Voices in Equity – Education Episode pt 1

Kristen: regardless of whether we’re in the middle of a pandemic. Kids are always gonna have social emotional complexities, um, and issues that intervene with their learning. And so I think we consistently need to address those, not just, you know, because we’re in a pandemic and they’re experiencing, you know, higher incidences of these things.

Sashir: I just remember it being a scary time um, but as teachers always do, we step up to the plate, we were resilient. We were building the plane while flying a lot of times. So, uh, just having to learn new technology of different platforms, worrying about students, making sure everybody’s okay, you know, are they safe?

Are they, um, when you’re not seeing your students log on. Um, and also knowing that everybody doesn’t have the ability to log on. Um, that was something that really hit home. our school district here in durham Was really good about making sure things were equitable. Um, you know, at the course, uh, with the initial uncertainty of what’s going on, everybody did their best, but they really stepped up to the plate to make sure, like, uh, students who didn’t have access to computers, um, when everything initially happened, families could pick up work packets.

We had food distribution centers as we understand what schools actually do for the community beyond educating our kids, we provide safe places and, um, we provide a lot of meals for kids that may not have meals on a consistent basis. So, um, that was something that I was proud of as a educator, that I was seeing my district make those moves and make those decisions because all of us were concerned about that.

And as time moved on, um, out of the initial phase of the pandemic when we were just straight up online, you know, making sure every person had a laptop, Going one to one and making sure that kids had hot spots to get online. Um, that’s something, um, that I was happy that our school district put forth and to the forefront.

But it was, it was very stressful. And just making sure our kids are there engaged and, turning the cameras on, cuz that’s a whole nother thing sometimes, you know, they’re like hiding in the background. We’re like, Hey, you know, turn your camera on. We wanna see your face. We wanna make sure you’re okay.

Are, are you there? Are you asleep? Or are you engaged in this lesson? And trying to find creative ways to teach online because it is very different and I really struggled with that. I’m, I have a bubbly personality and like, you know, I try to make social studies as engaging as possible. Um, you know, some things, you know, even though I love social studies may still be a little boring to, uh, to middle schoolers, but you’re just trying to make it fun and engaging and just trying to bring that online. It was definitely a challenge.

Maddie: And Kristen and Erica and Keisha, what did this look like from your perspective? The early stages.

Erica: Keisha, why don’t you go first, only because, of your notes and mind piggyback off of yours.

Kisha: Oh, sure, definitely. So, um, I am a parent of, uh, at the time I was a parent of two high schoolers, a ninth grader and a senior. And also, um, my son was at the time, a sophomore in college. And so I think from my perspective, I was not only kind of seeing what they were going through as students, but then also teaching college-aged students.

I got to see multiple perspectives. And I actually, that was really helpful because I saw my own children and how they were dealing with it and then how as a parent I was helping them to deal with it. And I think it gave me, um, this opportunity to just give even more grace and courtesy to my college students, which resulted in quite a bit of teaching on the fly, changing things, not always requiring students to turn on cameras.

In fact, sometimes I didn’t turn on my camera and I was like, You guys were just gonna listen to music and blow the chat up today. Cuz it looks like everybody’s kind of not feeling like doing a lot of talking. And I think it also made me more sensitive in many ways to what students, uh, are going through outside of school, because outside of school was such a part of school, right. Um, you know, whether it was being able to see students bedrooms or where they lived or maybe where they didn’t want you to know they were.

Some of my students were in cars, you know, doing virtual online class and cars and it just really made me, um, remember so much goes on outside of the classroom. And then I, frankly, I was then very disappointed when my own children may not have had educators who reciprocated, right? And so that was something for all of us to talk about around the dinner table.

So it was. It was very challenging. I lost a lot of work life balance as I’m sure students did as well. There was really never any clear cut, okay well, my work stops now because I had students who were, you know, in California taking classes or around the world taking classes. So if they sent you an email, you know, at 11:00 PM or 2:00 AM and I just happened to be up, I was responding. So there was a lot of challenges, uh, but it also made me, I think, a, just so sensitive to the needs of students.

