As thousands of teachers say goodby to this school year and attempt to come to terms with recent world events, many educators are asking what is next. Teachers are asking what schools will look like next year in light of a world pandemic, significant protests, the persistent problem of injustice, tremendous budget losses, and a sense of dread for the future. To find what is next in the short term, teachers pay attention to where you are needed and let this guide you.
Realistically what happens long term will be up to the recent graduates of this generation and lessons in the school environment. It may very well be up to this year’s kindergarten children moving on to first grade, who are just learning to read and yet aware of their environment. Sometimes I hear educators blame society, parents, poverty, addiction, government for other’s behavior. Then, I remember having these children for six hours a day and having the capacity for monumental social and emotional changes.
As my grandmother would say, the world has gone to hell in a handbasket, and the children know it. They are keenly aware of a virus, germ, bug that makes loved ones and friends sick. Children know this caused school closures and introduced them to remote learning. This pandemic has increased worry and fear amongst these little ones as they miss their routine, their teacher, and their friends. Teachers taught them to learn from a distance, to have virtual or drive-by play dates, to wash their hands and keep their fingers out of their noses. We have taught them.
The students know there are protests in almost every major city with large crowds expressing their concern about the failure to bring about reform and to exercise rights as an American citizen. Also, I have seen kindergarteners give their favorite pencil to another child who has none. I have seen little ones pat the back of a crying classmate and say it is going to be okay. They know how to have a voice with the principal, their writing, and the playground. They use words rather than fists. We have taught them.
They have heard about or seen adults smashing windows, taking what does not belong to them, and destroying their neighborhood or school property. These children listen to their parents whisper that this store or that restaurant will never open again. These kids know about anger, frustration, and striking out as this is a child’s first response to solving problems. Great teachers take the time to listen and teach another way to be. These young students are presently confused by what they hear and see as they remember the lessons in classrooms: respecting others and their property that were modeled by their school community. We have taught them. We hope to teach them well.
Protests about racial bias, racism, and that black lives matter are valuable and necessary. In my opinion, protests are not the only actions essential to bring about change. Political and social protests shine a light on what must be changed either through voting or participation in politics. What if change could happen sooner, even kindergarten? In my experience in an urban elementary school, kindergarten and preschool children do not marginalize each other. In the rare case that this happens, good teachers respond quickly. I believe most, if not all, bias and behaviors are learned and thus can be unlearned. We will teach them.
In education, the more specific and case by case, we take this idea of changing behavior or bias, the higher the chance of reform. Recently at my site, a group of sixth-grade boys were using a racial slur to describe each other. As a child, I witnessed the civil rights movement, protests against the Vietnam war, marches for women’s rights, and assassinations; my first response was anger.
Instead, I took a breath and thought they just hadn’t been taught. The boys’ behavior is a derivative of ignorance. I paid attention to where I could be helpful, and I let it guide me. I taught them with facts, my experience, and no judgment. As in most teachable moments, we will probably never know the specifics of the long term impact. I hope I taught them well.
The last three months have been challenging and discouraging for all students, parents, and educators, especially teachers. There is fear, anxiety, and sadness, with a global pandemic still present. Add to this scenario violence, social injustice, protests, severe education budget cuts, and unemployment, and it isn’t easy to find hope for the future.
Strangely enough, I believe this is a turning point for our children, teachers, and education. It is possible to take this sadness, anxiety, and fear and channel it into real reform for doing what is best for all children, no matter their circumstances or race. To find what is next, teachers pay attention to where you can are needed and let this guide you. If done, the path to next year will be apparent, despite a pandemic, protests, social injustice, and budget cuts. The sense of dread for the future will turn to excitement, hope, and even joy.
Let’s do this as the students need us!