lot of ground to make up. But I'm, my primary concern is still not even necessarily about those kids, it really is going back to that idea of special education and the students who are English language learners. Because I think that those are the categories of students who are, not only not progressing right now, but are at risk of regressing and losing ground. Our students who have complex emotional needs, physical disabilities, who have autistic support needs, who don't have the same access to technology because they're deaf or hard of hearing, or they're blind or they are still learning English.Those students are really gonna have a hard time even maintaining the point they're at now.
Kara: I would add undocumented students to the list as well. I've been thinking a lot about, you know, the way that families are being impacted by unemployment right now, with regards to families that are documented and are eligible for some of the benefits that the stimulus package opened up for them. I mean, that's, that's not a conversation that we can have with our undocumented families. It's terrifying.
Kara: You know, we've been talking a lot about what we do with our school communities and building relationships at school. How are you two connecting with your children's schools right now?
We picked our daughter's school because she's like a relationship kid, and she's also a kid that needs a lot of structure. And the school that is closest to our house, which also happens to serve a population that's really different than us. And because I'm over here doing all this, with my kids, you know that I teach, I am realizing right now how isolated I am from the families that go to my kid's school and how strong my desire is to connect and reach out.
And I'm starting to build some of those connections and networks, but if I had laid the groundwork a lot sooner, then I'd feel a lot more secure in maintaining the relationships with her school community as well. So how has that been for the two of you in terms of your kids' schools?
Zoe: So, I largely am not very connected to my kids' school and that's for a variety of kind of complicated reasons. One is that my older son is going to be fine no matter what academically. So I don't especially need to be. He can do school work right now, he can not do school work right now. He can play video games until the end of time, which I'm not letting him do. There are limits on that, but he could, and he, and he would, he could, he would be happy to, and he would also be fine. So in that way, there isn't a need.
My other son, receives autistic support services and I will need to be more connected at some point with what he needs to be doing. But, it’s sort of the opposite end of the spectrum with him where he is at real risk of regression in terms of his academics and behaviors. But I am also keenly aware that, even though I'm a certified teacher, and I'm certified to teach his grade level, I'm not a special education teacher, and I'm not an occupational therapist, and I'm not a speech therapist, and I cannot recreate those services at home, even with the support of the professionals.
So, with him we've been more focused on developing some kind of routine and emotional stability at home. And I have been in contact with his teacher and his speech therapist, a little bit. But I'm not going to be putting any pressure on him academically, I am going to prioritize what I think is emotionally best for him, knowing that he's probably going to lose some ground and knowing that, he will need additional services down the line and we'll have to do whatever it takes at that point to try and get to the best possible outcomes we can based on what he needs.
But I do struggle with it though, because I do spend a lot of time connecting to my students at school and not so much time connecting to my own kid's school. And I do sometimes have some internal conflict about whether I am balancing those priorities, the “right” way and whether I should be spending more time on my own kids stuff. But I always kind of come back to the idea that they have enough systems and structures in place that even with my kid who's going to lose ground, he'll, he'll still be okay down the line. And I can't necessarily say the same for all of my students. So that's where I'm going to prioritize my education focused energy right now.
And I think a lot of that comes down to sort of what you were saying about race and access issues. So, I'm biracial, but I would identify my kids as White and being both White males, even though one has a significant disability, they're going to walk through life a lot more easily than the majority of my students ever will. So they'll be okay.
Andrew: Yeah. I mean, I'm definitely acutely feeling the loss of the broader school community. In general, I try to take a somewhat hands off approach. I think, like Zoe, both, both of my kids are going to be fine academically. I try to go out of my way to not take up time from my kids' teachers - to, you know, respond when they reach out but to otherwise not take up too much space at the classroom level, and so I've tried to just sort of stick with that. You know, my youngest is in kindergarten. So like the online learning is just, it's like a bit of a joke.
Andrew: You know, it took her between 15 and 20 minutes to do all of the assignments for the day.
And of course I had to like read them to her cause she, you know, she reads like every third word or something. So she doesn't really know what she's supposed to do. So I have to read it to her and then send her off to go do it for 10 minutes. And then she's basically done for the day and I'm like, okay, you know, I would like her to have more things that take up her time. Not, not necessarily academically, but just so that I have more free time. But I'm not going to reach out to her teacher and demand more. I think, like you were saying, Zoe, I, I know she is dealing with a wide range of kids and home environments and is trying her best.
My third grader, she's relatively able to be self directed. I would imagine that if I spent more time actively engaging with her, she might get more out of it or do more. I don't know. But I'm inclined to just let her run her own school and ask her if she got her stuff done. And you know, again, if, if the teacher reaches out, to make sure that I show up, but otherwise I'm not taking up too much space.
