Back to School 2021: Grieving Students, Transitions, and COVID-19

By the Coalition to Support Grieving Students

2021 is a different kind of back-to-school year. As schools move toward full in-person learning, students and educators alike continue to adapt.

In the transition back to in-person learning, schools may need to reach out to students who have not returned to school or re-engaged in learning. They may also be making contact with families that have suffered multiple stressors and losses caused by the pandemic or exacerbated by the isolation of shutdowns.

Many students and educators are grieving what they have lost during COVID-19 closures—chances to socialize with peers, be a senior in middle school, start kindergarten, participate in sports or performing arts. Most have been affected by ongoing issues in the broader world as well—social justice, racial inequities, bitter political divides, the financial impact of the pandemic.

Students who are grieving the death of a family member or loved one are part of this mix. Even before the pandemic, student grief was surprisingly common. About 1 in 20 students will lose a parent during their school years, and virtually all students will know someone who has died by the time they complete high school. During the pandemic, students have lost loved ones to many causes, including COVID-19. Some communities have been especially hard hit by the virus. Students are also still grieving losses that occurred before the pandemic.

Students who experienced a death of someone close from a cause other than COVID-19 may feel the attention focused on tragic losses due to the pandemic means they are somehow less entitled to grieve openly and request support. This may prompt them to try to keep their feelings private. They may have had to begin to grieve the loss while separated from extended family and friends, and without the usual support of peers. This would further heighten their sense of isolation.

Times of transition and change can be particularly challenging for grieving students. Educators are positioned to offer valuable support that can make a profound difference in students’ lives academically, socially, and emotionally—often through simple gestures that help these students feel affirmed and understood. The Coalition to Support Grieving Students has a collection of free video and written materials that offer guidance designed expressly for educators, including content specific to COVID-19.

Transitions Can Be Difficult for Any Student

Transitions are times when children and youth may face a range of challenges. The following steps will support both grieving and other students.

  • Address apprehensions. Students are excited to be with peers and start a new year. They may also have lingering fears about risks of illness or death. Provide honest, realistic reassurances about measures being taken to protect students and educators.
  • Be honest. Students know things are not “normal.” It isn’t necessary to pretend that everything is okay when it clearly isn’t. Provide opportunities for students to discuss their experiences and concerns.
  • Introduce subjects sensitively. Educators cannot know every student’s experiences. When a history, literature, or other lesson addresses topics such as death, loss, trauma, severe illness, racism, or other serious matters, provide some background before the lesson. Give students the opportunity to discuss any concerns with you privately. Make accommodations for the student when indicated.
  • Offer options for activities involving family members. Many students do not have a parent to turn to for family-based classroom or homework activities. This may be due to death, illness, divorce, military deployment, incarceration, or other reasons. Be sure to offer options: “For this essay, I’d like you to write about your mother or another woman in your life who has been helpful to you.”

Reach Out to Grieving Students

All children grieve in unique ways. There are also common characteristics for most grieving students. Over the past year, these students have been especially affected by the consequences of the pandemic—isolation, academic challenges, worry about their own and others’ health, feeling overwhelmed. If you know a student is grieving the death of a family member or friend, the following steps can be especially helpful.

  • Reach out personally early in the year.Acknowledge that grief creates challenges. Let the student know you are available to talk, or listen, if any concerns arise. For specific guidance on what to say, see these Coalition materials.
  • Remember that grieving children experience secondary losses. Many things can change for a child after a death. The family may need to move in with relatives or find less expensive housing. The child may have to attend a new school. During the pandemic, with its associated financial challenges, many families have had to make exactly these kinds of changes.
  • Make adjustments in academic work. It is difficult to concentrate and learn during acute grief. Extending deadlines and offering alternative assignments can help grieving students experience academic success as they readjust to their life after a loss.
  • Support college and career aspirations. After a death, some teens hesitate to move forward with plans to go to college, join the military, or attend trade school. They may feel a need to stay close to their family or provide financial support. Concerns about COVID-19 have added further distress to these decisions. Although there may be no “correct” solution, the support of a trusted educator who can listen to a student’s concerns can be invaluable.
  • Recognize that grieving children are often more vulnerable at times of transition. This can be the start of the school year (new teachers, new classmates, new classroom). It can involve a change in schools or a change in the family—someone moving in or out. It can include the changes of puberty, the start of dating, or a breakup with a romantic partner.
  • Offer to assist in future transitions. Ask the student and parents if they would like you to notify a new school of the student’s circumstances. This can create a safer and more welcoming setting for the student.

Take Care of Yourself

Educators have also been affected by the pandemic, experiencing loss, stressors, and other hardships. Children depend on important adults to help them feel safe and secure. If an educator is anxious, sad, or angry, students are more likely to be affected by that emotional state than by the words they hear. The Coalition offers a module on steps for self-care for educators supporting grieving children.

Self-care is not an “add-on.” It is an essential step, allowing educators to offer powerful support to worried and grieving students. Educators generally experience many personal rewards when they join in this vital effort.

