Confessions of A COVID-19 Summer

A little more personal than usual, but a much needed release. Check out my latest blog post: Confessions of A COVID-19 Summer

Summer has always been my favorite season. Even as a young child, I yearned for the time of year when Momma would let us wear shorts. In our house, you didn’t wear shorts before May 1st. That’s how Momma knew all the potential “cold snaps” had passed. I know cold and April don’t seem to coincide, but that’s how it worked for us. Fast forward 40 years and my nieces are granted the opportunity to wear shorts when they ask-May or not. At any rate, this summer has been a real struggle, and it’s not just because of COVID-19.

Obviously, practicing social distancing has impacted my life. Other than my travel to work and a few socially distant visits with my family, I’ve pretty much been at home. I have gone to the grocery store or drug store as needed wearing my mask, of course. Otherwise I have been at home. I’ve tried to spend more time outdoors and I’ve taken up weighted hula hooping which as been fun and good for my mental health. But beyond COVID-19 and the changes it has forced on us all, I’ve undergone other changes.

I started a new job in January, making the transition from my old job to this one over the holiday break, and I have taken no time off, other than our granted Spring Break, since then. I’ve worked hard to support the work of our district, helping plan for reopening, supporting principals as they work to get ready for the school year, working with my instructional team colleagues to plan and execute professional development. I’ve put together more documents and plans in the span of three months (June-August) than I can remember in a long time. I’ve worked long hours, weekends, and evenings to get things as ready as possible for our district, as have many of my colleagues. And when I find myself saying I am so tired, I feel tremendously guilty. We are all tired. All of us. And I am particularly tired of COVID-19.

My usual travels in the summer have been non-existent. For the last three summers, I’ve traveled to Nova Scotia for what I call my Zen Retreat. There on Locke’s Island, at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, there is real spotty internet, and not much to do. It is beautiful, and still, and quiet. It forces me to stop, and I can feel my mind at ease while I am there. While there I’ve hiked in Kejimkujik National Park, visited with friends, and been able to simply stop. Of all the places I’ve traveled in my life, it is by far the place where I have found the most peace-mentally and spiritually. And I can tell I have not had that experience this year.

My social interaction with friends, nights out to dinner, travels to the beach or Mountains, gatherings for fun nights of laughter have been missed. I think if I have learned anything during this pandemic it is that we need each other to thrive-not just to survive. Yesterday, I hosted a virtual check in for educators who wanted to just chat and be encouraged. We spent two hours doing just that and I have to say, it was uplifting and as much for me as it was for them. I needed it. I am because others are. My relationships with others serve as a source of energy, inspiration, and much needed stimulation for me. There is no doubt about that.

Each day, I try my best to be positive. Some days I am better at that than others. I try to post something uplifting each morning and set my intentions to have a great day, to be still in my mind and heart, to be a servant, and to give my all and my very best. So many mornings I see that my post has helped someone else and that gives me so much joy and energy to keep going. And in this time of heightened uncertainty, where we can’t be sure of anything other than ourselves and our hearts, I hope we all recognize that at the core of our humanness is a need for connection and relationship. I hope we will all pick up the phone, call a friend, send a text, and have virtual happy hours. I hope we will not become desensitized to COVID-19 and how it has altered the way we work, live, and socialize. I hope we will not let isolation become the norm. I hope we will check on each other regularly, especially our strong friends.

This is a marathon and the road ahead is long. But I’m encouraged because I have an opportunity to strengthen relationships, to build new ones, and to gain clarity about what really matters. As we embark on a new school year, I am exhausted. I am weary, and I am tired, but I am hopeful. And it is that hope that better days are ahead that keeps me going.

The best really is yet to come.

Until Next Time, Be you! Be true! Be a hope builder!

Latoya

@latoyadixon5

Leading Thru Uncertain Times: A Call for Unity

My journey in leadership has not been without challenge, and I’d be dishonest if I said there weren’t times when I was uncertain about my abilities. With experience, both the good and the bad, I’ve learned that doubting yourself every now and again isn’t abnormal. In fact, it helps keep you humble and lead with the same grace you want extended to you when, not if, you make a mistake. If there’s one thing I’m more comfortable with now than ever before, it’s the realization that perfection is not required of leaders. For many of us, we enter this work believing that our job as the leader is to make sure errors don’t happen, to remove obstacles, to avoid pitfalls, and do it all with flawless execution. Nothing could be further from the truth.