Zoe: Yeah. I mean, I think as a teacher, what I would want is like the acknowledgement that you gave about how you are trying to not take up a ton of space and that you, you realize that there are competing priorities.
Because I think one thing that I have struggled with as a teacher is, you know, it's hard to read tone in written messages and emails. And it is hard for me to know if something's coming from a parent is that they are upset and want a solution, or they have ideas and questions or they're confused or how they're coming to that situation.
And for a lot of teachers, we feel like it is our job to fix things for them and their children and to make things run smoothly for their children. And so I think that can cause a lot of stress on teachers sometimes, depending on how the question or the request is worded.
But I think that transparency and communication in both directions is really important, but I think it especially because people are stressed right now, it'd be great to include some language in that request that makes the tone clear for that teacher. Probably more couching than you would normally ever want to do. Be gentle, which I think everybody should be right now, honestly, in all communications.
Andrew: I think that's, that's a thing I've heard a lot of White and/or privileged parents struggling with right now is sort of what space should we be taking up. You know what, what is our role in this moment? Given the fact that, like you said, Zoe, our kids come with a cushion of privilege and it takes various forms, but they all have some degree of privilege that softens the blow of this missed time. And so what is our role in this moment?
Kara: I have been thinking about that too, with like regards to more than anything like the parents in my daughter's classroom. I feel like one of like maybe the key responsibilities of, of being the other, you know what I mean? There's like very few White parents and the school. I think one of the key responsibilities is like integrating as a parent into that environment. And I've failed at that. And I don't blame myself because of my job, you know? But the parents are the ones with so much collective power.
I know how important it is to like on the ground level, organize and be not, you know, as the leader, right? But just as like a person who's willing to engage in like the PTA groups, and the equity meetings, and the text messages, and the meetings, and I'm not, and I'm, ugh, it's, that's been really weighing on me hard.
Andrew: That when your school community finds itself in need, you don't feel connected to it because, where would you find the time to be connected to that when so much school, community connection, energy of yours is spent at work.
Kara: Right? And I don't have time right now. I mean, I got to get through the day just, thanks, on like extra sugar from leftover Easter peeps alone. I'm working twice as hard right now. I promise you.
Zoe: But, I do think it's, it's worth talking about. In terms of like what we can all kind of learn from this, I mean, I think - I've been reading a lot from other educators and just thinking a lot about how we really don't want to go back. And, Kara, you mentioned this when you were talking about civics before. We don't want to go back to where we were because where we were was broken in a lot of ways, and the only way that we can really improve on this situation is by kind of blowing up some of the stuff in our systems that clearly weren't working. So I think what I would want parents, especially the parents in positions of privilege to do, is to really kind of focus in on what your priorities are in this moment, because they're different than what they were before when we had regular school. And maybe like write them down and think about how as your situation changes over the next couple of weeks and as different things happen in your family and your friend circles and in your jobs and your life, how did those things shift your priorities? And then keep listening to everybody else around you.
So, one thing I learned from Courtney is the power of having conversations and listening to other people. And so I think the more that we as parents and community members in the school community can listen to each other and hear how everybody's priorities are shifting and changing and what that means as far as what needs to shift and change in our overall systems once we can start to move forward, that that's where we all have a kind of collective power is to think about the ways that our systems aren't serving any of us, and then how they're not serving the people who are, are served the least by them as we move forward. But we can't do that unless we're continuing to talk to each other and listen to each other and hear those stories.
Andrew: Yeah. Know each other.
Kara: You stated that so perfectly, Zoe. I think that's kind of what I'm getting at when I'm thinking of the disconnection from my kid's school also, is just realizing that Zoe's 100% right Like systems when they're disrupted, want to settle back into the old cracks that were long existing.
Right? And so, that we at this point should have every expectation that when we come back in September or whatever it is, that we happen to come back, we should have every expectation that the system is just going to settle into like the old broken way that things were done before and we should have the expectations so that we can plan now.
Right? In order to make sure to take all the steps that we need to in order to ensure that that doesn't happen. We need to have a plan. The teachers, unfortunately, like we have the ideas, we have the will and we have the skill, but it's about the time and the energy compared to everything else that we are doing.
And that's kind of where that community piece comes in.
Zoe: And I think, I think beyond even the fall of being really careful to not let our systems that we're trying to adapt to online learning start to replicate the problems that we had in physical, in person learning. Because I am seeing that in some places, where people want to replicate what we had because it's familiar, safe, or whatever, but in doing that they're replicating things that were causing harm and they're just doing it in a different environment at this point.
