There’s a lot to write about everything going on right now, but I’m going to start with talking about how the structures we have in place are the best things we have to lean on when crisis hits.
To that end, we’ve heard a lot of talk during the shutdown about how important it is for teachers to reach out to kids. But we’ve heard very little about how that’s supposed to work. For elementary schools, that’s easy—the teacher calls the kids. But for high schools, where kids have seven or eight teachers on their roster, who is calling? How do you make sure that every kid has a teacher who knows them and would have the kind of relationship where a phone call home would make sense?
For us at the Science Leadership Academy (SLA), this gets to the heart of what philosopher Nel Noddings called the ethic of care. For us, it is best summed up when you hear an SLA teacher talk about what they do and they say, “I teach my students math,” or “I teach the 10th graders English.” We believe, simply, that the fact that we teach students is always and necessarily more important than the subjects we teach.
A Systematic Approach
You can’t authentically build that system on the fly—not easily, and not for every kid. There has to be a systemic approach to the ethic of care, or it just happens by the goodwill and caring attitude of teachers, which may or may not reach every kid. That’s why Advisories are so important at the high school level (and middle level, for that matter). At SLA, our Advisories are four-year, longitudinal groups so that the same 20 kids and one teacher are together all four years. Other schools do multi-age Advisories (or family groups) so that there are a mix of kids from each grade in each Advisory. Some schools change Advisories each year, but I really do like the consistency so that kids have the same adviser all four years.
Advisories also provide an important touchpoint with the school for parents and guardians. When there are issues, parents know who their first point of contact can be, who can coordinate efforts to address the issue, and who their child’s advocate will be should the need arise. At SLA, we do all our parent conferences as parent-adviser-student conferences, so that families are meeting with an adult who knows the student not just as a student of a specific subject, but as a whole person.
Advisories and Social Distancing
To that end, whenever schools with Advisories have to ask the question, “How do we take care of all the kids?” they know what the structure is that they can lean on. When the coronavirus shutdown occurred, we at SLA put a plan in place so that every student could hear from their adviser multiple times a week. We kept having Advisory class every Thursday afternoon at the usual time through video conferencing so kids could get some time with the group of people that have been with them throughout their high school career. (For a point of reference, Advisory at SLA usually meets twice a week for 45 minutes.)
If this crisis has taught us anything, it’s that you can’t retrofit caring for kids. If we want to ensure that, in a crisis, every student knows they are cared for, we have to have that system in place long before the crisis hits. That’s what it means to build a system of care in our schools. What it means for us, in this time of global crisis, is that every kid has been called or texted or emailed by their adviser multiple times for check-ins.
The ethic of care must be authentic, systemic, and real, so in a crisis, we can lean on it and do what we do best—talk with kids, listen to them, ask them how they feel and what they need, and be there for them, even through social distancing—as best as we can.
Chris Lehmann is the founding principal and CEO of the Science Leadership Academy, an inquiry-driven, project-based, 1:1 laptop school in Philadelphia that is considered to be one of the pioneers of the School 2.0 movement nationally and internationally. Named a NASSP 2019 Digital Principal of the Year, Lehmann is also the co-author of Building School 2.0 and blogs regularly at www.practicaltheory.org. Follow him on Twitter (@chrislehmann).