We’re back in school. Did we lean into care or compliance?

Most schools here in the U.S. now have been back for a month or two. And I’m hearing from educators that things are … ‘better.’ Which has me wondering, “How are we defining better?”

As we all know, the end of the 2020 school year and the entire 2020-21 school year were an incredible challenge. Schools shut down. People died. Everything was disrupted, and everyone was scared and anxious. Then, over the summer of 2021, we were much too optimistic about an allegedly ‘normal’ return to school. And it wasn’t. In many (most?) schools, the 2021-22 school year was somehow even tougher than the previous one as we experienced extremely high levels of student refusal and absenteeism, educator stress and burnout, and so on.

In a conversation with Catlin Tucker, I wondered how much better last school year could have been if we had leaned more into relationships and care. There was so much policy rhetoric around students’ ‘learning loss.’ Accordingly, many schools jumped much too fast into their traditional instructional processes without really addressing the trauma that children (and educators) still were carrying with them at the beginning of the school year. And it didn’t work.

I hypothesized in that discussion that if we had started the first few weeks with a significant focus on relationships and care and getting students and families the supports that they needed (say, 80% of our time and energy) and a lesser emphasis on the academic stuff (say, 20%), we could have laid the groundwork for a much smoother school year as we created a stable foundation that allowed us to transition back to ‘normal’ expectations. But many schools didn’t do that, at least not sufficiently to remedy the problem. It was as if we knew that our young people still were traumatized but didn’t want to address it genuinely, at the levels that our children deserved. Sure, we recognized and paid lip service to the issue, and maybe even halfheartedly implemented some new socio-emotional learning (SEL) program, but we didn’t really meet kids’ needs. The proof was obvious as we mostly tried to return to regular learning-teaching practices and then wondered why kids’ behavior, attendance, and academic performance were so terrible and why teachers were incredibly stressed and leaving the profession.

The past few years have shown that the rigidity of our school systems is also a brittle fragility, particularly during a time of dire need for young people and their families. The saddest part of last school year may have been that we could have hit the reset button at any time. We could have taken a pause from school as we know it, invested more deeply into kids rather than content, and built, together, to where we needed to be. But we chose not to. We just kept on with the things that weren’t working, and children and educators paid the price.

All of which brings us to this school year, which supposedly is ‘better.’ And I’m wondering why. Did we finally transform how we interact with our children? Did we finally center their emotional and trauma needs and establish foundational structures of relationship and care that allow us to learn together in functional community? Or, as I suspect from the many educator discussion areas that I’m in, at the beginning of this year did we just lean more heavily into ‘expectations’ and ‘consequences’ that ignore underlying root causes and instead emphasize control and compliance? In other words, if one end of a continuum might be framed as ‘Kids are struggling so they need care’ and the other end might be framed as ‘Kids are struggling so they need control,’ which end of the continuum did our schools lean into? Did we create new, effective systems of care or did we just socialize and force our young people into submission (as we always seem to do)?

Control versus care

How about your school? What did it lean into this year?

Podcast with Catlin Tucker

2022catlintuckerpodcastWhen the always-marvelous Catlin Tucker invited me to be a guest on her podcast, The Balance, I accepted immediately. I think the world of Catlin’s work.

My episode was released a few days ago. Catlin and I talked about my new book (Leadership for Deeper Learning), leadership during the pandemic, how school administrators could (and shouldn’t) support educators’ self-care, and much more. The folks at StudySync did a nice job of summarizing some of what we discussed. Hope you enjoy our conversation

Happy listening! 

Slide – Organize around the opportunity to contribute

2021 Difference Making 01 REVISED

“It’s ironic that a shift away from a focus on preparation (take Algebra 1 because you need it for Algebra 2, which you might need to go to college which you might need to get a job) to a focus on difference making is the best possible form of preparation for the innovation economy. A portfolio of work that demonstrates expanding contribution to causes that matter — to a young person and their community — is far more valuable to most colleges and employers than a list of courses passed.

What if, instead of a list of required courses, high school was organized around the opportunity to contribute?”

Vander Ark & Liebtag, Difference Making at the Heart of Learning, 2021 (p. 80)

 

Download this file. See also my other slides.

3 big questions to ask after a visit from an outside helper

Outside Consultant 03I’ve been blogging about bringing in outside helpers…

Here are three big questions to ask AFTER a visit from an outside helper:

  1. Are we tangibly better as a result of their visit? [or did we just waste everyone’s time?]
  2. Can we actually do something differently as a result of their visit? [or did they just take the money and run?]
  3. How do we know? [what evidence do we have?]

Great times to ask these questions include about a week after the visit (when the gloss has worn off) and also about 3 to 6 months after the visit (when the work should be well underway)…

How much of your work with outside helpers has resulted in tangible, concrete, actionable, beneficial changes in your school(s)? If not much, why is that?

Some good questions to ask before hiring an outside helper

Monkey puppetSchool resources are always limited, whether they be time, money, attention, energy, or personnel. Before you hire an outside helper for your school(s), here are some questions you might ask…

  • Are we bringing in this person to actually help us do something?
    • Or do we just want to dabble and/or pretend that we care about the topic? 
    • Or are we just doing it because others are / it’s a hot topic right now?
  • How does this work fit in with our other current initiatives?
    • How will we help our employees, students, and families understand the connections with our other work?
    • How much of a priority is this work compared to our other initiatives?
  • What will we do beforehand to optimize our employees’ chances of being successful with this?
  • What’s our follow-up plan afterward?
    • What additional support structures, leadership behaviors, professional learning, expectations, timelines, deadlines, financial and time resources, personnel, monitoring mechanisms, etc. will be put into place to support this work?
    • Will this work be supported at the very highest levels of the school organization? How?
    • Are these new supports adequate for the work to be successful?
  • Do we have a fighting chance to actually do this right now?
    • Or are we just fooling ourselves?
    • Do we have both the will and capacity to actually make this happen?
    • What are we currently doing that conflicts with or will obstruct our success with this new work?
  • What concerns will our employees, students, and families raise about this work?
    • What is our plan for addressing those?

Some questions to ask the outside helper (before you hire them) include…

  • Can you actually help us do something? (i.e., can you help us with the WHAT and the HOW, not just the WHY?)
    • Or are you just going to tell us we should do something and then leave?
  • What should we do beforehand to optimize our employees’ chances of being successful with this?
  • How much time do we need with you to get started successfully on this?
    • What will that work look like (and why)?
  • How much time do we need after you work with us to get started successfully on this?
    • What does that work look like (and why)?
  • What barriers, challenges, and other concerns should we expect as we head into this work?
    • How can you help us with those?
  • What kinds of follow-up resources and supports can you provide us?
    • What do those look like (and why)?

These are just a few to get started… What else would you add here?