Educators: Hold Onto Humanity With Both Hands. Let Students Show You How.

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I’m very ready for 2020 to be over. I hope 2021 will be better but my optimism is stymied by recent experience. Although my immediate surroundings have remained stable and my loved ones and I managed to stay out of harm’s way, my faith in democratic institutions, in a shared idea of the commons, is indelibly shaken.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about abstract things like “creating space,” “getting out of the way” and “letting go.” Inevitably these are all people related topics in my mind. They have to do with respecting others, valuing their contributions and recognizing my own position in relation to them. And they extend to everyone with whom I interact: from my Pre-Kindergarten students to educator colleagues. My Twitter threads this year on distance learning or group facilitation methods or leadership and privilege in one way or another all circle back to a similar message: Let’s observe with honesty, dare to raise questions and truly prioritize care.

In one of the best essays of the year Colette Shade describes the numbing effects of pandemic response. When folks are consumed with the herculean effort required to survive in a society with next to no safety nets, they carry on because they must.

“With so little room to process, we adapt to this situation, learning to filter it out or defending ourselves from our true feelings in order to do what we have to do.”

We soldier on in our kitchens and dining rooms, on the sofa, in the garage, in our basements and attics. We’re exhausted and vulnerable. I cannot write about education or school or distance learning or tech in this Year of Our Lord 2020 and not apply a pandemic lens that accounts for so much suffering, uncertainty and loss.

In contrast, as an educator of young children my work life is populated by folks with vast imaginations and wondrous vision. When they are excited my best move is to make way for the rush of their enthusiasm, ensuring there are enough boundaries in place to keep them safe. Teaching and learning go both ways. I set up conditions for their exploration; they instruct me as to what is useful and relevant.

In my public thinking about letting go and creating space and getting out of the way, I want to emphasize how vital it is that we hold onto our humanity with both hands and a full heart. I want to encourage us to open doors for imaginations wilder than our own. I’m imploring us to notice how and when we may be the thing preventing a necessary change. My students require that I reflect on what we are doing again and again, whether we’re face to face or exchanging texts and videos. They demand space, insist that I let go of my preconceived notions and let me know when I am their sticking point. These feats of the mind are only possible, however, if care is at the center of my efforts.

If this year has taught me anything, it’s that teaching is not for the faint of heart. Nor is learning. With their adaptability, candor and heartfelt future orientation, my students have pulled me through this year. Their eyes are open for miracles when all we see is destruction. It’s amazing. They have their humanity and unlike us are not struggling to hold on to it. Watch them. You can’t help but notice.

This op-ed is part of a series of year-end reflections EdSurge is publishing as 2020 concludes.

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