Erica: I completely agree with you, and I think that something that we take advantage of as potentially college professors is how important executive functioning skills are. I’ve been an executive functioning coach for almost 10 years now. And once students are in college, for the most part, those students that are successful have a good amount of executive functioning skills.

So the transition to go online was still difficult for them, but they’ve had that practice of being in college to at least be able to kind of play with their schedule, figure out how to chunk time, et cetera. And we almost threw that on elementary school kids, middle school kids, high school kids whose parents might not have had executive functioning training practice.

It’s not something that’s explicitly taught very much. And so there was very much, I would say I was a part of the teaching team at the Cook Center, and we extended lots of grace and understanding to our college students. We canceled a few assignments, tweaked some things, extended due dates. And the students that I was tutoring in high school, their teachers weren’t really doing the same.

And it was surprising to me, and it’s almost like the, the mindset needed to shift a little bit of kids haven’t done this before. Um, kids need to be able to learn how to do things in chunks, need to be able to learn how to schedule things into their own time when they’re given this much free time and they just have to like navigate canvas or Google classrooms.

So it was different for students of all ages to have to learn how to operate at such a high executive functioning level, in no amount of time or coaching.

Kristen: I’d like to kind of piggyback on what y’all said, because like Keisha, I had a child that was a senior in high school and one who was a sophomore in high school, and so my senior had their graduation virtually, drive through graduation actually, and then his freshman year in college, they sent everybody home.

So he was home his whole freshman year of college and he stayed home. You know, you kind of miss that transition piece. And, and it didn’t really bother him that much because he’s not, you know, the social butterfly that my daughter is. But my daughter had a more difficult time with the pandemic. And one of the things that I did is I worked with another family and we created these learning pods.

And so there were certain days of the week where my daughters had a few friends that would come to our house and they would sit at our table and they would do their homework together or take their classes together. Just having that social kind of interaction was really important, because kids are experiencing a lot of anxiety during this time.

And so anything I could do to kind of alleviate that and, and like Keisha looking at the experiences that my daughter was having, made me more sensitive to the fact that, gosh, you know, our Duke students are probably experiencing some of these same things. And so it was an opportunity for me to really rethink the way I taught.

I know that the social emotional aspect, the affective aspect is so critical to learning. I mean, you can’t really separate the affective and cognitive, they really go together. And so I incorporated a lot of things in my class that were specifically for social, emotional, you know, issues to kind of give a space for those things to, you know, kinda have a little mini therapy session, I guess.

But what I hope, and I’ve seen this some places and not other places, is that we, I saw a lot of that going on, like mental health days at, at, uh, some of the high schools and things of that nature where they, you know, would log off the computers and they would do things, you know, work on projects independently. So it would kind of give them a break, um, from the monotony of like Zoom session after Zoom session after Zoom session.

Well, we’ve gone back now, and some schools have seen the value in that, the mental health days, and have continued to do that even though they’re now in person. I know my daughters are freshman at Carolina, they have mental health days built through uh, their school year. So she’s already had two already and, but some people have dropped it, you know, they’re not doing it. And, and I just think that’s, um, unfortunate. I think that’s something we learned that’s really a benefit, regardless of whether we’re in the middle of a pandemic. Kids are always gonna have social emotional complexities, um, and issues that intervene with their learning.

And so I think we consistently need to address those, not just, you know, because we’re in a pandemic and they’re experiencing, you know, higher incidences of these things. So,

Sashir: I would just like to add that, um, I think what you’re saying is super important, um, Wellness Wednesday, it’s something that we had as well in our district. And, um, it was a great way for everybody to have that time to take care of their mental health as well. If you had some stuff that you needed to finish up. We weren’t allowed to assign any new work or hold any Zoom classes. And I think that is something that’s super important and something that we, um, definitely need to keep moving forward. Um, that’s one of those things that I would like to add to my, our keep list.

