In early spring, when the coronavirus (COVID-19) shut the doors to classrooms, there was an optimistic belief that by fall the obstacles of the pandemic would disappear and in-class instruction would return to normal. However, as states began to lift emergency orders and school districts prepared to reopen schools, it became evident that education leaders would still be grappling with the unpredictable public health crisis this fall.
With COVID-19 spreading more rapidly in some regions of the United States, each state must assess whether they can safely open schools. Recently, some school districts that deemed it safe to reopen have reverted to remote learning when students and/or teachers have tested positive for the coronavirus. Certainly, navigating the current crisis is complicated, and it is having a profound effect on educator preparation programs (EPPs).
Due to PK-12 school closures in the spring, many teacher candidates were unable to complete their clinical and field experiences in a classroom setting—typically a prerequisite for licensure. Acknowledging that a lack of new teachers entering the field would adversely impact the current teacher shortage crisis, EPPs responded with alternative learning opportunities to ensure that teacher candidates are prepared and competent to enter their own classrooms. As a result, many states have implemented emergency policy changes to licensure, thus enabling recent graduates to teach this fall.
The horrific image of George Floyd taking his last breath is seared into our hearts and minds. Since that tragic event, we continue to bear witness to racial violence, police brutality, and incidents of discrimination that are played repeatedly in the news and via social media. The cumulative effect of these stressful reports can be traumatizing, and they are having a profound impact on our educators and students of color.
Racial battle fatigue (RBF), a term coined by critical race theorist William Smith, reflects the cumulative results of race-related stress. It emerges not only due to macroaggressions, but also from daily microaggressions, such as dismissive and demeaning comments directed at Black and Brown individuals. Basically, RBF is a wearing down based upon one’s racial identity. Some of the symptoms include depression, anger, frustration, and an overwhelming feeling of helplessness that a person of color is unable to contribute to positive change.
RBF is persistent and pervasive, and it manifests in different ways dependent upon who the person of color is and what he or she has experienced in the past. And while RBF impacts every aspect of our society, in higher education and K-12 environments, we predominantly see it’s imprint through hateful, divisive speech on social media, racial profiling in our society and our schools, and discipline policies that differ for students of color.
Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash
This article orginially appeared in University Business and is reprinted with persmission.
We are living in a monumental moment in time. The unjust deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and many others call for greater social justice and equity in our society. While many institutions of higher education and educator preparation programs are talking about equity in education and the need for actionable change, having a deep passion and a meaningful, verbal commitment to social justice is not enough. We cannot move the needle forward in creating a more equitable education system until we address the root areas where change needs to happen—implicit, institutional, and systemic biases.
The data is clear. We live in a more segregated society now than the past 30 to 40 years. When students are segregated in elementary, middle and high school, they may not have any meaningful interactions over a long period of time with people who are different from them. When students graduate from high school and enter into a teacher preparation program, they could potentially complete their entire program without ever having a faculty of color.
Candidates have not adequately learned about racism in America, and they do not possess the context to understand the frustration and anger that underrepresented minorities feel. Students may be offered a gratuitous multiculturalism course in which they superficially learn about diversity, but do not learn about critical race theory, cultural responsiveness and proficiency as a standard part of the curriculum. They may never receive the opportunity to confront their own implicit biases, and then are placed in a classroom full of children with cultural backgrounds that they simply do not understand. From the lens of the children in the classroom, they do not see a teacher who looks like them or that they can relate to, and therefore, they are not drawn to pursuing a career in education.
We live in a society that is rapidly changing. The worldwide pandemic has shown us the harsh, but important, reality that divisiveness, inequality, and discrimination persist in our country. The murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and too many others are stark evidence that racism still has deep and seemingly impenetrable roots in our country. This profound moment in time has brought despair to and heightened protest not only within the Black American community, but to people of all races throughout our country and the world. While addressing and rectifying these injustices requires the concerted effort of all American citizens, educators play an essential role in creating and ensuring an equitable existence for everyone.
Throughout our nation’s history, education has been pivotal in fostering citizenry. Abolitionist leaders understood the importance of a quality public education in promoting democracy. William Lloyd Garrison called for “a broader basis for government which includes all the people, with all their rights in their hands, and with an equal power to maintain their rights.” Wendell Phillips insisted that knowledge was given to impart upon others. Harriet Tubman instilled within us that “every great dream begins with a dreamer.” And Frederick Douglass wrote that “once you have learned to read, you will be forever free.”
This essay is excerpted from Leslie T. Fenwick’s forthcoming book, Jim Crow’s Pink Slip: Public Policy and the Near-Decimation of Black School Leadership after Brown. The excerpt provides a brief history about how many public schools came to be named for confederates and racist politicians who fought against integration and illegally resisted the Brown decision.
In 1954, the Brown v. Board of Education legal decision proclaimed that segregation had no place in America’s public schools. With this new law of the land and ensuing federal pressure to desegregate, school districts in 17 dual system states complied by closing black schools and firing, demoting and dismissing legions of exceptionally credentialed black principals and teachers. At the time, closing black schools was the primary method for ridding the system of black principals and teachers most of whom were better credentialed than their white peers. Directly after Brown there was little displacement of black principals and teachers, but as Title VI compliance mandates increased, the National Education Association (NEA) received reports from black teachers’ associations indicating that displacements were increasing.