If Not Now, When? Making Time for Wholeheartedness and Wellbeing

By Sharon McDonough and Narelle Lemon

This post is by the authors of the article “If Not Now, Then When? Wellbeing and Wholeheartedness in Education,” in the current edition of the KDP journal The Education Forum. You can view the article here for free during the month of August.

Dr. Sharon McDonough is a researcher in teacher education with advanced disciplinary knowledge of sociocultural theories of teacher emotion, resilience and wellbeing. Sharon brings these to explore how best to prepare and support teachers for entry into the profession, how to support the professional learning of teachers and teacher educators across their careers, and how to support wellbeing in education and in community. Sharon’s research expertise lies in methods of phenomenology and self-study.

Associate Professor Narelle Lemon is an interdisciplinary researcher in her fields of education, positive psychology and arts located at Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne, Australia.  She is a researcher who focuses on translating theory and evidence into practice to enhance engagement and participation for teachers and students across all fields of education. Recent research has investigated mindfulness in education, self-care and wellbeing to empower educators, arts and cultural education, and her award-winning scholarship of learning and teaching in the integration of social media for learning and professional development.

“But why did it take a virus to bring the people back together?”
“Well, sometimes you get sick, my boy, before you start feeling better.”
—Tomos Roberts

In his picture storybook The Great Realisation, author Tomos Roberts creates a hopeful and optimistic vision for how we might all begin to live in meaningful and thoughtful ways in the time after the pandemic. His book suggests that the pandemic becomes the catalyst for the “great realisation,” and in our article in The Educational Forum we, too, suggest that the pandemic provides the perfect time to pause. Additionally, we invite you to embrace this pause as a time to consider what are the key principles and practices that we should seek to instill in education.

The global pandemic has brought shifts to remote and flexible learning across the globe as schools have faced temporary closure of face-to-face classes. These shifts have provided both opportunities and challenges. Teachers have innovated their practices, young people have found ways to actively participate, and parents have communicated and worked with teachers to support young people through these uncertain times. But alongside these positives has been an intensification of some existing inequities, the challenges of intense workloads, issues of access, isolation, and questions of how to support wellbeing for teachers, students, and the community more broadly. In our research with Australian teachers about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on their work and wellbeing, teachers expressed that the pandemic highlighted the need to provide care and support to their colleagues, students, and their families. They expressed frustration with systems, government, media, and policy that seemed to suggest that teachers were ‘cannon fodder’ on the front lines of the pandemic.

The need to privilege wellbeing as a central endeavor in education seems more timely than ever in light of the current contexts in which we live and work. But has this happened? In our article, we draw on our data and Brené Brown’s guideposts for wholehearted living to create a series of poems that highlight the need to place wellbeing and wholeheartedness as core principles of the educational endeavor. For ourselves as teachers, for our students, and for our communities, now is the time to support collective wellbeing and to critique systems and structures that do not work to support this. In the light of all that has unfolded across the globe in the last year, we ask, if not now, when? We invite others to join us in this collective call for the prioritizing of wellbeing. You can join the conversation by reading our article in the Educational Forum. Will you join us as we seek to foster and support a wholehearted approach to education?

Click here or below for a live storytime reading of The Great Realisation by the author, Tomos Roberts.

Mental Illness Among College Students: Would a Gap Year Help?

Today’s blogger is William Beaver (Robert Morris University–Pittsburgh), author of the article “Would a ‘Gap Year’ Reduce Mental Illness Among College Students?”, which appears in the July 2021 issue of the Kappa Delta Pi Record. Get free access to the article through the month of August.

I first became interested in mental illness among college students a few years ago when a dorm counselor at the college where I taught told me that the number of students on Prozac was higher than anyone would suspect. I then thought back to my years as an undergraduate. Depression, often referred to as the common cold of mental illness, obviously existed. Yet, I don’t recall anyone talking much about it, and no one ever told me they were depressed. Most likely, that was because my peer group was mostly male, where admitting any weakness rarely occurred. I do remember one time sitting around a table in the student union when someone said that a male student, whom we all knew, had tried to commit suicide. No one at the table said anything, and the subject was quickly changed.

That said, my generation certainly had things to be stressed about. A couple of days before classes started in our freshman year, the president of the school informed us that one-third of our class would not be returning for their sophomore year because they had less than the coveted 2.0, which, as I recall, turned out to be fairly accurate. For males, there was a serious penalty for getting poor grades: Vietnam. If students didn’t have a C average after two semesters, they had to sit out a semester, which also made them eligible for the draft. (I knew of two students who did end up in Vietnam.) No one talked much about that either, perhaps because the consequences could be so dire.

From my own experience, I concluded that my generation was under a lot of pressure, and depression and anxiety were probably common, but we just chose to suffer in silence. Hence, the higher rate of mental illness among today’s students was simply tied to the fact that people were more open about it. Some of the research literature agreed with my conclusion. However, other studies were finding that although people were more open about mental illness, other factors were involved, and the increase in mental illness among college students was real.

