Putting School in Context

Beyond the classroom, there are many contextual factors that affect students' educations.

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Excited about using values of empathy and justice to reimagine more equitable classrooms. Big fan of Carole King's Tapestry album, hikes and politics podcasts.

In later years of elementary school, students begin to learn about context clues. It is a tool used when reading texts to help navigate a confusing section — perhaps an unknown word or phrase. By identifying the surrounding parts of the text that are familiar, we can make a connection to define the unknown word or phrase in relation to its context.

Let’s look at the context that we students are living in now. Along with taking the lives of many loved ones, COVID-19 has isolated us; oftentimes leading to poorer mental health among students, including myself. A national Civil Rights Movement has inspired local youth-led action in my hometown of Syracuse, New York, where race and identity are on students’ minds more than ever. Economic instability is causing worries in our community, as parents are unable to find work and students are at home with limited technology to support their virtual instruction.

When defining school within this current context, it seems it would be a place that nurtures students who are experiencing trauma and challenges students to think critically about disrupting the oppressive structures around us. But when looking at school districts across the nation, including my own, this definition is integrated only at the individual level, and not on a larger scale.

To ensure public schools create positive habits for the next generation of global leaders, our schools must cultivate a positive and nurturing climate and culture. And importantly, this climate and culture must meet the context of our time.

As we are entering this school year, the COVID-19 crisis is present in my and my peers’ mind. Given my school district’s large and dense student population, we adopted a virtual model for the month of September, with some students choosing to remain virtual for the remainder of the fall. Since my first couple of weeks of virtual school have begun, I have observed many of my classes begin to form a really wonderful climate.

These are the classes where my U.S. History teacher uses content time to talk about Breonna Taylor and the power of protest. These are classes where my former science teacher plays Kid President videos and assigns students to write pep talks for themselves. These are the classes where my English teacher uses the virtual chat function to share his preferred name and pronouns, encouraging other students who feel comfortable to do the same.

But these instances are based on individual interactions rather than system-wide innovation. I have been fortunate to have several fantastic educators throughout my school career. Many students don’t have the same luck and fall into a routine of meeting deadlines to receive grades, without much more. Even with my great teachers, I have started to settle into a similar routine this school year.

As I enter the notoriously rigorous junior year with a virtual model, my peers and I are expected to sit for multiple hours of synchronous subject classes. I understand that school leaders share the value of student care and engagement with me. However, after all those hours of a blue screen, I find myself feeling more exhausted than anything else. For the remaining hours of my day, I am following the routine of completing my homework as quickly as possible. This routine has me craving a school climate that is driven by mindfulness and intention, now more than ever.

Similar to schools nationwide, COVID-19 has taken away our typical sense of togetherness that school often brings. It’s not just our curriculum that may be weakened through digital learning, but also the team comradery that comes with competitive sports and the support that comes from school services such as mental health counseling. While schools were in no way perfect before, they have been totally flipped on their heads now.

It is essential, however, that as we try to flip our schools back around, we are grounded in the context of our lived experiences. Mental health resources and a focus on a positive school climate have always been important, but the last several months have exacerbated this need. COVID-19 has affected my mental health negatively, as I am aware it has for many of my peers. Schools need to understand that.

Education leaders should reflect on that understanding by designing schools to replicate the inclusive climates that my individual teachers have created. In doing so, educators should be supported in focusing lessons on social-emotional learning. Counselors and social workers must be treated as the pillars in our school communities that they are.

The state of our world is in flux, and students, particularly students of color, have felt this immensely. Our first focus as we settle into this year should be to ensure that schools, whatever form they take, foster a climate that reflects the context of our lives.