In late 1969, C. J. Duckworth who served as executive secretary to the Mississippi Teachers Association clarified the link between black school closures and black principal firing and demotions in 17 Mississippi school districts. In his report to the NEA, he wrote:
Alcorn County – the black high school reduced to a junior high school and the black principal demoted to a federal projects coordinators; Clarke County – the black high school reduced to a junior high school and the principal made an elementary principal for remainder of the year, after which he was to be terminated; Clay County – the black high school reduced to a junior high school with a white principal; ….Franklin County – a black elementary principal replaced by a white principal; Hancock County – the black high school phased out and only two of 10 black teachers remain; Harrison County – a black junior-senior high school eliminated and the black principal made supervisor of a material center;….Itawamba County – all black schools and principals eliminated; ….Prentiss County – black high schools and principals phased out; ….Marion County – black high school principals replaced with whites…. (p. 5332)
COVID-19 has forced educators to say goodbye to their classrooms and embrace adapting their pedagogy to online formats overnight. They have learned new technology, found creative ways to engage students remotely, and most importantly, kept education moving forward. The current public health crisis has placed a well-deserved spotlight on teachers. As parents struggle to balance work, supervise virtual classrooms, and co-educate their children, a new awareness and appreciation for the influence, power, and value of great teachers has emerged.
We have all read headlines about COVID-19’s drastic impact on the education system. We have seen firsthand the pandemic’s sweeping effect on our education institutions and students. And we have all been challenged to find remote learning opportunities that ensure teacher candidates are well-prepared to enter their own classrooms—whether in-person, hybrid, or virtual. While the hurdles we face are multidimensional, overcoming them is essential. To quote Linda Darling-Hammond, “If you don’t have a strong supply of well-prepared teachers, nothing else in education can work.”
A horizontal image of an empty primary school classroom. The setting is typically British.
In the last few weeks U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has put forward three initiatives intended to privatize the provision of public education. Given her long known and widely declared conviction that vouchers and related schemes to deliver public dollars into private hands are the panacea for all that ails education, this is not surprising. Watching her leap into the breach caused by the COVID-19 emergency is troubling, though not unexpected.
In her book, Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (2007), Naomi Kline describes the phenomenon of a crisis precipitating the redistribution of public dollars into the waiting hands of private players who offer a seemingly undeniable remedy. Years earlier, economist Milton Friedman popularized the notion that only a crisis produces real change, enabling reforms that were not previously thought possible. “When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable,” wrote Friedman in Capitalism and Freedom (1962, ix). Kline’s research led her to coin the term “disaster capitalism,” which she describes as “orchestrated raids on the public sphere in the wake of catastrophic events, combined with the treatment of disasters as exciting market opportunities.” (6)
The American education system was not created to support the liberation of the powerless. Instead, it was designed to instill skills, habits, beliefs, and discipline that would allow for better control of the masses. The colonizers who became the architects of this country built a system that perpetuates the status of white-skinned privilege and wealth, while leaving those in the lower and middle classes burdened with the laborious task of building and supporting our nation’s economy and infrastructure.
Throughout the history of the United States, minoritized racial groups and those who live in poverty have suffered disparities in education through laws and policies that prohibited them from socioeconomic advancement, physical safety, and basic civil rights. The anti-literacy laws enacted before, during, and after the Civil War are just one example of how white-skinned privilege and power was used to perpetuate the oppression of enslaved Blacks and concretize a system that generated more wealth for those in power.
Our current education system continues to enable inequity through policies and practices that claim to be fair, colorblind, and neutral, but tend to privilege a small, elite portion of the U.S. population. We can no longer live by the adage “pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” when those who deserve a better education continue to be plagued by disparities. Addressing the persistent opportunity gap between our nation’s socioeconomic classes requires sustained engagement from leaders across every field of education.
Female leaders throughout history have made significant contributions to societal advancement, in such areas as the civil rights movement and education reform. Yet to this day, women still fight for equity, be it in the boardroom or the classroom. However, the good news is this occurs less often within the educational ecosystem today.
Is equity the norm within educational leadership?
I am a Mexican-American woman, a teacher, and a first generation college student. Therefore, I approach my work from many perspectives using different lenses, and my gender is but one part of my journey. I have had many opportunities in my career to provide leadership at different levels of educational institutions, reflecting what I believe to be a trend in the last decade, where more and more women have assumed leadership positions in educational institutions. Take for example the system in which I am a leader: The California State University. We have 23 campuses and the majority of our presidents are female. And while I can’t single out my gender from my other identities as a leader, what I can tell you is that women continue to make a difference in the field because of their passionate dedication to better education for all.
Freedom of speech is an ideal to which those who founded this country believed in. I recall President Barack Obama’s many talks about the “American Ideals” of freedom, justice, and liberty, which I believe, includes free speech. Inherent in President Obama’s message was the notion that these ideals were not fully realized by historically marginalized communities in the United States. The current climate of our society further challenges our ability to see “freedom of speech” as something that is unifying rather than polarizing. This has become an increasingly important topic in higher education. The Chronicle of Higher Education, for example, continuously highlights issues regarding the intersection of free speech and civil discourse that are impacting education in unprecedented ways.