What could these factors be? Fear of school shootings, concerns about finding a good job to help pay off school loans, snowplow parents, grades, and the increased use of social media are commonly cited. In recent years, social media has garnered the most attention and has raised some intriguing questions. For instance, does the use of social media cause depression, or do students who are already depressed turn to it? One can certainly understand how cyberbullying could be harmful. On the other hand, a study conducted at the University of Pennsylvania found that students who agreed to limit their smartphone use reported lower levels of depression, suggesting that use alone is associated with depression.

Doing something about student mental health has proved to be difficult. Schools have increased the size of their counseling departments, but we appear to need other strategies to ensure better mental health for new students. That’s where the idea of a gap year comes in—taking the year following high school graduation and engaging in some meaningful activity before starting college.

I soon discovered that, in the United States, taking a gap year is rare. Only about 3% of students do so. But in some countries, like Norway and Turkey, up to 50% of high school graduates take gap years. There hasn’t been a lot of research on the impacts of a gap year in the United States. However, the research that does exist is encouraging. For instance, in one survey, more than 90% of students taking a gap year reported they had developed as a person and were more mature and self-confident.

The question then becomes how to increase these numbers. Certainly, teachers and counselors can help get the word out and engage students who they feel would benefit from a gap year. Schools could provide information about gap year fairs held in various parts of the country. Parents also need to be informed about the potential benefits involved and that taking a gap year can help ensure an eventually successful college experience. Gap years can be international, where students experience a different culture, or can take place close to home, perhaps simply gaining experience in working and independent living. Unfortunately, no one is predicting a decline in mental illness among college students, so it’s time to try different strategies like gap years to help lessen the problem. For a closer look at these issues, see my article “Would a ‘Gap Year’ Reduce Mental Illness Among College Students?” in the July 2021 issue of the Kappa Delta Pi Record.

Critical Race Theory in the Classroom

By Christine E. Sleeter

Dr. Sleeter is professor emerita at California State University, where she was a founding faculty member. A prolific author, her work centers on multicultural education, ethnic studies, and teacher education. She is a member of Kappa Delta Pi’s Laureate Chapter.

I have watched in amazement as state legislatures have rushed to ban the teaching of critical race theory, or any curriculum that is based on it. To date, bills have been advanced in seven states banning the teaching of critical race theory in schools, and in one of these states—Idaho—the bill has been signed into law. Although such bills have not been advanced in my state of California, attacks on ethnic studies increasingly call out critical race theory. Critics claim that it is a divisive ideology that teaches hate, indoctrinates students with hate toward white people, and injects race into what should be a colorblind curriculum.

I come to this controversy as a white scholar of race and curriculum who has used critical race theory as an analytical tool in some of my academic work, and spent decades teaching predominantly white audiences about race and racism. I view attempts to censor critical race theory as an uninformed reaction to fear, a reaction that over the long run will be more harmful than helpful to the nation’s ability to grapple with its legacy of racism.

Critics of critical race theory (as well as critics of various forms of anti-racist education) often base their concern on the belief that talking about race is what produces racism, and that if we all try to be colorblind, racism will go away. This belief contradicts findings of the numerous research studies I have reviewed for the National Education Association on the impact of ethnic studies courses on students (including white students). Studies find fairly consistently that students (especially white students) begin with shallow conceptions of what racism is and how racism works, but by the end of a course that focuses on structural racism, have generally more positive racial attitudes than they began with. In other words, rather than fomenting racial hatred, coursework that examines structural racism generally improves cross-racial understanding.

The words “critical” and “race,” especially when put together, seem to operate as red flags that scare people. So let us briefly examine what critical race theory actually is. It is a stretch to call it an ideology. Merriam and Webster define ideology as “the integrated assertions, theories, and aims that constitute a sociopolitical program” and “a systematic body of concepts especially about human life or culture.” Critical race theory can be understood more accurately as a body of analytical tools for examining how race and racism work, premised on the assumptions that race is a social construct rather than a biological fact, and that racism is deeply ingrained in U.S. society. Critical race theory emerged from legal scholars of color who wanted to understand why civil rights legislation and litigation that purported to eradicate racism did not achieve these goals. In other words, following the Civil Rights movement, people of color have still experienced ongoing racial discrimination. Why? That is the central question the analytical tools of critical race theory seek to understand.

For example, one analytical tool is taking seriously people of color’s experiences with racism, based on the assumption that white people experience race differently from people of color, but that most public theorizing about race has been done by white people. (The unfounded theory that talking about race produces racism is one such theory.) Another analytical tool, interest convergence, holds that people act on their own self-interest. Interest convergence asks how racial remedies that seem fair to white people actually advance white self-interests.

If this brief explanation doesn’t sound like critical race theory as you have heard it discussed publicly, you’ve probably heard it discussed by people who do not understand it and extrapolate what they think combining the words “critical” and “race” must mean. If I don’t recognize critical race theory as I hear it characterized in the news and on the floor of state legislatures, that is because the bogey man people have invented out of fear doesn’t bear much resemblance to the academic theory I have studied and used.

I think the deeper question legislators are wrestling with is this: Should elementary and secondary age young people study race and racism in U.S. society, particularly as framed through the intellectual work of scholars of color? Does such curriculum teach hate?