But I also just think that there is this piece about how we're all experiencing something that is really different. And I think I've heard it described as sort of a collective trauma right now and especially, for folks who have been personally impacted in their families or their friend groups by illness or by job loss or by all these things that are going on as a result of this pandemic, I do think about the ability that some people will have to kind of bounce back from that down the line.
That is, that is not universal that everybody's not going to be able to do. And I don't want people to lose sight of -and this might sound kind of cold, but I don't want people to sort of lose sight of the way that they are feeling in the circumstances that they're up against right now. And the way that that impacts their priorities and their choices and what they think is really important for their family down the line once they have bounced back.
I want people to sort of remember what it is like to have your priorities shift because you are dealing with a lot of different demands on your time and your emotions.
Andrew: That are out of your control,
Zoe: That are out of your control because I think in remembering that people will be able to have more empathy for everyone else in their community down the line when different things are out of other people's control.
Andrew: Yeah. There's such potential in this moment because we have proven that all sorts of things that we thought could never change have changed, right? Like we have, we have made a massive overhaul to the way we do just about everything in society because there was the will to do it.
And, so there's like potential in that. We are, you know, in a crash course and in a not particularly thoughtful way, but we are discovering what is possible through technology. And, you know, there's a way to come out of that, I think, with a sense of these things are really good on technology and these things are really bad, and this is where, you know, we could actually augment our learning with technology, and this is where the importance of being in the same space is really there. If you know, if we can be thoughtful about those things.
And I think, we talked about this a little bit on the last episode, but like we're, we're all being asked to do things that are uncomfortable, and particularly as White and/or privileged people, that's not something that we are usually asked to do. And so we are doing it in some ways, and we're probably not doing it in, in all the ways that we should, and we're not doing it in as thoughtful way as we should, whatever. But we are doing it in some ways. And so I think there is a potential to pull all those things with us out the other side of this and maybe end up somewhere better.
But I worry because you know, there is something frightening to me about empowered, well intentioned, isolated White people.
Kara: Yeah. Scary.
Andrew: We have a track record of not making good decisions and, and we're all stuck at home, you know, I spent a lot of time thinking like I have flexibility now. I have privilege. I'm not an essential worker. I don't have to go to work. I'm not worried about money. I'm very fortunate right now. And so I have time to think about what I want the world to look like on the other side of this. But If I'm not doing that in community with people who don't look like me, with people who don't come from the same background as me, with people who don't have the same experiences as me, I worry about my own ability to try to drive positive change.
And so through this moment, I fear that we take all this potential for good, this sort of reshuffling that we now need to rebuild, but also the social distancing that makes it even harder to build that sense of community that you were saying you're missing, Cara, from your school, right? The sense of connection to other families - that when it comes time to activate, what are we going to activate towards? Because I think just activating towards what we think might be good is dangerous.
Zoe: Yeah. Well, and I think for me, what I've been trying to keep doing to reorient myself is to think about so in school terms, if we started with the students who are at most of that risk of regression, and we focused there first, right? And we solved for providing those students as much as we possibly could first, and then we dealt with everybody else down the line, that would be a fundamental shift in how we think about prioritization in schools. And if we started with those students then I think we'd be in a much better position for all students and we would be really focused on actual equity, right?
‘Cause even as you're saying, you know, we've made a lot of shifts in how we're doing almost everything, but I still think we've made all those shifts, but on whose back, right? And if we look at the rates of like Black workers who are still out doing low wage essential jobs and are therefore at a much higher risk of both infection and then are receiving subpar medical care in a lot of places. I mean, we are making some changes, but we're not making them for everyone. And the changes that we are making are on the backs of people who are getting the least support from our systems.
Andrew: As they’ve always been.
Zoe: As they've always been. So I do think you're right, that there are some real risks in terms of isolating as this happens and not seeing all of those stories, what is happening in the workforce, but it's also happening as we moved to online learning with all the students that a lot of people aren't seeing day to day.
Kara: I think I like the point that you made, Andrew, just about us discovering how much we can do with technology when we have to, and I thought of that when, you know, we mentioned being in community. Because one of the dumb excuses that I frequently would tell myself as to why I wasn't more involved with my daughter's school was that, you know, I don't speak Spanish and almost all of the parents do? I'm here to tell you that I have had probably 50 text message conversations over Google translate that have gone completely fine. And so I think that those are sort of the things that we can learn and build from when you talk about being in community, when we move forward through whatever great things awaits our collective action. is using some of the lessons that we have learned, you know, through this experience with regards to video conferencing and with regards to reaching out.