While it has taken me many years to come to this realization, I now know that our job is to demonstrate grace under pressure, to set an example of what resilience looks like when things go awry, to be the steady in the times of uncertainty, giving those we serve comfort and reassurance that things will improve and eventually, all will be well. That’s true leadership. It’s our ability to deal with imperfection, uncertainty, and the unexpected that makes us leaders.

In this present time of a global pandemic, this ability to lead under pressure, could not be more important. The country is looking to America’s educators to help return society to the first step of back to normal. Understandably, many educators, like parents and children are afraid. We are living in a world of unknowns, and the lack of control we now have over our everyday lives and our ability to protect ourselves and our loved ones is considerably different than it used to be. Dealing with COVID-19 hasn’t been easy for me. My socialization has been severely restricted. I’ve not been able to see my family on a regular basis, and I’ve missed many social events with friends and colleagues as we are all trying to do our part and stay safe. While my natural tendency is to plan ahead, this pandemic has taken away every measure of discipline I’ve worked so hard to establish. But I’m not giving up, and giving in isn’t an option either.

What leaders need to do now, more than ever, is simple. Unite the members of your organization. In a world where a public health crisis has been over politicized, folks are feeling forced to take a side. Instead, we need leaders who can pull the group together with a focus on what’s right-not who is right.We need to turn our attention away from attacking each other about our personal and political beliefs as educators, and apply that energy to those who are attempting to destroy a foundational cornerstone of American democracy-public education. Educators and those who understand that public education benefits our entire society need one voice, and they need it now. I fear that while many are focused on who is right, those who set policy, administer funds, and decide the future of public education will have stripped the very thing that we all love so dearly, and we will have missed it because we were too focused on who was right instead of what was right.

I challenge every leader, from superintendents, to principals, to teachers to find a way to focus on protecting the institution of public education by working to make it look like it can and should be. This is our chance. The uncertainty we are experiencing has opened a door for us to finally move away from a structure that no longer fits the needs of our children or our country. We have an opportunity to think about teaching and learning in new and unprecedented ways. If we are strategic, and more so united, we can do more than preserve the institution of public education. We can make it a system that works for ALL. We can reduce inequity. We can move away from the billion dollar standardized testing industry that drives our daily operations. We can focus on what children really need, addressing the whole child in a way we haven’t been able to before. We can do this.

Let’s be good stewards of the unknown by embracing this time as a time to reimagine our profession, to bring back the joy to teaching and learning, and to do what our children need us to do: be steady. This will not be an easy task, and it won’t be perfect. Let’s all lead during this uncertain time with the certainty that our profession and public education is a cornerstone of America’s democracy.

We’ve got this.

Moving Beyond Conversation: The Power of Courage & Conviction

This is the fifth blog in my series inspired by Ernest Hemingway’s quote: “Write hard and clear about what hurts.”

In the days following the death of George Floyd, many of us have shared our perspectives about the importance of speaking out and speaking up, along with the detrimental impact of staying silent. I applaud those who have been courageous enough to enter into conversations about race, systemic and structural racism, and it’s traumatic and tragic impact on Black and Brown people in this country. These conversations matter and they are important. They matter more than any statement an organization releases, any text message you send to your Black friends and/or coworkers, or any social media post you make to demonstrate your commitment to anti-racism. But make no mistake, conversations alone won’t bring the kind of change we need to heal this gaping wound in America’s soul. It’s going to take many conversations-not just one to say you care and you’re sorry. And more importantly, it is going to require conviction.

Conviction is the internal signal that we must act. It’s what doesn’t allow us to stay silent. It’s what makes us speak up and take action, when we know the consequences will be great-loss of friends, connections, advantage, and in this situation, power and privilege. Conviction has no connection to fear. It is rooted in an internal and spiritual courage that starts in the soul, travels to the heart, and manifest in the ways we carry ourselves, live our lives, and ultimately the way we think about and treat other people. Conviction-an unrelenting spirit of what we must do, coupled with the hope that our courage will not fail us. When we are convicted about something, about saying something or failing to speak up, about doing something or failing to act, the internal agitation of our heart, mind, and soul will not allow us to escape. We can’t talk our way out of it, negotiate our minds into a different perspective, or substitute our thoughts and feelings with something else. Conviction gives us no choice but to give-give into what we know at our core is right, and more importantly to act on that.