It is important to realize that there is a huge difference between understanding, critiquing, and working to change white supremacy, versus hating white people. White supremacy is an institutionalized system that uses power to prioritize the needs and well-being of white people over of people of color, based on the assumption that white people are superior. White individuals do not have to uphold white supremacy, and many do not. In fact, challenging white supremacy and building inclusive institutions requires the involvement of white people! If we want to eradicate this nation’s legacy of racism, we must learn to confront racism directly, and to see it as a systemic issue and not only an issue of individual prejudice. Teaching young people about racism is not indoctrination, but rather means teaching viewpoints and providing factual data related to racism that they otherwise are not likely exposed to. Young people need to make up their own minds about how to think about race, and the better informed they are, the more thoughtfully they will do so. Rather than banning the analytical and pedagogical tools that enable this work, we would get much farther if we supported the preparation of teachers to teach race in the classroom.

Telling Stories: The Need for Strong Leadership and Qualified Teachers

By Carlos J. Minor

Dr. Minor is currently an educator with the Clayton County School System in Metro Atlanta. He has served as an elementary, middle, and high school educator. Additionally, he has served as both an adjunct and full-time professor of education.

I am currently ending my 20th year in education and will be back next year for my 21st. I am a career educator, highly qualified, and have served at every level of the P-20 continuum in more than one state. The studies always tout what is wrong with K-12, but this educator thinks he has at least a partial solution: Highly qualified (and dedicated) teachers and strong, school-based leadership.

At one point I was a K-12 educator in Middle America. The pay for teachers was very low compared to other jobs in the area. One could become a firefighter, a police officer, or literally a manager at a convenience store and make 10-15K more than a beginning teacher. Thus, the urban district I worked in struggled to staff, and they literally took anyone off the street with a degree and plugged them into a classroom. There was no training, no regard for GPA or work history, and some people bounced from school to school and district to district after being repeatedly fired. For most of them, teaching was not a calling or a sense of duty; it was merely a job.

The elementary school where I worked (since closed) was one of the worst in the state. Of the 16 classroom teachers, only four were actually certified educators. Three of those were Pre-K and Kindergarten teachers, so it was entirely possible for a student to go through that school and never have an actual teacher. Adding to this, the school served a high-poverty area, where the need for highly qualified teachers is the greatest.

To say that the school administration was weak would be an understatement. The “teachers” were allowed to come and go as they pleased with no repercussions. The “teachers” were allowed to stand in front of a classroom dressed in wrinkled t-shirts and sweatpants, jeans full of holes, hoodies and leggings—you get the point. Additionally, one “teacher” would come in 45-60 minutes late daily while his students sat idle in the hallway…and this was never addressed. Another “teacher” was allowed to spend the day walking the halls talking on her cell phone while her students sat idle with a paraprofessional…and this was never addressed. A third “teacher” went off on an administrator in front of students because he did not feel that he should have to come to work on time. In fact, this third “teacher” went around the building telling all who would listen that the administration was “tripping” by expecting folks to come to work on time…and he kept his job.

These behaviors (and others) would not have been tolerated from teenagers working at the mall or at a big box store, but this went on with the full sanction of both the building administration and the Central Office. As the student body was overwhelmingly Black, Brown, and indigent, the message was clear: The Powers That Be could care less if poor minority students learned.

This school was for years an F school and eventually the Central Office made the decision to close it and lease the building to KIPP. However, most of the “teachers” at the school, many of whom could not pass the Basic Skills Test for Teacher Certification and who did nothing but give worksheets, were given good teaching evaluations and positive recommendations to move on to other schools.

This stands in stark contrast to the school district where I am currently employed. I am at a middle school in Metro Atlanta that also serves a high-poverty area, and the student body is also overwhelmingly Black and Brown. However, the educational outcomes are completely different, for several reasons.

First, the pay in this district far exceeds that of the district I worked for in Middle America. A first-year teacher here starts off making about 20K more than a first-year teacher in the other district, and this is not the highest paid district in the area. This means that this district is able to both attract and retain actual, trained teachers, and not have a staff of what can best be described as long-term subs.

Second, there are multiple Instructional Coaches working full time in the building. They are there to help that new teacher improve, to help that good teacher become great, and help that great teacher become excellent. This is reflected in the educational outcomes, as our students perform well academically given their circumstances. At the school I wrote about earlier, the administration refused to allow the hiring of an Instructional Coach, likely because they knew that the school was a veritable zoo and did not want those aforementioned staff behaviors to come to light.

Third, four strong administrators work in the building: Three Grade Level Administrators and a Building Principal. These administrators have a presence in the building, coming into classrooms and offices. They keep constant tabs on their grade levels and the other personnel in the building they are tasked to supervise. The teachers and staff under their purview are held accountable: The standards must be taught. Teachers and staff must adhere to district policy in terms of attendance, dress, conduct, and phone usage. This stands in stark contrast to the situation at the school in Middle America, as previously stated. If one were to walk into 10 classrooms at the Middle America school, 8 teachers would be seated, on their phones, while the students had busywork. Additionally, the principal was caught sleeping in the teacher’s lounge and spent a good bit of time every day playing games on her phone. Departing teachers would state in their Exit Surveys how the administration never came into their classrooms.

