In 1988, The Fresh Prince, now famously known as Will Smith, penned a song with his D.J., Jazzy Jeff, Parent’s Just Don’t Understand. In the song, the Fresh Prince pontificated and lamented on how despite his pleas and through many different situations, his parents just didn’t understand what he was going through as a young person. Whether it was in the Galleria Mall and school shopping or the temptation of having an exotic car in the garage with no parental supervision, the Fresh Prince was convinced that the spatial and age differential between him and his parents was too distant for it to be bridged.
While their song was a collage of scenarios, the experiences that our students face in school are similar in depth but even more real and impactful! Even before the interruption of in-person learning due to COVID-19, schools struggled with connecting with students on an emotional level. Schools were and are still driven by test scores, compliance, and bureaucracy. Far too often schools are mandated to do certain things that are thought to be in the interest of students, but in reality, are formalities as a way to check boxes! All these factors have led to the chorus; now say it in unison, Schools Just Don’t Understand.
Despite the current challenges and the existent narrative, there is a solution. Schools can understand and support students from their perspectives. Schools have the ability and in many cases the means and capacity to meet students where they are and take them where there need to be. Schools can make students the center of what occurs as opposed to being the subjects or beneficiaries of what are the outcomes of what happens.
Throughout all our work and after conducting over 250,000 home visits, we have identified three dominant themes that have surfaced that would allow schools “Just to Understand.”
1) Listen to first comprehend, then act.
During our home visits, we have heard countless students and families share stories about that despite them sharing what they needed, schools often only provide what they interpret them of needing. Years ago, the eminent scholar and renowned college president, Dr. Freeman Hrabowski told me that as an educator I need to “Ask, Listen, and then Act!” That aligned action must be directly connected to active listening. Going even further, active listening must be grounded in authentic questioning. These two steps are even more powerful than the actual action. The issue is not the lack of trying, it is that as educators we think we know what to do. There is context to the challenges, barriers, and behaviors that our students and families experience. Listening to hear and absorb, then decide if and how to act!
2) Schools are not experts; they are practitioners of education.
We don’t have all the answers! Despite what we think, how we have been trained, or even what we have experienced, there is no panacea, silver bullet, or one size fits all approach. While these things seem like common sense and practical to understand, schools unfortunately in an effort to “fix” or remedy the problem, tend to use a cookie-cutter approach to the complex issues that underly the impetus for the observable outcomes. Whether it is following the road map of progressive discipline or using copy, cut, and paste frameworks that may not be able to be scaled or be supported, we must approach challenges and issues with a lens that we don’t have all the answers. This is not to suggest that there is a lack of a strategy or an understanding of the various paradigms that exist. However, it is without apology, positing that all strategies and/or frameworks are NOT transferable or applicable from one locale or district to another. From my experience, book knowledge doesn’t mean real life transformation! We need a basis of understanding. A historical and practical base from which to operate, but education, students, humans, are not contained by anyone’s view or standpoint. The students and families that we serve are not static and do not fit into any outline. They are fluid and ever-changing, nonpredictable, and can not be confined to a box, or mathematical equation that suggests the following: do A, get B, and the result will be C.
Change and impact are the results of interaction and the exchange of authenticity and vulnerability. Educators must model authenticity and vulnerability through action and not words, through deeds and not theory, from the arena and not spectators. Let me be clear, most of the building educators that I have had the privilege of speaking to and working with, understand this and live it. These statements are to the educators who have become politicians. Those that have been lulled to sleep in a malaise of compliance and not change! Taking approaches that have been abundantly funded by purveyors of finance and not the commitment to education and empowerment.
To suggest that schools are not experts is not an indictment upon any individual, school, or district. Rather it is a call to understand that our students and families can not be supported by theory but through a shared experience. Where sympathy is traded for empathy and instructions are substituted for understanding and collaborative movement. If we can remember that our students and families are people, not objects and if we have as our North Star that we are joined teammates in an effort to improve, we can then free ourselves that we have the answers and participate in the joint venture of success.
3) Resources need to be aligned to the need of the students.
In over 20 years in education in general, but specifically supporting “urban” education, I have come to believe in one truism; it’s not a lack of money or resources why things don’t improve or why things are messed up! It is a lack of alignment to what students and families say they need, and not what the politics of education believe will be effective. While I understood this as a possibility when I was inside of the system, I have seen this as a reality since I have been an entrepreneur.
Throughout the years, even as there are budgetary confinements, the fact of the matter is there is money where and how the district and/or schools want to spend it! In many instances, there is a cornucopia of acronyms that are aligned to some type of federal and state grants that must be used. Many times, schools are tasked with “spending” allocated monies without a clear and concise plan on how to do it. Furthermore, schools are restricted by various guidelines that extremely eliminate those vendors, partners, and/or services that are community-based and are closest to the students and families. These funds that are available for spending can only be used for organizations that are ESSA or ESSER approved. That is, these organizations are evidence-based. While I am not anti-evidence based, I am however angered, disturbed, and alarmed by the fact that the criteria and avenue in which organizations are able to achieve certain status is biased based upon an ensconced hierarchy of privilege and wealth that most community-based organizations can only hope to achieve.
What is he saying, you may ask? Let me simply answer by saying that change, leadership, and movement is done from the ground up. Services by the people, for the people, and of the people are fundamental in the approach and how resources are identified, aligned, and distributed. As I write today, in an unprecedented time of funding for education, organizations that are the furthest removed from the community are getting the most money and opportunity to think they know what is needed as opposed to experiencing the need firsthand. How can you understand and empathize with urgency and desperation if you have never experienced it! Resource mapping, as it is presented, is not necessarily arcane, but the practical implication of what is identified as a need is often disconnected from the experiences of the people who are receiving the resource. Oh, think of the possibilities if identified resources were not JUST aligned to academic outcomes, identified assessments, or misguided thoughts from surveys that fall short of the communicated needs of the populous group.
Allow resources, when all possible, to come from the surrounding community that not only provides for students and families but empowers. Let the resources reflect the voice of the voiceless and the needs of the people. This is not a novel thought or a new approach. It is the core philosophy that guides empowerment over involvement. It is an approach that is rooted in the community improving from within instead of proposed solutions being parachuted in. The charge is to advance a way of resource mapping that puts students, families, and communities as the decisions makers at the center of how monies are spent.
Education is simple. However, the application and implementation of it are not. There is a divide that exists between those that are being educated and those who are charged with providing that education. The divide is buttressed by competing priorities that are both political and economic. These two forces push out historical and practical approaches that put people at the heart of decisions. People most removed from the impact of decisions leave those that decisions are made for at the mercy of the repercussions that they produce. Whether how millions of dollars are spent and who those dollars are spent on or something as simple as buying a shirt that is plaid with a butterfly collar, it’s no need to argue, schools just don’t understand.
Related Article: The Virtual Reality of COVID-19
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