In the days, weeks, and years to come, we don’t just need the courage to remove the names of buildings that are named after those with a legacy of racism and bigotry or to take down statues that have stood for centuries as a symbolic refusal to let go of a dark past filled with hate. We will need folks with both courage and conviction. People whose hearts and souls won’t allow them to gloss over the issue with a conversation. Those who will be awake at night if they don’t act. Those who won’t be able to look at themselves in the mirror if they don’t contribute to the change. Those who worry they may end up living an inauthentic life because they failed to follow the path of their heart and soul. Change won’t come from conversation alone. This kind of change-a new way of thinking, living, and loving one another-requires courage and conviction. I’m leaning into it. I hope you will too.

Until next time,

Latoya

The Cost of Courage: Freedom

This is the fourth blog in my current series inspired by this Ernest Hemingway quote: “Write hard and clear about what hurts.”

In the wake of all of that has happened recently in our nation, I could not help but think of a quote I penned some time ago:

“We are made free by our courage or held hostage by our fear. I choose courage.”

Latoya N. Dixon, Ph.D.

But courage comes with a cost, and I don’t want to fail to acknowledge that. In one of my previous post, I emphasized the implications of being silent in the wake of racism, prejudice and bigotry. While a failure to speak up contributes to the continued mistreatment of those who are victims of hateful thinking, many of my White friends, much of whom view themselves as allies, have shared how difficult they find it to speak up sometimes. This seems to be especially true in their work places and social circles, in spite of social media postings that point to their intentions to live with open minds and hearts. It seems too simple to boil this down to a simple lack of courage, and that’s why I think it is fear that holds these folks hostage.

Fear is a powerful emotion. It can shift thinking, change decisions, and imprison us from living our true and authentic lives. Fear is what keeps us doing things that bring no value to our lives, in relationships that no longer serve a purpose, stay with a job that brings us little to no joy, and in “friendships” that contribute to keeping us fearful rather than giving us the freedom we need to be our authentic selves. As I get older and wiser, (My momma has always said that wisdom comes with age and experience) it has become incredibly important to me that my friendships are authentic and genuine, and because of that my list of friends-real friends, isn’t very long. Authenticity is so very important to me. It means we can be exactly who we are, share our hopes, fears, and imperfections, and mostly it means we are not judged for what we are not. I’ve often wondered how it is that these inauthentic friendships most folks work hard to maintain drive their inability to act with courage. To this end, I have more questions rather than answers, and I’d love to hear from those who struggle with this in an effort to help them find their courage and act upon it.

I imagine that if the majority of us had courage, why did it take so long for the nation to see the intentional and consistent mistreatment of Black and Brown people? Why is it that what has been a lifetime trauma for my Black and Brown brothers and sisters is a new awakened grief for some? What is it that they have been watching? Did they not see what happened to Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Sandra Bland, Botham Jean? Did they not know of the practice of lynching used to keep Blacks fearful and “in their place (Emmett Till)? Were they unfamiliar with the assassination of Blacks who fought for Civil Rights in non-violent and peaceful ways (Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr.)? This is a blatant stain on the history of America, yet it seems it is almost as if some just saw it. The issue of peaceful protesting isn’t new either. Dr. King’s famous Letter From the Birmingham Jail was a response to eight White clergy from Alabama who criticized King because they believed him to be an extremist and thought his encouragement of protest would cause violence. Two days after Dr. King was released from jail he delivered a sermon in which he outlined his frustration with Whites who suggested his suggestions were too progressive, and his timing was too soon:

“And that’s all we’ve heard: ‘Wait for a more convenient season.’ But I want you to go back and tell those who are telling us to wait that there comes a time when people get tired.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

But don’t take my word for it. Research the letter from those clergymen for yourself, and then read Dr. King’s Letter From the Birmingham Jail. You’ll quickly see how fear is often seen as the antidote to courage. It was then and it is today.

My challenge to every person (especially educators) who personally and publicly denounces racism is to act with the courage that can create a future we can be proud of and that can help heal the wounds of America’s soul. Being brave isn’t hard when it is about doing what is right: Treating every human being with the dignity and respect he or she deserves, and doing so consistently, regardless of context, space, or time. Courage is the critical piece to moving toward a more perfect union, where justice is established and maintained, and domestic tranquility is real and not just ideal. And if folks who need to find it, can tap into their personal courage, attach themselves to others who are also willing to be courageous, their collective voices can shift this ugly place we’ve been in, things can change, people can change their minds, and their hearts. No matter how divisive things may seem, we are in this world together. Any separation is by choice. But courage is also a choice. And that ‘s what I am choosing. Will you join me?

