Stick a fork in it; it is what it is. With few exceptions, the culture and climate of every campus in Public School, USA, are done. Our schools’ strengths and weaknesses are more or less set in stone by turkey time. Having assessed the systems and customs (culture) of their work environments — as well as the ‘air in the building’ (climate) and any resulting occupational illnesses — classroom teachers have largely decided if they will get better or bitter this year. Ask a few students; they, too, can reasonably predict what they will experience from now until the summer.
Education is more important than school. Yet the business of education is an LLC (Literacy, Learning, and Culture) that looms beyond the scope of many school systems. This is a complex blend of principles (ex. purpose, worldview and philosophy, pedagogy) and paradigms (ex. tradition, state standards and testing, classroom management). By the end of November, when social media posts conveying multiple perspectives about Thanksgiving resurface, it is already understood whether principles or paradigms will prevail on just about every campus.
Problems that impact children are most often blamed on majority stakeholders — teachers, communities, parents, and students themselves. As teachers bear the greatest professional burden, many of them are just trying to make it to late December when they can spend two weeks or so away from work.
Teachers are the most important factor in learning outcomes because they are the only school professionals who can afford to directly focus on children’s needs for most of the year. Amid claims of holistic or whole child approaches, the student experience — ultimately, the usefulness of their learning — is the truest standard to measure educational achievement. No one embodies this perspective like classroom teachers; they are the frontliners, the interface, the major key. Yet the latest Educator Confidence Report claims that teacher morale is declining.
So, how can we support them? How should we support them?
The danger is in the details, specifically the vacuous blind spots.
The ultimate challenge of curriculum and instruction is to lead all learners through social, emotional, and academic growth. Standardized programs can not adequately address the array of gifts, backgrounds, personalities, interests, and challenges our children have. Many US classrooms host students who span more levels of reading comprehension and math proficiency than the number of grade levels on the campus. This context demands instructors to either play school or employ enough agency to supersede a system unable to serve our ever-expanding range of young learners with the love and support of their favorite teachers.
Picture Miss Crystal closing her classroom door, warmly gazing at the youngsters, and aiming to do what’s best for their Literacy, Learning, and Culture despite the adversity of the school culture and climate. She knows who the children think they are, their family and community’s educational outlook, and a continuum of content and skills required to stretch each of them upward.
Miss Crystal is agreeable with administrators and visitors, filtering out what matters to her class. She creates space for her students to read themselves and the world around them. She believes they can grow, even when they don’t. She’s teaching for equity.
The short version of educational equity goes: Do we believe every child is capable of receiving a quality education? Therefore, are all students getting what they need from us? Do they feel safe and cared for, as if they belong where they learn? Does classification predict their academic success or failure? Are they educated uniquely according to who they are? (The long version goes here.)
Evil theories aside, the industry of equity is emerging in education and many other corporate sectors. Some companies assign fancy names or acronyms like DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion), but the language of educational equity is not the labor of educational equity.
Despite stated emphasis on multiculturalism, personalization, and meeting people where they are, inequity prevails. Schools remain mostly segregated along lines of race, resources and opportunities. Two types of schools exist in the same city, and often in the same district. Classifications of identity and ability are closely related to academic achievement measures.
Most public school students are on the cultural, linguistic, and socioeconomic margins of mainstream US society. Black, brown, immigrant, and low income youth are increasingly marginalized by geography.
So, is public school marginal by design?
If inequity prevails, have we basically accepted that the Joneses and Others belong where they are?
As educators in the system, have we accepted that Others have nowhere else to go and should take whatever they can get from public schools?
Under these conditions, can we reasonably blame systemic failures on individual effort of students or teachers?
Picture an educator’s primary focus changing as we move up the chain of command, up the range of annual salaries, our desks shifting away from students as the focal point. Imagine what would happen if every desk above teachers, from instructional coaches way up to school board presidents, aligned to prioritize the student experience for one work day a week. Now erase that glory from your mind, because it probably will not happen.
A student-centered school agenda is a hopeless ideal until we get it in our system. If district leadership and policy makers do not commit to the labor of educational equity, then not much will change. If we do not recruit, hire, and professionally train educators through an equity lens, then not much will change. If we do not evaluate our programs and our culture through an equity lens, then nothing will change. If educational equity is not allowed to flow through the air ducts and water pipes, how much will significantly change?
Our best hope for handling the business of education (LLC) equitably is that principals do their best impersonation of our nation’s best teachers.
Picture Principal DeGrate closing her school door, warmly gazing at everyone and everything inside of her building, and leading a pledge of allegiance to educational equity to start the morning announcements. She is the pivot point between the campus and the district. Tasked to manage and oversee the Literacy, Learning and Culture experience, she aligns her desk toward students pretty often. She keeps up with her school data through the district office lens, but doesn’t stop there.
Principal DeGrate reflects deeply on who she thinks she is, where she is from, where she has been, what she has experienced, and how it shapes and colors her view of the world and the schools. Most adults follow her lead, self-studying alone and collectively. They all pose in the mirror together to consider their racial, cultural, social, and personal compatibility to the students they serve.
Everyone on Miss DeGrate’s campus is expected to learn by doing. With lots of help from her leadership team, she ensures that staff professional learning this year is designed to address a few targeted equity goals. Questions outnumber answers in staff meetings where adults are treated as brilliant, high-achieving professionals. Faculty members engage in targeted academic strategies chosen to best address student needs. Later the moves are named, unpacked, and explained in the context of educational equity.
Instead of yawning and watching the clock, teachers are invigorated by relevant, engaging, inspiring afternoons. When Miss DeGrate visits classes, much of what she sees looks familiar. Instructional expectations are based on values and purposes that most folks in the building already know. Teachers are rarely caught off guard by their evaluations.
Miss Crystal can turn water to ice in the tropics with her bare hands; some teachers have that magic. Many are tired of it all by turkey time. Some will come back still aiming to improve, assuming they have a DeGrate in charge.
Pivotal principals can recharge teachers and continue fine-tuning the business of education through the winter months.
For almost everyone else in Public School USA, though, it’s over. Better luck next year!