Andrew: Google translate,
Kara: Google translate. Yeah.
Zoe: Yeah. I'd also just say like using the lesson that we have all learned really sharply about how central schools are as a social safety net and as a social services provider. And so now if we really recognize that now, then what we can all do moving forward is treat schools and people who work in schools as such and give them the level of respect for what they know about students and student communities that they deserve.
Because like Kara was saying, if you ask the people who work in schools and not just teachers, all of the staff members, the building staff who work in schools, they know a lot about those communities. They know a lot about the needs and they know a lot about what steps we should be taking to appropriately meet the needs of everybody, and we haven't really been listening to schools and to the people who are actually in the schools and to the students who are actually in the schools, because I think we've always still felt like there are other experts who know more. And I think what we've really seen is that’s vividly not the case, because if it were the case, we would not be having these mad scrambles to get all of the resources going back through the schools, out to kids.
And so I think that that's something that we really can leverage across privilege and race, is saying like, we just saw that these systems are incredibly reliant on schools and on educators and on and on food services providers. So those are the people who we need to be going and asking questions of when we're talking about systemic and policy changes,
Andrew: Right. Yeah. To be able to see the expertise that exists. And I think that's, you know, another one of the potential ways that we could pull good out of this tragedy is that we have been forced to come to terms with all of the expertise that exists. That expertise comes from building community with those families and building relationships with those students. And that's something that our teachers do that we don't often give them enough credit for, I think.
Kara: Well, and then, you know, I have to circle back to what Zoe said, which is like so important, with regards to next year. When we think about trauma informed teaching, the way that this crisis is disproportionately impacting African American people, I mean, that's gonna impact our students in our schools and the whole ecosystem of our communities in ways that are unforeseen.
Kara: And so therefore there's like all of these lessons that we're picking up. We have another crisis kind of coming right for us to immediately apply some of these lessons on the front end.
Zoe: Yeah, like you were saying, as far as economics, I mean, we're looking at really potentially, really dire budget situations in schools coming down the line. So, that's going to be another problem that's kind of compounded now. And that's the sort of ecosystem in which I think that the parents who hold privilege can be effective. Where if they're saying, you know we've seen how important public education is vividly for our students and for all students, and we are going to put our feet down about how it's going to be prioritized fiscally. And we're also going to work really hard to amplify the voices of the people who work in buildings and the students in the buildings to talk about what actually is meaningful for them so that whatever funding we still have can be prioritized towards the things that matter.
I think there's a lot of things that parents, like Kara said, have a lot of power on, if they raise their voices about them and priorities the districts hold once we try and start moving forward with really scary budgets is one of those areas.
Andrew: I really appreciate both of your time and your perspectives and just deeply grateful for the work that you are both doing in your cities. I think I can thank you both on behalf of them. You can take it for all of the teachers who are out there in the midst of this. I've always had a great deal of respect for teachers, but even more so now, given all the things that are on your plate, I'm incredibly grateful that there are teachers out there and that there are teachers as thoughtful and compassionate as you guys.
Zoe: Well, thanks.
Andrew: Thanks for coming on.
Kara: Thank you for having us, Andrew.
Andrew: Huge thanks to Kara and Zoe for taking the time out of their busy schedules to share their thoughts and perspectives. I hope you found it helpful to hear two voices from the front lines sharing what they think might be helpful in this moment. I continue to struggle with the challenges presented by COVID, and what my role should be for my kids, as they engage in remote learning, for my school community, who I feel incredibly detached from, and from my broader community, who, I know I’m helping by remaining isolated, but I also feeling the guilt of even having that privilege.
I guess I’m left with the recognition that there is no guide book for this, but hopefully the guiding stars of equity, community, conversation, and integration can point us in a better direction. I truly believe that there is the potential to use this crisis to build something better, but, as Kara said, our systems will want to revert back to their old ways. The only way we get something new is if we work for it - together, in community, taking our cues from those who are the most impacted by our broken systems. And while “together” isn’t really possible right now, the mission of Integrated Schools feels more important than ever. We have to be in community, and we have to be there humbly, ready to learn. If you’d like to be a part of continuing this important work, please join our Patreon - Patreon.com/IntegratedSchools. If you’re fortunate enough to be in a position to do that, we’d also encourage you to find local organizations working to solve the immediate and very real needs of this crisis. If you know of great organizations doing that work, let us know, so we can share. Please reach out and let us know how you’re doing - [email protected], find us on twitter, instagram, or Facebook @integratedschools, and if you enjoyed this conversation, please share it with a friend or eight.
I’m grateful to be in this with you, as I try to know better and do better. See you next time.