Also one of the things that, um, I wanted to mention as well, our school counselors and social workers did an amazing job as well with going in, um, doing home visits, checking on students, doing individual sessions, and you, you know, you have teachers doing the same thing too, checking on students and if, and also I forgot to mention this when I was talking about the cameras as well, we encourage students to have their cameras on, but if they did not, If for some reason if they didn’t have their camera on or they had something they were dealing with and they didn’t wanna be on camera, you know, we gave Grace for that as well.

Giving grace for assignments, because we know, like I, there was an instance where I had a kid, in the past where her mom was an essential worker. She was a nurse and they caught covid um, and she, uh, you know, unfortunately when she got home, they spread throughout the household. So, um, working with families individually to, you know, give grace and check on you, say, Hey, are you doing okay?

Don’t worry about that assignment right now. You take care of yourself and, you know, working with students, and that’s something that was important and it was a community of us, uh, doing it. So I, I don’t wanna just acknowledge the teacher portion, but I also wanna, um, acknowledge our amazing social workers and our amazing counselors who were doing a lot of work as well, and administrators.

Maddie: Sasha, I really like how you said the keep list. Um, and that kind of, that emotional awareness and this SEL or social emotional learning is so important to put on that keep list, to keep beyond the scope of the pandemic. And all of this is ringing home for me. I was a senior at Duke in 2020 and then I went straight into teaching in a virtual classroom. Um, it fit in a middle school in Nashville.

I tried to, you know, I received a lot of grace as a senior and, and I wanted to extend that, um, in my classroom. And even when we returned, because like you all have said, not only were students and families going through it, you know, in the heat of this pandemic, but there is a lot of residual stuff.

You know, there’s a lot of residual grief and challenges that families and students and communities continue to face today. And I think Sashir, you, you noted that, you know, at the beginning especially, we realized quickly that distance learning looked very different for students with different home situations, parents who were working, et cetera.

And you noted that you were at a very diverse school, so you kind of had, you could see that wide range of experiences. Could you tell us a little bit more about kind of the range of experiences that students were having?

Sashir: You have some students that were definitely having a hard time with mental health, finding food. Also you have students who, you know, you can kind of see excel because they already had, uh, multiple screens, um, in their room and the whole gaming system, things like that. So that digital divide, you could definitely see it there.

Um, and that’s one thing, like I said, once we, uh, were able to go one to one and there was federal funds came in to make that happen, that was something that was so important that helped kind of close that divide. Um, you know, there’s still some disparities that you see there as well, but one thing I did wanna add too, also in this climate, um, and I would be remiss to say this as a Black woman, if I don’t bring this up, Uh, one of the things that also we were dealing with, with students and personally myself, the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery.

So already in this climate of this pandemic and you this uncertainty, you also have these horrible murders that took place in our American society and our kids were grappling with that as well as the adults. And, um, navigating, having those hard conversations and checking in with our Black and brown students as well, and all students, period, and explaining what happened and ex, you know, giving space for that. That was also something that was necessary during this time as well.

Kristen: I’m glad you brought that up because, um, I remember when all that was going on and I had students contact me on the days we had class saying their head just wasn’t there. Their head just wasn’t there for class, you know, and like you said before, giving grace, uh, when people need that time, uh, to just kind of step back and, you know, absorb what’s going on in their own way.

One thing too about, uh, that I don’t think we think a lot about, at least I didn’t, was when students are logging in, you know, a lot of times the space that, that they have multiple kids, multiple family, everybody’s home, you know, trying to find your quiet space to do your thing. And I’ve com I’m convinced that after the pandemic, this open floor plan fad that people have is probably gonna go by the wayside because I found it very difficult to find a space where someone wasn’t walking behind me or, you know, making noise in the kitchen, that sort of thing.