Until next time, be you. Be true. Be a hope builder.

Latoya

The Price of Selective Silence: Collective Grief

The selective silence of White folks is a major contributor to the collective grief of Black people. It sends a message that the pain my Black and Brown brothers and sisters experience watching our fellow people be killed in the streets of America for no reason is not more painful than the discomfort felt by White people when there is a desire to talk about racism, prejudice, and bigotry. Instead of confronting it head on, some have just carried on business as usual. This repressing of oppression is traumatic for people like me. It’s a constant consideration of someone else’s discomfort over your own personal pain. It is such work to try to figure out how to get through the day, deal with your own grief, without making someone else upset because you’re sad and hurting. It’s emotionally complex enough to cause physical ails and loss of appetite. Anyone who has ever experienced deep emotional pain-the loss of a loved one, an ending of a relationship, or deeply hurt feelings knows exactly what I mean

The grief we are feeling now isn’t due a singular incident or happening. While the death of George Floyd opened the eyes to what racism in America is for many, (i.e. being murdered in the street), it is not this incident alone that brings me such deep pain. It is a collection of experiences with racism and prejudice. It’s the time my White friend invited me to her birthday party in 3rd grade and at the 11th hour her mother called to say too many people were invited and I didn’t make the cut. It’s my sister’s story of waiting for an office hour appointment with a professor and overhearing him use the N-word. It’s being asked by a candidate running for office in my local community, “Are all the Black principals as smart as you are?” It’s being told by a White friend that her parents were disowning her because she was in a relationship with a Black man. It’s my White friends who are open enough to tell me the jokes that are made in their presence, at the Thanksgiving table, at work, etc, but are afraid to speak up in the spaces where it matters most. It’s their assertion that they don’t feel that way, but their cowardice to say something when they see something. It’s social clubs and organizations that clearly have an understood rule regarding what you must look like to become a member. And… it’s the murder of George Floyd, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Aubrey, and Botham Jean-to name a few. When you mix these personal experiences, with this collective national trauma, and a national rhetoric of hatred, it’s an exact cocktail for a pain that runs deep and wide. It hurts-and even writing that seems insufficient to describe how raw and real the hurt is and what it feels like to carry it daily. What the nation has now seen clearly, we already knew very well. Your initial grief is our lifetime of trauma. We’ve already gone through all the stages-sadness, anger, resentment, exhaustion. This isn’t new to us, and we need you to recognize this-and not call it playing the race card. This isn’t a game. It is as real as watching that officer take his knee and press it into George Floyd’s neck while his colleagues stood as bystanders.

This selective silence, especially in the spaces where it matters most sends a deafening message to people like me. I cannot begin to describe the pain I feel from those “friends” who have said nothing. There are no words to illustrate what silence feels like in a time like this. It certainly isn’t safe, and it has led me to evaluate several of my friendships. I’ve tried to reconcile why this is so. Perhaps you care, but not enough to risk your privilege and place in the world. Not enough to lose your advantage at work, at church, and in your community, but I need you to know that your private propositioning won’t help our public crisis. What we need from you now, more than ever, is courage. Nothing is more deeply painful, hurtful, and disappointing than those who see racism and say nothing. It’s not about a blanket statement either. While many organizational leaders have produced those and I think they are incredibly important, your actions in subsequent events will tell the ending of the story. What will you say when you hear an inappropriate joke next time? How will you respond when you see racism happening? Can you be counted on not just to pray it away or to offer private condolences, but to speak up? This lack of courage is the test of America’s soul. If selective silence continues, and does not lead to collective courage, our collective grief will be our never-ending story.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. There were those who were willing to be brave and vulnerable because they believed in the dignity of all human beings. Look them up: Judge Waites Waring, James Reeb, and Jonathan Daniels to name a few. They sacrificed their lives to support the rights of fellow human beings because they weren’t afraid to do what was right. It’s not about whose side you’re on, but about being on the side of what is right. Unity and treating every human being with dignity is a human rights issue. Very simply, racism is wrong. It hurts. It kills. It is traumatic. It’s really that simple.

