Deep gratitude to Dulce-Marie Flecha, Christie Nold and lizzie fortin for being thinking partners on this piece.
Over the past week, I facilitated four online workshops on trauma-informed practices for hundreds of caring educators. I’ve also been talking to many more teachers on Twitter and in my messages, and texting with educator friends. I keep hearing over and over: “I want to focus on relationships, but I am getting mandates about academics from my principal.” “I want to slow down and take care of myself and my family, but the pace of work is unsustainable.” I’ve also heard from friends of mine who are parents about the unrealistic academic expectations sent home by teachers.
We are in a crisis. Nothing is normal right now. It’s been about three weeks that we’ve all been at home so some things may start to feel routine, but routine does not mean normalcy. And we’re also only at the beginning of this crisis. More people are going to get sick. You will know people who will be hospitalized. You will probably know someone who dies. This will continue to be a crisis.
In a crisis, we need to focus on community care. I know that teachers and school leaders are getting pressure to “keep teaching” right now. But the reality is that everyone is making things up as we go. State leaders, district leaders, and school leaders are making decisions with very limited time and limited information and resources. As Chris Lehmann writes so clearly, this means we need to just focus on making the least bad decisions. I said on Twitter recently that people feel like they aren’t doing things right or they aren’t doing enough. The truth is that right now there is no “right.” There is no “enough.”
So how do we navigate this incredibly messy situation? What do we do when the mandates that come from above seem to be harmful and not helpful?
Here’s what I want to say to all of us right now (and I’m saying this for myself to hear, too): speak up.
Policies and procedures made in a crisis aren’t meant to last. But the practices that are being put into place for educators right now will last if we comply with them silently. If you don’t tell your principal or administrator that the policy isn’t working, they won’t know. If it seems to be “working,” it will stick.
We know that learners need timely and relevant feedback on their work. School leaders are learners right now as they try to navigate this mess. You, as teachers and as parents, are the ones who need to provide the feedback. I know that a culture has developed in some schools where it’s not OK to give feedback to the top. Let go of that for now. Your leaders need to hear from you.
The other thing I’d encourage folks to consider is to just…not participate in policies you know are harmful. John Warner wrote about this in his piece If It Doesn’t Make Sense, Refuse. Warner is writing from a higher ed perspective where the dynamics can be a little different, and I also acknowledge that power dynamics make the threat of job loss very real especially for teachers of color.
Beyond the immediate threat of losing your job, there’s also your emotional and spiritual energy to consider. Many teachers of color have carried the burden of providing feedback on equity for years. It must feel exhausting to face this situation and consider whether you can emotionally manage the toll of this, yet again. Your safety comes first and you know best whether you are in a position to make waves.
With that in mind, I’d encourage people to consider, really consider, whether you’re letting yourself off the hook when you say “I can’t do anything about this mandate.” Are there are ways for you to be “creatively non-compliant” and push back? Is there collective action you can take with colleagues or other parents? If you’re in a union, unions were created for exactly situations like this. Use your collective power and refuse to do what’s harmful to your students.
If we don’t speak up and if we don’t push back, we pass along the harm to our students. For example, some are being asked to continue to give letter grades to their students right now. I don’t believe in letter grades anyway, but in the current situation it’s very clear that what you are grading is not academic achievement or effort, but access to resources and support, which kids have no control over. If we comply with a directive to give letter grades, we are directly harming kids by putting permanent marks into their transcripts that reflect nothing about them as a learner. Even if you didn’t come up with the directive, you are responsible for that.
If you are in a position to speak up
Compliance isn’t your only option. You can be creatively non-compliant in a way that Warner suggests by simply giving every student an A. If your school refuses to implement pass/fail grading, just do it yourself and give every student an A. You can refuse and just not enter grades – even better if you do this in coordination with colleagues and take it on as a collective action. And you can push back and send your school’s leaders feedback that helps them understand why the directive needs to change.
