‘We need to have the audacity to be bold, because our students need us now more than ever. Normal wasn’t working, not just for marginalized communities, but for most.’

Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

A scene from the first day of the 2020/2021 school year in September.

We have had a contentious and overwhelming start to the school year and an even more
chaotic end. While some may breathe a sigh of relief at the return to normal next fall, many
educators and communities are not quite ready for the status quo. Currently across 26 states and growing we are seeing legislation that limits how teachers can teach about so-called divisive issues like racism and sexism, critical to the full teaching of history and civics. With the pressure of such contentious education legislation threatening to undo years of transformative work surrounding equity and the support of federal relief funding, there is no time like the present to create a school system that was truly built for all.

For the vast majority, school is not working because the prevailing notion has centered a
one-size-fits-all approach. Now, while it seems like an arduous undertaking, we are in an
unprecedented situation in history: Educators and school officials have the opportunity to seize this moment to blaze a way forward that actually creates a state of equity in education and benefits every single child in our public school system. Because when we fight for the
educational justice of our most oppressed and marginalized students, we make education better for everyone else.

We can start by implementing an equity-centered Social Emotional Learning (SEL) in schools. SEL is the increasingly common practice of teaching social and emotional skills to children, often incorporated throughout the day in schools or through special programs. All students have suffered trauma as a result of the pandemic. Marginalized students have suffered more so because of the trauma faced in and out of school from systemic inequities. Unfortunately, many popular SEL practices often result in harshly disciplining students—disproportionately students of color—and instead of creating a culture of accountability and trust, and a learning environment rooted in punishment or fear. Bringing students back into buildings to deal with this type of compliance-based SEL, authoritative classroom management, or punitive disciplinary programs is irresponsible. Instead, schools need to adopt models that center healing and nurturing, giving students the space and tools to thrive.

Alongside equity-centered SEL, schools need a robust trauma-informed lens to instruction and relationship building with the appropriate mental health staff to support it. Students are returning to school with new anxiety and depression. Some have lost family members to COVID-19, and many are living through a time of tremendous chaos and loss. Teachers cannot do the work alone, nor should they have to.

This means providing our schools with the mental health support staff they’ve long needed. In large school systems like New York City, some schools are in dire need of staff. In the past 20 years, we have seen the rates of mental health diagnoses continue to increase, with 1 in 5 children nationwide currently dealing with ADHD, anxiety or depression. And this was all prior to the pandemic. Our students deserve mental health support and personalized care in order to succeed. They’re suffering and will continue to do so unless we reprioritize mental health.

Further, schools need to embrace neurodiversity. Some students thrived in remote learning and others lacked support. Yet this diverse experience in pandemic learning demonstrates that not all students were learning in environments that were best suited to their needs, or were being diagnosed properly to make sure they received the needed support. Schools need to rethink the needs of students for more varied learning models, then make sure students have access to those experiences and equitable screening processes.

Project-based learning and outdoor education have become more popular throughout the
pandemic because of the flexibility it has given students and teachers. Yet what these learning models have shown is that many students perform better academically when they learn through hands-on experiences that develop inquiry, critical thinking and nurture a child’s innate curiosity. Schools can continue to strengthen these instructional approaches to tap into individualized needs of students.

We continue to meet the needs of all students when schools use a culturally responsive
curriculum. Schools need to reckon with how they have ignored the needs, history, and culture of marginalized groups. They need an asset-based instructional approach and curriculum to help us understand students’ genius, not view them as data on assessments. Asset-based approaches view student performance through a lens of what students are achieving and skills they do possess, rather than consistently assessing and labeling what is lacking. Instead of using precious instructional time for testing, remediation, and tutoring, let’s spend it instructing students using an evidence-based approach that meets their needs and supports their identities.

To make sure students have not only the individualized academic support they deserve, but the intimate and nurturing relationships with teachers that foster such success, we need smaller class sizes. We saw small class sizes during the past year in many schools because of COVID-19 safety regulations. Let’s continue to allocate more space for classrooms and support overpopulated schools by building infrastructure to have a significant impact on student learning for all.

By thinking more deeply about each of these measures, we can begin to reimagine schooling. We need to have the audacity to be bold, because our students need us now more than ever. Normal wasn’t working, not just for marginalized communities, but for most. Students do not need to catch up to systems and practices that have long been dysfunctional. We need to use this moment in history to set the stage for a new evolution in schools—one that has been long overdue.

Selena Carrión (@selenacarrion) is an ELA teacher, activist, and writer working in the New York City public schools. She holds an MA in Elementary Inclusive Education from Teachers College, Columbia University and an MLIS degree with a focus on media literacy and technology from Syracuse University. She is a long-time collaborator at TC, a member of the NYSED SEL framework advisor team, and a digital innovator and consultant for PBS.

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