As educators, we cannot afford to overlook this or pretend like it doesn’t exist because we didn’t do it. We must act now with the courage of our children. We must approach it with clear heads, even clearer hearts and commit to a collective courage that can heal us all and help heal our nation. I hope you’ll join me. Let’s love our way through this. It is the only thing eternal.

Until next time, be you. Be true! Be a hope builder!

Latoya

When Change Comes

“Write hard and clear about what hurts.” -Ernest Hemingway

When change comes, I’ll tell stories of how the pain led to the love. I’ll be reminded that no matter how deeply things can hurt, the love that can follow can run deeper. I’ll look back and think, we held on to hope, we held on to our faith, and those of us with pure hearts and genuine intentions held on to each other. When change comes, there will be rejoicing where there is unrest, community where there is rioting, and peace where there are protests. When change comes, we will think about how in the midst of pain, there is a story to be told and that we are allowed to control the ending. When change comes, I will no longer feel the pressure that my Black and Brown people feel to be twice as good for a single chance. I will be enough. We will all be enough.

When change comes, the freedom to feel hate, to express it in your bumper sticker, on your website, in your social media feed, will be extinguished. Change will not allow hate to lead the conversation, let alone be a lingering visitor who always overstays his welcome. My friends will love me for who I am and not for what I can do for them. Humanity will be what centers our ability to treat others with dignity and respect instead of money, greed, network, and connection. I will not carry the burden of waiting for my four nieces to experience their own evolution with the pain I have known as racism and prejudice, that my mother has known, or my grandparents knew. Instead, I’ll watch them grow into beautiful, intelligent, young ladies without the trauma of carrying a lifetime of worry about racism and prejudice. There will no need for them to wonder if they will get a fair shot, an equal opportunity, or a chance that they more than deserve.

When change comes, our education system will not highlight turn around principals who pour their hearts and souls into schools of concentrated poverty in hopes that education will be a part of the cocktail of medication needed to change their lives. There will be no more haves and have nots. There will not be people who suffer the consequences of redlining and ecological impacts like chronic asthma and other underlying health conditions because their neighborhoods are built within feet of the city’s landfill. When change comes hunger will not be an issue in the richest and most industrialized nation in the world. People won’t die because they cannot afford medicine because they do not have health insurance or a job that pays a living wage that is less than what they would receive being unemployed. When change comes, an achievement gap, centered in American education’s original sin of segregation, will be healed. Families will choose schools before they choose neighborhoods. Teachers will teach where they are needed and not choose their schools because of a worry that the test scores won’t manifest in a way that demonstrates their sincere efforts and hearts. Educators will be treated like the important people they are and there will be no need to question if public education benefits all of society. When change comes, my sisters and I will not be statistical anomalies. We will forever be examples of the rule and never thought of as an exception.

When change comes, we will feel better. People will be better. Love will be more abundant and present than it ever has before. Peace will be ever present and will be as pervasive as the hate and evil rhetoric that is front and center for the globe to see in America today. When change comes, we will know that justice and mercy, grace and hope, are not for some, but for all. There will be no question as to whether America’s foundations like life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness are conditional and only for some, and not all. But change won’t come, unless we will it so. Change is on us. All of us. We have a responsibility-now more than ever before-to be the change we know the world needs. The time for wishing for change has expired. We are well past due. And it won’t be easy. It will require courage and bravery like never before. We cannot operate in our safe circles and keep our intentions and feelings to ourselves. We must carry each other to the other side of this thing. One step, one idea, one person, one relationship, and one conversation at a time. We’ll have to make sure our vulnerability does not turn into vitriol, our longing for love does not turn our hope into hatred, and that the slow tendency of progress does not cause us to lose our persistence in the fight for what we know is not only right, but also desperately needed. And if we can do this, together, change will come. I believe that. I need to believe that. I have to believe that.

Until next time-be you. Be true. Be a hope builder!

Latoya

Pain on Paper: The Murder of George Floyd

“Write hard and clear about what hurts.”

-Ernest Hemingway

Stop killing us. Stop killing us. Stop murdering us in the open streets of America. Stop strangling us. Stop shooting us. Stop choking us. Stop using your knee to cut off our airways while we are restrained and handcuffed on the ground and begging for our lives. We raise hell every time you raise the price of a Black American’s life.