Fourth, my school places a premium on educational attainment. Diplomas are up on walls. College alumni status is displayed both in attire and material placed in classrooms. Teachers come to work in professional attire and present themselves in a professional manner. Instruction incorporates minority achievement and students are taught that education is The Great Equalizer.

Educational attainment was maligned in the previous district. I was considered “uppity” (among other things) for wanting to be addressed by my proper honorific of Doctor. I actually had a human resources official tell me that I (an Afro-Latino) should have hidden the fact that I have an earned doctorate. I was criticized throughout the district for having my degrees on the wall in my office. I became a target, and the message was clear: They did not want a highly educated, experienced, certified male educator of color, ostensibly because the presence of such might inspire students of color to want to be the same. Instead, the district sought to employ those who would miseducate indigent, minority students, likely to create and perpetuate a permanent underclass comprised solely of people of color.

Studies show that we educators cannot control the neighborhoods our students come from or what goes on in their homes. We can, however, control what goes on at school. When students have a highly qualified and highly dedicated teacher who comes in prepared, can relate to the students, and holds the academic bar high, the result is improved academic outcomes. When students have a well-dressed, erudite professional in front them, holding them to high standards, the students tend to reach higher. No profession is possible without a teacher. Speak with anyone who is doing something positive, and they will tell you that, at some point in their educational career, a teacher inspired them. I myself was greatly influenced by the Dean of Students at my undergraduate institution. This gentleman was always nattily attired, spoke and carried himself well, and was the consummate professional. I wanted to be like him: A nice home, a nice office, and being a positive influence the same way he was. Again: Not one professional can honestly say that they were not influenced by at least one strong teacher.

This is why we need highly qualified, dedicated teachers supervised by strong educational leaders, particularly in the urban setting. With this we will produce more people of color doing positive things who will hopefully reach a hand back. Without a doubt, teaching is the foundation of all professional work. We have a duty to prepare our students not only academically but socially as well.

Growing Teachers for Today’s Schools

By Rebecca R. Garte and Cara Kronen

Dr. Garte is an Associate Professor of Teacher Education. Her grant-funded research uses observational and mixed methods to understand the factors that contribute to cognitive and social–emotional outcomes for young children through late adolescence. She has also partnered with NYC public schools to create professional development interventions designed to investigate teachers’ professional identities and practice from pre-service to in-service.

Dr. Kronen is an Associate Professor of Teacher Education and Coordinator of Secondary Education Programs at Borough of Manhattan Community College, City University of New York. Her research areas include urban education, social foundations of education, and the art of teaching and learning. Her current projects focus on increasing the number of non-traditional pre-service teachers and supporting them through full certification attainment and early career. 

This month’s authors from the current Educational Forum wrote the article, “From the Margins of the Classroom to Mattering: How Community College Education Students Develop Future Teacher Identities.” It is available free for the month of May here.

Like the two of us, the overwhelming majority of teachers in the U.S. are middle-class, white women. As the demographics of the United States become increasingly diverse, children from Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and Asian racial groups must see themselves reflected in their classroom teachers. The key to increasing teachers of color with the cultural competence to relate to the growing majority of minority public-school students may begin with supporting community-college education students.

Community-college students majoring in education are more likely to be from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, and from lower income families, than pre-service teachers enrolled in 4-year colleges and universities. Unfortunately, many of these students do not persist in the teacher career track all the way until certification. This may be due to inadequate preparation for college, but a more significant barrier may be a negative experience with early fieldwork. Most teacher-education faculty are white, and therefore often select practicum classrooms where the teachers, administrators, and even the children are predominantly white. Although these school settings may showcase model pedagogy, the lack of diversity often conveys to community college students that they do not belong in the field. When Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC) feel out of place—or worse, experience biases and micro-aggressions during early fieldwork—they may be less likely to develop a sense of themselves as a future teacher.

Our article explores future-teacher identity development among 60 community-college, early childhood education majors during their last semester fieldwork course. This course was designed to support their transfer to 4-year schools of education. We conducted an experiment to see whether the racial and socioeconomic diversity of the classroom and the students’ role during fieldwork would impact their future-teacher identity. Half of our students (randomly assigned) interned in a Title 1 public school, where BIPOC children and teachers were predominate. In addition, these students created action research projects in consultation with their cooperating teachers and with support from us­: their professors. The other half of the students attended the schools typically used by our colleagues. These schools were located within the same affluent neighborhood as our community college, serving predominantly affluent white families, and staffed by predominantly white teachers and administrators. Instead of the action research projects, these students created the traditional activity plans for the course.