So, and, and for kids, you know, in some of these households, they’re sharing spaces with a lot of people. And if they’re all trying to, to log in and, and, and have their you know, classes at the same time, that makes it difficult. There’s just a lot of distractions. Um, I think that were, were difficult.

Sashir: And it also played with the internet connection as well. That’s one thing too. So even if you had that hot spot and you have three siblings and y’all all are on, and um, also I saw some of my middle school siblings trying to help their elementary school siblings, and you see the dog run by my dog was, uh, famous for making, um, appearances.

I named him King Tut and he really thinks he’s a king and he thinks he should do whatever he wants to do and he would appear occasionally. So my students got, I would have to apologize. They’d be like, How’s the dog doing today? So, you know, it would be one particular period. He’ll be quiet all day. So all of those life interruptions would play in, um, to that as well.

And you know, if you’re trying to play a video clip, it definitely messed with the internet stability. So and students ,had to help me too sometimes. You know how you have to turn on that computer sound button on Zoom? I didn’t know about that until it was time to go online. So, uh, like even that so it was just a lot of things to put in perspective.

Kristen: I’m so glad that we have Sashir’s voice, this discussion as a current classroom teacher, uh, because we do write in the chapter about teacher voice is often absent at the table when talking about school reform and, uh, educational issues. And she just set a context that people like policymakers and even many researchers and scholars wouldn’t have no idea about what the experience was like, yet they’re making big decisions that impact our classrooms every single day, absent teacher voice, and you wonder why a lot of them aren’t successful.

Erica: You just led right into what I wanted to say, Kristen. I think that it’s important that the environment or the decisions that were made were very much based upon assumptions. So you were a senior at Duke in 2020. We got an email from the College of Arts and Sciences, for context for everybody else.

Y’all went home for spring break and we got an email like on Friday saying Don’t come back to school, leave your stuff there, we’re doing class online. And we were teaching, The Cook Center was teaching four different classes at that time. And we had about, it was a cohort, it was a Duke engage program. We had about 30 students, more or less.

There was an assumption made that everybody has internet. You don’t know if everybody has internet, they just went home. You don’t know what their family situation is like. You don’t know if they even brought their computer home. And so there was this, this huge assumption that students have what the adults or the professors are teaching with et cetera.

There was also, when I was a classroom teacher, I worked with primarily students who spoke English as their second, third language. Imagine navigating how to log onto a computer, you have to use Zoom, which you’ve never heard of, English isn’t your first Lang. It was hard for the people that I was trying to help with PhDs how to use Zoom, imagine English not being your first language.

And so there were just a bunch of assumptions made at the policy level of, Okay, let’s roll it out. We’ll figure it out. It, it made things so difficult for the, the students, um, who really had to learn, and also, I mean, the professors too, but the students were the ones that really grappled with it the most.

Kisha: Well, and I was gonna say, you know, I think there was an assumption that teachers knew what to do because, you know, sure we love our jobs and we love teaching, but there were many teachers who may not have had internet connection and or who may not have had computers that were going to sustain, you know, a year and a half of virtual learning or,

Maybe they had no interest in learning Zoom, but now all of a sudden they had to, or any of these other virtual landscapes and the, you know, sort of onboarding curve was probably just as bad for educators as it was for students and parents and families. And so, like Sashir had mentioned earlier, everybody was building like multiple planes and flying and crashing and rebuilding and flying and crashing, like all over.

And we just kept moving. Like we just kept moving right along. So there were more assumption. I, I think I agree with you, yes Erica, there were assumptions made, but also it worked the other way too for teachers. And I think it that then put a disadvantage, uh, more of a disadvantage on our students, because everybody was assuming we were going to just know what to do.

Kristen: And In the, let me tell you, teachers are multitaskers to begin with and you know, there’s this term that we used a lot during this time period. It was called the pivot, right? We all had to pivot from, you know, what we traditionally were doing in terms of, of teaching and, and working with our students to a completely different environment.