I cannot watch the video of George Floyd being killed. My psyche cannot take another mental image of a fellow Black American dying in the open streets of this country at the hands of those whose motto is to protect and serve. The fragility of my emotional state is not due to a lack of mental instability, but due to what seems to be a constant loss of Black life due to hatred, racism, and pure evil. Seems I have spent much of my adulthood trying to reconcile why the unwarranted deaths of Black and Brown people in this country continue-whether it’s the way we’ve been disproportionality impacted by COVID-19, the killing of unarmed Black and Brown persons at the hands of authorities, or the infant mortality rate of Black babies-it hasn’t stopped. In the beginning I asked the question, Why?, Why are they killing us?, but I am far beyond this question now. I’ve come to realize that there is no good why, and so it is not the question that needs to be asked, but the demand that needs to be made. Stop killing us.

I often ask my Mother about the things that trouble me most, and this topic is something we have discussed often. I’ll never forget how she enlightened me on how this kind of vitriol hatred that turns into murder happens: “The only way you can do things like this is to not see another person as human. We are not human to some of them.” The realization that we are seen as something other than human by some stings to the core and eats at my very soul, but doesn’t seem to touch theirs. These are the people who claim Jesus as Lord, as do I, who do not believe in abortion, who believe that their views are not just right of center, but righteous. They use their single religion issues-abortion, gay marriage, and more-to cast their votes, and at the same time can sit idly by while the mistreatment of Black and Brown people is clearer than it was in the age of the Civil Rights Movement. No one was with cell phone to film Bloody Sunday. No one videoed and posted to Facebook the assassination of Martin Luther King. No one posted the recording of the four little girls who were murdered in Sunday School at the 16th Street Baptist Church to Twitter. Yet, change came. Or at least we thought it did.

Fast forward to 2020 and there is no doubt that Emmitt Till’s accuser lied. She admitted it. And there is no doubt that George Floyd, Tamir Rice, Keith Scott, Jordan Edwards, Stephon Clark, Botham Jean, and Ahmaud Aubrey-who was hunted like an animal, just like Momma said, were all murdered. We saw it. We don’t have to wait for an advancement in technology or the admission of one whose days seem shorter and closer to ending to make things right by owning the truth. We have the truth. We know the truth. ALL OF US. We don’t have the inconvenience of determining the truth about what really happened to these people. The truth is before our very eyes, and yet there is still a lack of consensus among us. The need to choose a single side divides us, but what is right is not complicated.

Patriotism has many faces. It’s the tears that ran down my Daddy’s face, an Air Force and Vietnam veteran, when he stood at attention to listen to Proud to Be An American. It’s the fury I feel that we are all supposed to be equal and free and we are not. It’s the pride I feel when I watch the Olympics and see Simone Biles, Serena Williams, and Simone Manuel bring home the gold. It’s the anger I have when I am treated as an exception, rather than the rule. It’s not about which side I am on or if I can feel the complexity of all that I feel and still clearly believe that murdering someone is wrong. I can do exactly that.

As I process all that is happening in our world, I wait. I wait for the day when my psyche isn’t fragile because of the videos circulating of Black and Brown people being murdered, and wondering about the deaths that I haven’t seen because they weren’t videoed. I welcome a fragile psyche due to heart break, loss of a loved one, sadness for a change in life that wasn’t expected, but the traumatic experience of watching Black folks murdered in the street on repeat-and waiting for justice cannot be ignored. I don’t want to wait for the arrest. I don’t want to wait for the trial. I don’t want to wait for them to be punished, to be sentenced to death, to be sent to prison. I’m tired of waiting.

I want them to stop killing us.

-Latoya

Authenticity-What Public Schools Need Now

It’s taken me so long to get here. From the start of school closure on March 16th here in South Carolina until this past Monday, May 18th, I have struggled. I am now a full time insomniac. I take short naps at night, and wake up almost like clockwork at 2:00 a.m. No melatonin, Benadryl (don’t judge me), or chamomile tea does the trick, and yes, I keep trying it. Yesterday, I felt like myself for the first time. I was able to be intellectually present all day for work and didn’t find myself overwhelmed by the immediacy associated with COVID-19. I finally hit my stride. My brain was working the way it is supposed to, and I have to admit, I did get a nudge from my superintendent after I did not seem present as a thinking partner in a meeting the previous day. While I can think of lots of reasons for my quietness or lack of intellectual commitment during the closure, I know much of it has to do with this global pandemic experience. Yet more of it, has to do with the fact that I am not getting what I need-authentic interaction with other human beings.