We found striking differences in indicators of future-teacher identity between the two groups of pre-service teachers. The experimental group showed much higher degrees of critical self-reflection regarding planning for teaching than the traditional students, and they were rated as much more integrated into the classroom by their cooperating teachers. In addition, the experimental students described themselves in terms of feeling connected and committed to the teaching profession. It seems that for students who are the first in their family to attend college, seeing themselves in the role of a professional requires a major shift in their identity. To cultivate the teacher force that the diverse children in America’s public schools need, we must necessarily look more deeply at how future-teacher identity is formed. We particularly need to consider the role of community-college teacher preparation programs and how they can better support non-traditional students entering the field. We recognize that the socio–cultural environments of classrooms impact children’s feelings of belonging. Teacher educators need to consider how the socio–cultural contexts of fieldwork classrooms impact pre-service teachers’ perception of whether they belong in the field of education.

What Do We Mean by “Quality Education”?

By Francisco Esteban Bara and Juan Luis Fuentes

This month’s post from the current Educational Forum is by the authors of the article, “Swimming Against the Tide in Current Educational Practice: Thoughts and Proposals from a Communitarian Perspective.” It is available for free through the month of April.

Francisco Esteban Bara is an associate professor in philosophy of education in the Department of Theory and History of Education, Faculty of Pedagogy at Universitat de Barcelona (Spain). His research focuses on values education and ethics in the university.

Juan Luis Fuentes is an associate professor in theory of education in the Department of Educational Studies at Complutense University of Madrid (Spain). His research is centered on character education, intercultural education, and the use of ICTs in the educational sphere.

A casual conversation with parents of school-age children reveals several common themes. As parents, of course they tend to be very concerned about the well-being of their children. But this concern can be channelled very differently. In the welfare state typical of Western societies, where basic rights are guaranteed for most of the population, the focus has been on the quality of such rights. Establishing the standards for a quality education is an honest and reasonable concern for responsible parents, but a key question arises: What do we mean by educational quality?

A “quality education” is superficially understood to be innovative, changing, and dynamic, capable of adapting to society and the challenges it poses. Other times, the answer to that question is more simplistic: education quality is held up against so-called “traditional education,” something supposedly unacceptable in the 21st century—an outdated model, with outdated methods, old teachers, and schools that are not “current.”

According to this perspective, a “quality” school will be an alternative—a modern, high-tech, cutting-edge school—empathetic, flexible, and focused on the hottest topics. This new school is receptive to everything parents or school boards propose, even at the risk of forgetting that it is a school, where change is not impossible, but where the importance of its role in the community means that changes cannot be made lightly, without understanding what they mean for one of society’s most fundamental institutions.

Certainly quality, in all facets of life and of course in education, implies reflection and renewal, but the second cannot happen without the first. Nevertheless, sometimes defending this prudent idea is seen as swimming against the tide of educators at different levels, political actors, and parents, who seek the best for their children.

In our article, we raise some questions about what should be considered “useful,” and whether the school should only teach subjects that can be identified as useful and profitable. This means ignoring things that are apparently “useless,” yet are actually worth a great deal. Indeed, education is not solely concerned with the teaching and learning of certain subjects, skills, competencies, and the like. It is also concerned with how teaching and learning that educates others and oneself is unique to the human condition.

We cannot forget that the accumulation of information, methodologies, and resources may not be enough if we lack a sense of direction or orientation. Educational practice is not an assembly line of workers and citizens, nor a car wash from which one emerges gleaming bright. Education is a transformative process from which one should emerge different—changed—from the way we went in. Educational practice is a truly human and humanising process, a veritable ethical event. It is more than taking on the role of student or teacher; it means understanding that learning and teaching are a way of life.

However, certain tendencies distort the overall purpose of educational practice, and undermine this transformative power. Among other tendencies, we identify three: the obsession with adapting educational practice to some subjective reality; the excessive prominence of one of the three educational actors; and, finally, the belief that educational practice is something in which everyone should have a say and a choice.

Education certainly concerns us all, as human beings, but we can’t rely on a superficial analysis of what a quality education is, excessively utilitarian or abandoned to the loudest political voices. Educators and parents cannot afford to stand by; the stakes are too high.

Building Positive Behaviors Through Social-Emotional Learning

By Rashmi Khazanchi

Today’s blogger is Rashmi Khazanchi, who was the lead author on the article “Incorporating Social–Emotional Learning to Build Positive Behaviors” (coauthored by Pankaj Khazanchi, Vinita Mehta, and Neetu Tuli), which appears in the January 2021 issue of the Kappa Delta Pi Record. Get free access to the article through the month of April.

The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted many sectors, including education. Suddenly, students across the globe were required to adapt to online/remote learning, which came with many challenges. Many students struggled with limited or lack of adequate space, technology, Internet connectivity, and resources. Families struggled to provide a quiet environment conducive to learning and devices for every child in the house—or to decide who gets the devices when children are at different grade levels. Safety concerns, social distancing, isolation, and loneliness posed a serious concern to the health and well-being of the students, families, teachers, and stakeholders. The feeling of uncertainty and ambiguity caused anxiety, nervousness, and distress among everyone facing the pandemic. Students and their families were challenged emotionally by the loss of family members, relatives, or friends. The biggest challenge from this abrupt transition to online learning for students was that they had to engage and maintain their concentration when learning, despite facing various challenges and feeling strong emotions such as anxiety and loneliness. In these times, it is vital to learn the skills of managing emotions and social interactions to maintain everyone’s safety and well-being.

