A Tale of Two Classrooms: How the Response to COVID-19 Impacts Equity

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Educators find themselves in a unique place during this start of the school year. We are seeking to address some big social questions, such as: How can I create a classroom that is inclusive and promotes equity? What biases do I hold and how can I both become aware of them and overcome them? What may be barriers to my students feeling seen and valued in my learning environment? How can I create a classroom where everyone knows Black lives matter? Are there systems in place that perpetuate racism that I need to confront? Simultaneously, we are grappling with some unique logistical questions associated with the
pandemic: How will returning to school with social distancing work? How will online learning work? What will I need to do if I return to work but my child is learning virtually? How can I provide a sense of safety and still promote learning? What if I get sick or one of my students get sick? How is this all going to work?

Because this school year will require us as educators to stretch ourselves in ways we have never been stretched before, we find ourselves at the intersection of two very different paths. These paths lead to classrooms that could not be more different.

Imagine classroom A:

In order to meet logistical demands, teachers work with students in a blended manner. During the first week, group A students attend school Monday through Thursday and learn virtually on Friday, while Group B students learn virtually all week. The next week, the groups switch roles. Because of missed academic time and a need to “catch students up,” teachers are asked to focus all efforts on academics. During their time with students, they cram in as much content as possible so students have all the academic information they need when they are away from the classroom and working independently.

As time progresses, everyone’s stress levels rise. Students and teachers alike are exhausted. To meet curriculum demands, teachers revert to “sit and get” lecture-style teaching and posting lists of assignments to be completed with minimal one-on-one support. The pressure of this teaching style causes students to act out in class or miss turning in assignments. Teachers see students struggling but their curriculum calls for them to keep delivering more content and they resort to punitive measures when students act out. In the classroom, teachers focus on crowd control rather than teaching students the expected behavior. Students who test limits are immediately sent to the office. In the virtual setting, teachers simply assign failing grades to missing assignments since there is no time to follow up with students. There is a spike in suspensions and failing grades. Teachers go into survival mode and at the very time we need systemic change in teachers’ cultural responsiveness and response to student behavior, educators are thrust into the very constraints that perpetuate racially unjust, punishment-based systems.

Imagine classroom B:

In order to meet logistical demands, teachers work with students in a blended manner on a similar schedule as classroom A. However, the teachers in this school take a different approach. Their number one priority is to take care of the whole student—socially, emotionally, and academically. They treat each and every child as their priority. They recognize that to care for each student they must examine everything through the lens of what will be fair, just, and best for students. They recognize that now, more than ever, is the time to truly examine how their approach will either further advance or break down systems of racial oppression.

These teachers spend time before school starts brainstorming how they can accomplish this despite the constraints. They plan ways they can create a sense of safety, predictability, and joy. They think about what they will do on day one to elicit excitement for the school year rather than amplify stress. They plan ways to have students participate in Morning Meeting and Responsive Advisory Meeting components from their seats or online and focus on the goal of creating belonging, significance, and fun within an inclusive community. They think about the things they must model and role-play so students know how to navigate the new rules of the virtual or socially distanced classroom space. They brainstorm ways they can incorporate energizers to ensure that students have fun and experience joy throughout the day. They discuss ways to incorporate interactive learning structures to engage students and help them build relationships with one another.

In classroom B, teachers have taken time to build a learning community. They have also built a network so students can reach out to other students for help. When misbehaviors happen (which they undoubtedly will) these teachers step in with logical consequences, such as requiring the student struggling with completing assignments independently to check in at a certain time to develop a plan. In short, they teach.

I once had the opportunity to start a school from the ground up. It was scary because we were embarking on something new, and we didn’t know what it would look like. There were so many unknowns and so many things we had to figure out and define before we could even support our students in being successful. How could they belong when we didn’t know what it was that they were actually belonging to? I think this question is at the crux of what educators are facing now. When presented with the new, we sometimes think we need something new. What I found—and what I believe each educator embracing the Responsive Classroom approach will also find—is that your approach to teaching is your greatest strength. Let it be your compass.

By virtue of the practices you already use in your classroom, you, along with all other Responsive Classroom educators, are poised to bring about systemic change through small actions. You can still do Morning Meetings, you will still need to model procedures and routines, you will still need to role-play, and you will still need to incorporate energizers and interactive learning structures. You will still do everything that you already do to set your classroom up for success. But what you use them to accomplish and how you use them may slightly change. And by making these small things you will not only create learning environments that support great learning, but you will also ensure that much-needed systemic change doesn’t become a victim of logistics.