I am a people person. I love people. I like to help. I love an underdog. I like to be the person who you can depend on when nobody else shows up for the work. I like to be the one who goes the extra mile when others decide it’s not worth it and sleep instead. And I enjoy working hard not because I want to show anybody up, but because it gives my life meaning. It helps me fit. It makes me matter. It fuels my passion and my purpose. When school closed, my main source of authenticity-my relationships and interaction with other people went from real world to a virtual world. Now I smile just as hard over Zoom as I do in person, but the warmth that is generated in a conversation when you are sitting in a room across a table from someone thinking through something important cannot be felt. The energy that I bring to a room, that I feel in a room, is simply absent in a Zoom or WebEx meeting. And it’s not because of Zoom or WebEx. It is because I feel alone. Isolation is the greatest enemy to progress. Our growth as humans is centered on our experiences, our mistakes, and what we learn from interacting with others. We are social beings and in the absence of other people, over an internet connection, and the physical state of being alone, my spirit suffers.

I’ve come to realize that it isn’t just my relationship with other people that I need, but it’s the authenticity that comes with that. I want to feel deeply connected to others. I want the work that I do to make a difference and touch my heart. We shed tears at a high school graduation because in the moments of struggle we often experience through our learning and teaching journeys, we carry each other. What resonates with us, within our heart, and deep in our souls is that we were able to care for our students enough to help them pull through those tough moments, and they were able to feel that care and give it one more try. This deep feeling of connection sustains us as educators. It’s the reason we return after a terrible day, a tough week, a failed lesson, and after COVID19.

I can’t help but wonder what would happen for our public schools if we centered our efforts around providing students with authentic and genuine learning experiences. What if we made every effort to develop children from the inside out? What if we spent our time really digging into what makes them feel like they matter, that they are cared for, and that life AND their learning have purpose? In the quiet moments of COVID-19 I have come to realize many things, but one thing stands out the most. I love being a leader because it is one of the most rewarding challenges in spite of being one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life. The authenticity of the experiences I have had have helped me develop courage, given me clarity about who I am, how I desire to make my life have purpose and meaning, and why my relationships with others matter. I’m not in hot pursuit of accomplishments, but in need of deep and authentic connections with others. I may be wrong, but I can’t help but believe that this internal need for a genuine connection with other human beings is what keeps me going, and it is what I believe could help us make the public school experience everything we all know it should be for every child who walks through our doors.

Until next time, be you. Be true. Be a hope builder.

Latoya

@latoyadixon5

The Critical Condition of America’s Public Education System

I am concerned. Here we are amidst a global pandemic, and some are now clearly able to see the cost of America’s original sin against public education: inequity. In the last six weeks the words digital divide, rural broadband gap, and equity have smothered the American education landscape. I want to believe that we all know the truth: This isn’t a new problem. It wasn’t brought on by COVID-19, and it won’t end when and if it is eradicated. The only thing that will eradicate the inequity that our public education system, and more so, our students suffer from, is for us to confront inequity head on and take action to create a new and more equitable system. Our response to this time in history will either exacerbate the gap between the haves and have nots or help to close them. It’s on us. And I mean it’s on ALL of us. Educators cannot do this alone. This requires the collective effort of educators, policy makers, broadband suppliers, the business community, the faith-based community; local, state, and government officials are also included. We have an opportunity to step forward in way that could change the trajectory of public education in this country and more importantly, the lives of many children. What will we do?

Right now, it is incredibly important we move from words to action. We must move beyond shining a light on inequity and closer to doing something about it. We can design a system of public education that doesn’t work against the very core of its’ mission: to provide a quality education for all students. While a change of this substantial shift cannot occur overnight, there is no time like the present. We can begin now, and to not do so, will only contribute to a further deterioration to the essential purpose of the system. I’ve thought about this for a long time, and more so with the onset of this pandemic. I have ideas about how we might do this, and I’d like to share them with you here in this blog.