In writing the article “Incorporating Social-Emotional Learning to Build Positive Behavior,” which was featured in the Kappa Delta Pi Record, I was fortunate to work with three coauthors who provided great insight into how social–emotional learning is being implemented in India and the United States. We discussed the five types of social and emotional learning (SEL) competencies: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. These SEL skills include learning to be aware of emotions, managing emotions, understanding things from other perspectives, maintaining positive interactions, and making informed decisions (CASEL, 2020). The article also highlights practical examples that teachers and parents can implement to build and maintain positive behaviors through the SEL activities and strategies described. One of the authors is the Director of Mom’s Belief Vatsalya Special School in India. Ms. Tuli eloquently described how she implements SEL activities for students with disabilities, who often express their emotions through negative behaviors. Students of Mom’s Belief Vatsalya do daily yoga, among other SEL activities, to balance their emotions.

The article examines why SEL skills are necessary and what challenges teachers face in implementing SEL. Teachers and parents play important roles in implementing and promoting SEL skills in the classroom and the home environment. Teachers need to demonstrate responsible behaviors, show genuine interest in students’ learning, establish positive social norms, teach self-reflection, and consistently reinforce positive behaviors. Parents can support their children at home by displaying positive behaviors and promoting SEL skills by reading stories with moral values, collaborating with their teachers to reinforce SEL lessons/activities taught at school, and building positive behaviors.

Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. (2020). CASEL’s SEL framework.
https://casel.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/CASEL-SEL-Framework-10.2020-1.pdf

Bringing the 21st Century to an Academy in Ghana

By Brittney Caldwell

Brittney Caldwell is a high school social studies teacher in Atlanta, Georgia. She is currently pursuing her EdD in Curriculum and Education. Brittney has spent her career advocating for teachers and students. Brittney is passionate about Social Studies being taught through culturally relevant, inclusive, and authentic strategies. She spends her summers traveling and observing school cultures in various countries. Her ultimate goal is to develop a program that allows her to bring other teachers along. She is currently serving KDP on the national level as a member of the Knowledge Development Advisory Council. 

As a public-school teacher at a Title I school in inner-city Atlanta, I am accustomed to complaining about the resources that I do not have.

I have complained to my administration and academic coaches about the lack of software that would assist me in raising test scores, or the old textbooks that were not updated with content required in the standards/objectives. I look at my old-fashioned desk with disdain sometimes, when I compare my classroom to the 21st-century learning environments that I see on Pinterest and Instagram. I even had the nerve to get upset that my county was not yet 1:1, and we had to share a Chromebook cart with my entire department if the computer lab was booked for the day.

As a teacher, I could sometimes only focus on the resources that I was lacking. Poor American public-school teacher, spending her own money on classroom supplies and only being handed the bare minimum. This attitude completely changed once I visited Press On Academy in Accra, Ghana.

I did not arrive in Accra with the intention of coming across this local community school. My boyfriend’s aunt had passed away abruptly, and we flew to Accra. We made plans to stay for the month and, since I was working remotely, it was not a problem. I passed Press On Academy several times. I finally decided to try my luck and visit the school in hopes of a tour. Being a U.S. history teacher to a 99 percent African American school population, I was genuinely curious and wanted to speak with the local social-studies teachers about African history.

Ghanaian public schools are overcrowded, severely underfunded, and full of poverty-stricken students. The economy in Ghana has created a very wide gap between the rich and the poor, leaving a small middle-class population. Most middle-class families cannot afford private schools, but do not wish to send their students to public schools. Press On Academy is technically a private school, but the tuition and resources are much lower because the parents consist of middle-class workers (welders, maids, and merchants) who pay tuition with hard-earned money. The school does not receive money from the government, and solely relies on tuition to pay for all school expenses, including teacher salaries.

The headmaster of Press On Academy opened the school up to me immediately, welcoming me and offering me a tour. He was excited to hear that I was a teacher from America. Visiting the grounds was hard for me and I had to hold back tears.

The children were sharing used workbooks. Several of the desks in the classrooms had nails sticking out or were barely holding together. The teacher’s chair was falling apart as well. They were using chalkboards. There was no air conditioning. There were no textbooks, computers, or even anchor charts on the wall. There was no pencil sharpener.

I hid my feelings well, continuing to smile back at everyone who was smiling at me. The students were so happy and friendly. The teachers were very welcoming. The teachers urged students to go up to the chalkboard and show me the work that they had been learning. First graders were doing three-digit multiplication problems and breaking down fractions! Many of the students were very advanced and excited about learning. The teachers had taught the students so many skills with so few supplies. They were ahead of my own first grader, Brason. My heart automatically called me to help.

