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Nothing About Us...Without Us

Hello Educators. Hoping that you are staying safe, healthy, and continuously inspired to be the change that our world needs right now.

Last week I had the pleasure of moderating a webinar with four high school students as guests speaking about the importance and necessity of student voice and vision. If you have not had an opportunity to listen in on the recent CASEL Cares Webinar series, I highly recommend you listen to the recent webinar entitled, SEL as a Lever for Equity: Elevating Student Voice and Vision. The conversation left me with a renewed commitment to the critical need to move away from the practice of having students wait in the wings as silent benefactors as we orchestrate decisions that impact their lives significantly and eave them ill-equipped to be self-advocates as they enter adulthood. The young people on the webinar spoke with such conviction, wisdom, and depth that I sat there wondering, “why do we assume we have all of the answers as adults?” and “from where did the presumption come that young people are incapable of helping us solve the societal problems that we’ve either created or perpetuated?”

We all know the quote from Albert Einstein which states..."the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result". Is it possible that part of the insanity could be relying on the same mind that created the problem to solve it? There is a freshness and breaking of the clouds that young people bring to the challenges of our world that we miss when we insist that because we’ve been in our bodies longer than they have, we have the right answers.

Right now, districts and schools are grappling with the challenges of figuring out how to reopen schools with some semblance of success. While managing various levels of safety due to the pandemic, the reality of the very real issue of racism is pronounced and continues to impact adults and students alike. Also, balancing the collective trauma that both of these issues have brought along with considering any academic loss experienced by students over the spring semester and summer is a real challenge. How will we manage the educational needs of our students along with their need to maintain a level of physical and emotional safety and renewal upon their return? What I am sitting with deeply is the real possibility that we will miss critical steps if we choose to engage in planning around these issues without involving the insights and input of our students and their caregivers. They are the experts of themselves, their experiences, their needs, and we risk further alienating and dismissing their identities, their cultural assets, and the unique perspectives and ideas they bring by excluding them. If it is about students, as much as possible, they should be at the table. Yes…it will take more time and strategy to plan but the result of empowered and supported young people, families, and communities is well worth the investment. Is it not?

Over the past months, as a nation, our hearts have been broken open. Old and ongoing wounds have laid bare around numerous issues. On this blog, I have dived into the discussion of the pandemic and its harsh reality and we’ve taken the conversation of race, racism, and systemic injustice head-on. For many of us, we have stepped into a reality that is very new and have had conversations that maybe six months ago we would not have fathomed discussing. We are walking in new territory and even those of us who are familiar with this path might say that this moment in time represents the possibility for much-awaited change. Let’s not approach this time with the same mindset and the same toolkit that we’ve used in the past.

When we come up with solutions to close the opportunity gap for our black and brown students, let’s stop short of labeling them as innovative if students and their caregivers were not included in the development process.

Maybe it’s time that we release the notion, as educators, that we can solve problems unilaterally for others and employ the humility that is required to accept the need for collaboration to truly affect a different kind of educational system.

In one of my first classes in my doctoral program, I had a professor say that all of the problems within education have pretty much already been solved but we choose to ignore the reality found within the research and do what fits our desired parameters. I sat there thinking that she was likely too far removed from the practice of education to understand the current challenges. Eight years later, having experienced several layers of the educational system, I am convinced that her statement had extreme validity. And…after listening to the students on the recent webinar, I am confident that she was correct. Sitting right in front of me were four students with answers for some of our most pressing questions if we would only take the time to ask and listen authentically. Baked into their responses was the frustration of feeling disrespected and dismissed as individuals while knowing that what they had to offer had significant value.

Part of the conversation of equity in education centers around the space we create for young people to be authentic and brave within the skin they’re in. It resides in our acceptance of who they are and not who we want them to be. It is also our willingness to allow them to make demands on the system they are placed in and hold us accountable for being the models and leaders they need us to be.

We cannot expect future world changers if we foster learning environments that celebrate blind obedience, conformity, and compliance without critical thought.

We educate for the long haul and not simply for the moment. Control and consistent power that bends in the favor of the adult might allow us to get through lessons and cover large amounts of content in minimal time but we will miss out on the opportunity to help shape the next generation of leaders who are ready, willing, and able to transform society as we know it, for the better. As we contemplate the upcoming school year, let's choose to adopt new ways of engaging and interacting with students that allows them the freedom and support to thrive in our classrooms and schools.

How does this resonate for you? Feel free to drop a comment and let's push into a new level of student agency.

In Solidarity and Love,


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