Here are some conversation openers you might use in offering pushback, where X is the harmful or unjust policy or practice:
- “I was surprised to see the email about X. It surprised me because I know that our school really values Y, and X policy doesn’t really align with that. Can you explain a little more of your thinking with this?”
- “I’m writing about X. I’m very concerned about how this is going to impact our students, particularly those without internet access or a safe place to do work at home. I think that for these students X could be harmful.”
- “Could we discuss X as a faculty? I know that the intent behind X was to promote Y and Z, but I thought you’d want to know that for me as a teacher, it feels unsustainable. I am worried about our ability to care for ourselves and our families if X continues.”
- “I am writing to let you know that I cannot do X and in coordination with my grade-level team, we are going to do Y instead. Here’s why, and I would encourage a faculty-wide discussion about whether it makes sense for anyone to be doing X right now.”
Also remember the humanity of the people to whom you’re giving feedback. Leaders are overwhelmed right now and doing their best to survive under immense pressure. We need each other’s grace and flexibility right now.
If you are in a position of leadership
I know you are doing the best you can. I know you are making the “least bad” decisions you can make right now. Let one of those decisions be to prioritize caring for your staff and listening to their feedback. I know from my own experience that as a school leader, you often hold context and information that leads you to decisions and it’s sometimes hard or impossible to fully communicate this context to your staff. You are under so much pressure and facing public critique for every move you make. It probably feels impossible.
At the same time, recognize that you have an incredible resource in your teachers. Help them step up and help you. Share with them the parameters of the problems you face and invite their problem solving. Be vulnerable about your uncertainties while you’re also being clear about your expectations. Here’s how that might look:
- “I am currently considering how to approach X and could use all of your input and help. The parameters I have gotten from the state include Y and Z. I’m also thinking about our budget and considering Q, R, and S. Please let me know if you have creative ideas about X. I need to make a final decision by end of day tomorrow.”
- “For right now, we need to all be on the same page about X so I am asking all of you to do X. I know that this is problematic for Y and Z reasons. The reason I made this decision is that I need to prioritize Q and R in the next 3 days, but I promise to revisit X on Monday. Join me on a call at 2 on Monday and we’ll revisit X.”
- “Just a heads up that right now we have no policy for X but I know we need one. I am gathering examples to bring to the leadership team. If anyone has seen examples from other schools on social media of how they are approaching X, please drop them in this shared folder.”
When you invite feedback, remember that you need to be open to the responses. Thank your team for their ideas and suggestions, recognizing the potential risk that teachers are taking on by speaking up. If you feel reactive in the moment, remember to pause and not pass that reactivity along. Examine your own responses and ask yourself whether you see patterns in your responses to teachers based on racial identity or gender identity. Do your best to lift up the voices of marginalized people within your community, and prioritize the needs of your most vulnerable students and community members.
I also invite you to give yourself permission to slow down where you can. I know that in a crisis everything feels urgent. Use your team to help check yourself on whether there are things that can wait, priorities that can be revisited later, and opportunities to pause. Take breaks so that you can hear the feedback. I see you and I appreciate you. Keep fighting the good fight.
There are two things that are both true right now.
One: The most important thing is to take care of yourself and keep yourself safe and healthy.
Two: The most important thing is to take care of one another and keep each other safe and healthy.
These two truths come into conflict when taking care of others means draining ourselves. For teachers and parents (and really, everyone) who are running on fumes while trying to care for children, it can feel like way too much to then also think about creating conflict in your workplace. But if we hold both truths together, this conflict is part of how we demonstrate our care for students. Using our positions of power and influence in service of those more vulnerable is the ultimate act of community care.
I don’t pretend to know the answers to any of this, and like most of you, I am struggling to do what’s right by my students while also taking care of myself while also navigating the institutions I’m connected to. All I can say in closing is to repeat that there is no “right” and there is no “enough,” except that you, as a person, are enough. It’s okay to just focus on what you need to do to survive. Wishing you strength and with you in solidarity.