Sustainably and systemically focusing on equity (everyone gets what they need), diversity (the combination of people of different backgrounds), inclusion (everyone is invited in and feels they belong), and justice (breaking down the barriers between groups) is a challenge for most schools. The addition of COVID-19 magnifies this difficulty causing many teachers and school administrators uncertainty as to how to meet educational and equity needs at the same time.
I believe students need to be seen and heard in their classrooms, and schools are tasked with helping them learn to use their voices and become visible in ways that work for them. With COVID-19, we find ourselves needing to be differently mindful of students and to be sure to see and hear our teachers.
Emily Style writes "education needs to enable the student to look through window frames in order to see the realities of others and into mirrors in order to see her/his own reality reflected" (Curriculum As Window and Mirror, 1996).By continually asking ourselves to view each decision through the lens of equity, we are better able to make decisions in a multi-faceted way, providing both windows and mirrors.
When considering equity questions, I remind myself to recognize, acknowledge, know, remember, understand, ask, share, and apply. Putting this framework into practice, let's briefly address a commonly asked question “How is asking students to have their cameras on during class connected to equity? We just want to be sure our students are paying attention.”
- Recognize your limitations. Even the most engaged teacher or administrator cannot recognize and plan for every inequity. While knowing this is true, it is equally important to think about it as the beginning rather than the end of the discussion highlighting the necessity of our ongoing learning about our biases, including multiple points of view in decisions and creating an atmosphere of openness to learning more.
- Remember, we are in each other's homes without an invitation, permission, or a conversation ahead of time. Liza Talusan, Ph.D., a strategic consultant, and educator working a webinar about this topic offers, "For many, a home is a private place, separate from work, school, and life outside of its doors. Yet, virtual learning thrust teachers, leaders, coworkers, and peers into this private space. With a focus on content, curriculum, meetings, delivery, and engagement, the boundary between home and 'outside of home' quickly became blurred with little to no regard for how this boundary-crossing impacts the environment."
To get the school going as quickly as possible we often missed the step of discussing how we enter each other's spaces. This intrusion into each other's most intimate areas is exposing to students, parents, and teachers and creates a sense of vulnerability. Seeing into each other's spaces can also give the false sense that we know each other better, which may be true of some and is probably more true for those whose circumstances at home are not a source of discomfort, embarrassment, or judgment.
- Consider the experiences of all. Think of a student turning the camera off because she watches her siblings while her mom, as an essential employee, goes to work at the grocery store. Imagine a teacher who doesn't feel supported at school for being open as a gay man and whose home is his place to be his authentic self. Should he ask his husband not to get a snack while he is teaching because the kitchen is also the classroom? Consider the student attending a private school on financial aid who does not want his classmates to know his family's socioeconomic status. Remember the students with insecure or no housing and those who don't have computers or wi-fi.
- Know that feeling exposed raises anxiety. Increased levels of anxiety make make learning, teaching, parenting, and deciding much more difficult.
- Remember the normal. Even when students are physically in our classrooms, we aren't always able to tell if they are paying attention.
- Understand that having cameras on or off is not the most critical factor in this scenario. It is a decision schools can make quickly and uniformly if they choose to do so. To be equitable, we need to be asking other questions such as:
- How do we--and how should we--talk about equity in our schools?
- How do we create space for our school community to share their experiences comfortably?
- How do we listen to and respond to the experiences of our school community members?
- Share with students your desire to teach them with a foundation of equity and partnership. Create student communication avenues such as surveys, email, and time after class to share their individual needs.
- Apply the information gathered from the previous questions. Ask students how they can demonstrate their engagement with or without a camera. As we consider this transition, Talusan asks, "How did schools and organizations pay attention to the boundary-crossing that occurred during this time? What might schools and organizations do to engage in more culturally aware and responsive ways of entering into the home?" Administrators can ask teachers to share what has worked and what hasn't in their student, parent, and coworker interactions. Teachers can ask students what is working for them and what isn't in classrooms.
In graduate school, I learned about systems theory. In brief, systems theory is the belief that organizations are like organisms changing as circumstances change. One tenet of systems theory is that active organizations must "pay attention to the external environment and take steps to adjust itself to accommodate the changes to remain relevant. " (from Five Core Theories -- Systems Theory--Organisation Development). If we consider schools as organisms, they too will have to change with the lessons learned during COVID-19. I hope one change will be viewing the experiences of students and teachers through the lens of equity. And it's not too late to do so now. We rushed to teach online and through packets as quickly as possible and did so for the best of reasons to continue educating our students, and we have already seen many adaptations to our environment. For example, many teachers see a need to reduce the amount of time they are spending teaching and increasing the amount of time with students working together. We can message to our communities a plan to be more firmly rooted in equity and recognize that often when inequities occur, they are unnoticed by those in the decision-making process. The goal is to create systems of communication of proactive education for students, professional development for teachers, and training for parents to create systemic and sustainable support for equity for all.
Jen Cort worked as a counselor, principal, and senior administrator for 25 years before moving to consulting for schools on equity, diversity, inclusion, and justice. Jen is the host of a podcast called Third Space with Jen Cort.