And I I was amazed at how school communities came together and were able to do what they did in such a short amount of time. They pivoted like it was, you know, orchestrated, which I know behind the scenes it was probably mass chaos, but it seemed to be so seamless in terms of what I saw from the outside.

Sashir: And that’s an excellent point in just the fellowship of teachers working together. I know, um, one of my, uh, colleagues, and she’s a friend of mine as well, we were on the phone till 11:00 PM. She was trying to help me with Canvas when it first rolled out. And I was like, What is this? I, I figured out Zoom, but uh, how do I do this and how do I do that?

And she was very proficient in it. And my page wouldn’t have been as, uh, well developed as it was had she not stayed on the phone with me till 11:00 PM, cuz you know, as teachers we wanna go above and beyond and we wanna have the extra stuff. And, you know, if you’re using a certain thing, you wanna make it the best possible thing for your students and maximize things and make it as easy as it can be for them. And, um, I’m eternally grateful for, uh, the help that she provided for me as well. So the community was important.

Kristen: Can I ask Sashir a question? I’m just curious about something. So one thing is that online teaching and online learning during this period of time gave parents a window into what’s going on in classrooms that they never maybe had before. And that could be good, but it also probably brought up some things that, uh, were concerning And, you know, parents were started to get hyper focused on certain things and were concerned about, you know, like critical race theory.

And all of that kind of emerged by.

We want parents involved, but parents shouldn’t be involved to the extent that they de professionalize teachers that they think they know more than teachers about teaching. So I’m just wondering, based on your experiences, knowing that there might be parents listening into your class, did you have any, uh, issues with that, or?

Sashir: Thankfully not. I am pretty, uh, radical. So I’m a person. I majored in history and I’m a proud graduate of North Carolina Central University. So I wanted to give a big shout out to our history department. I teach history the way it happened and I include all voices. So, you know, I was ready, uh, just in case I had that issue.

And luckily I didn’t, knock on wood, you know, cuz the year is still young. But luckily I didn’t have that experience. I have heard of colleagues and have, uh, friends that teach in different states that have had some of those experiences or have had those challenges. There’s a huge attack on teachers, especially in the history profession as well, you know, teaching social studies and what should be taught and this critical race theory and how, you know, they’re, you know, demonizing it.

I’ve been to a workshop and I build a little community with different teachers from across the states. And I know someone whose name was posted, um, in a newspaper and they were criticized because they were accused of teaching critical race theory and trying to brainwash children. So I know of people who’ve had, who’ve actually lived in those experiences and um, it’s very stressful for them.

There was actually a list going around nationwide with some crazy group, I don’t remember the name, but they were actually getting people’s addresses and publicizing those things if they felt like people were teaching critical race theory in their classroom. So in the midst of us grappling with that pandemic, you have these attacks on teachers. So thankfully I did not have that experience, but I know people who did. Um, and they had to deal with it and, um, it was very stress.

It’s very stressful cuz you’re teaching the truth. You know, no one’s trying to brainwash anyone’s child. It’s about teaching the truth and how history actually happened and talking about institutional racism, that is a part of our school system. Unfortunately, that’s something that needs to be eradicated.

How did schools start? They’re starting in a segregated, racist society and, um, we have to own that. Um, there were schools created for Native American children that, um, had a theme of Save the Man, Kill the Indian, um, was a phrase that was used, and that is a part of our dark history that we need to, you know, talk about and work to fix those issues.

So I’m all about teaching the truth. Um, so, you know, that may get me in trouble, but That’s all right. . So

Erica: You know what Sair, um, it pro it will not get you in trouble at the Cook Center. And if you’re interested in having a summer job, we have a really great institute where we teach high school students about things just like that and about the research process. So just putting a little plug there that if you ever wanna teach for young scholars, I think that you’ll be a great candidate.

Sashir: Thank you so much. I’m gonna write that down. I would love

Kristen: Teachers are always looking for summer jobs and second jobs and third jobs.