I spent the next month, December 2020, in Ghana crowdfunding for Press On Academy. I ultimately raised $4,500 and built a computer lab for the school. I took a vacant room in the corner of the building and dedicated my time to perfecting it. The room needed new flooring, electrical outlets, windows installation, door installation and a paint job. I was able to afford four computers and a projector, computer tables and group tables for students to use when viewing the projector. I also dedicated funds to repainting two classrooms and replacing their chalkboards with dry-erase boards. The children were so grateful and excited when the room was revealed. It was the best feeling in the world.

The teachers were very thankful as well. We all spoke about how teaching is really universal. We all face the same issues on different scales. They have fewer behavioral issues than I, but could relate to distractions in the classroom and lack of resources. In Ghana, teachers are expected to live below middle class and be content. Anyone choosing to be a teacher is dedicating their life to struggle and accepting the Lord’s blessing in return. The headmaster described it as “hand to mouth” living, and told me that teachers would never be able to own a home in Ghana. It was neither realistic nor expected.

I recorded the entire visit and renovation process for my Instagram, Caldwell’s Classroom. Teachers all over the world watched and supported me as I invested my time and energy into helping Press On Academy. Many of them donated to my crowdfunding, and in exchange I sent handwritten letters from the students. So many teachers asked how they could help or be a part of the process. Because of this, I planned a trip for July 2021 to return to Press On Academy and continue raising funds. My goal is to assist them in reaching full completion of the school and connect them to our global education network.

The school is rich in pedagogy and the teachers are talented. They have so much talent, and practices that they could share with the world, but need help connecting and entering 21st-century learning. I am continuing to raise funds for the school and sending supplies as donations are received. I and a group of five teachers, two of them Kappa Delta Pi members as well, are visiting Ghana for a week in July. I am hoping to make this an annual trip and increase participation every year.

We teachers have to take care of each other, and I will be very careful not to complain as often as I do. As a teacher in America, I already have privilege that I am not always aware of. Many teachers worldwide are making do with much less and are perfectly successful.

If you feel compelled to donate or send supplies, please visit www.brittneycaldwell.com or follow my Instagram, @CaldwellsClassroom. Here is the link to my GoFundMe.

Education Activism in a New Era: Where Does Opt Out Go from Here?

The article, “Education Activism in the Trump-DeVos Era: Opt Out Florida’s Leaders Respond to the 2016 Election,” appears in the January-March issue of The Educational Forum. It is available for free in March here.

Stephanie Schroeder is an Assistant Professor of Social Studies Education at the Pennsylvania State University where she teaches courses in elementary social studies methods, civic engagement, and democratic education. Her research interests center on the teaching and learning of civic and professional agency.

On January 7, 2021, former Secretary of Education Betsy Devos resigned her position, citing her disdain for the violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. For many, the resignation was welcome, if not long overdue. A month later, as hearings begin for a new Secretary of Education under a new presidential administration, one wonders what changes to education policy might be on the horizon. Following a year in which intersecting political, social, and public health crises have laid bare the vast systemic racial and economic disparities in the United States, what can a new presidential administration do to promote educational equity? And how might education activists respond to a self-proclaimed teacher-friendly Biden-Harris administration?

Our article in the latest issue of The Educational Forum looks back to the 2016 election to see how one group of education activists—the Opt Out Florida Network—responded to a changing presidential administration. As part of the larger Opt Out Movement, a nationwide effort to reject high-stakes testing and resist school privatization, the Opt Out Florida Network supports parents and teachers through dozens of Facebook groups throughout the state of Florida. We began formal research with the Florida network after the 2015 testing season, when opting out reached its zenith. It was the year nearly 20 percent of New York State students opted out and, notably, smack in the midst of the Obama presidency.

By 2017, when we conducted the research presented in our article, it felt like we had entered into a new world. Trump had won the 2016 election, Betsy DeVos, an ardent supporter of school privatization, had been confirmed as Secretary of Education, and the country’s left wing seemed poised for a new protest or march at every turn. We wondered how these national changes would impact a social movement focused on education, a facet of American society and policy-making controlled primarily at the local level. Somewhat predictably, the leaders of Opt Out Florida believed the presidential election in and of itself had no impact on their movement: Democrats and Republicans alike had created the problem of high-stakes testing and school privatization, so a Republican in office would be more of the same. Yet, the spirit of protest that Trump’s win inspired led them to rethink their messaging, encouraging them to refocus opting out on the larger mission of promoting democracy and social justice in public schools.

Four years later, what can education activists learn from the way the Opt Out Florida Network responded to a changing presidential administration and shifting national mood in 2016? Identifying a clear and compelling message that speaks to the ever-changing political and social context of schooling is a good first lesson. Perhaps, too, activists today might take note as to how Opt Out Florida sought to ride the wave of post-election protest and consider how the cancellation of high-stakes testing in 2020 might be a useful jumping-off point for future messaging efforts. The COVID-19 pandemic brings with it new challenges as well, and demands that teachers, unions, and other education activists shift their focus to more elemental needs: safe school reopening and teacher vaccinations. With lives hanging in the balance, there is hope that a new presidential administration brings with it a desire to listen to activists and work with states to promote the welfare and equity students and teachers deserve.