  1. The system must be student centered.

We must create a system of education that focuses on the individual needs, strengths, talents, and opportunities of students. As we move forward, standardization must be in its’ right place and removed from the places where it has not and will not serve us well. We must reduce the variation in instructional quality as much as possible. We can do that by not duplicating efforts. If we can agree on what students should know and be able to do when they leave our system, then we can design curricular content that is available to every student. Instead, what we currently have is a system where teachers across the country are designing thousands of lessons that are so supposed to ultimately have the same learning goal at the end. We have numerous versions of how we teach converting a decimal to a fraction, how to understand the relationship between causes and effects, etc. In a student-centered system, our focus would shift from pushing out instructional content to focusing on providing quality feedback to students to make sure they are learning and mastering the skills and processes they need to be successful. We’d walk away from the over dependence on standardized testing to inform us on how the system is working, and move to a system where students are at the center and have choice about how they demonstrate to us that they’ve achieved the learning targets we’ve set for them and they’ve set for themselves. Our focus would no longer be on making sure every student gets the same thing. Rather, we’d focus on making sure every student gets what he or she needs. What we can standardize is the belief that a personalized education serves students much better than a standardized one.

2. The system must have the right drivers.

Our students must be motivated to learn by having the opportunity to participate in meaningful and relevant learning experiences. Grades and assessment ratings can no longer serve as motivating factors for our students. With grades at the center of everything we have done with students and a hyper focus on rankings and ratings, we’ve reduced at worst and eliminated at best, the joy of learning and its’ ability to be deep and meaningful. Instead, the effort our students put forth is driven by the grade they desire, and for many, grades are not enough. In the end, our students find themselves searching for purpose and meaning, wanting to be a part of something greater than themselves. Eventually the threat of failing grades, not being able to get into a good college, is not sustaining. They enter adulthood and the workforce where there are no grades and no rankings. They find themselves challenged because they’ve been subjected to a system where their motivation was centered on the grade they received in terms of their effort, rather than on their ability to make a meaningful difference in their organization, their community, and the world. Allowing our students to be driven by exploring their passions, finding their purpose, and experiencing deep learning around those things that touch their hearts would create drivers that are sustainable over time.

3. We must invest in public education.

The impact of the negative narrative that has shadowed public education has caused our students to suffer, and even more so, our educators. The shortage in teachers, the mass exodus many have made from the profession, and the lack of investment in those who serve students, and in a larger sense, society as a whole is clear. Our focus on inputs to the system must be greater than the focus on outputs. We must put forth the effort that public education and its’ educators deserve to help them become skillful practitioners. That might mean more incentives for students to explore a career in education, paying teachers more competitive salaries, and a more robust and personalized professional development system. Whether we are willing to admit it or not, the return on our investment will be directly related to the degree and intensity in which we invest in the system itself and its’ providers.

I am hopeful. I hope we take an opportunity to make meaningful changes that can benefit our students and the public education system for years to come. We need the commitment of everyone who benefits from a strong and successful public education system to help us remedy the inequities that have plagued our system for far too long. While inequity may be America’s original sin when it comes to public education, it’s not too late for us to repent-to turn away from the old ways, and to look forward towards a future that is brighter for ALL children.

Until next time, be you! Be true! Be a hope builder!

Latoya

@latoyadixon5

Redefining What Makes A School Great in the Wake of COVID-19

Our public schools are more than teaching and learning hubs for our children. Many students receive a variety of services beyond instruction at school. These include access to mental health counseling, physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, art, music, physical education, access to a nurse, food bags on Fridays for those students who we know live in food insecure situations, & breakfast, lunch, and snack at school during the weekdays, to name a few. This ecosystem of services is essential to the healthy development of a child and those are the things you won’t find on any school report card. For example, our school district served 18, 474 meals last week, we handed out paper pencil learning packets, and we delivered meals to those who didn’t have transportation to come pick them up. There’s no rating for that.

It’s high time America recognizes its’ public schools for the incredible work they do. When an epidemic or crisis hits, the school buildings become shelters over night, buses are suddenly used to transport anything-people, food, materials-that will help the situation, and educators stand on the front lines to fill the gaps. As much as some may attempt to use this as an invitation to the idea that brick and mortar schools are no longer needed, everything about how the public school systems and educators have stepped up and stepped in right now says different.

We are an essential part to the success of our country, the continuation of our democracy, the future of our children. Let us not forget that our children our watching during this time. They see us, the educators, working as essential staff to make sure they have food and keep learning. Let us not grow weary about the children and what they are missing right now. We’ve never needed standardized testing to tell us what our children need, and we don’t need it now. They need the opportunity to create, play outside, collaborate, problem solve, read, and write. They need to connect and build strong and trusting relationships with caring and nurturing adults. They need encouragement and support as they face this new situation, just like us.

I’ve never been more proud to be a public school educator. I pray for strength, safety, guidance, and wisdom for all of us, and I hope the rest of the country can clearly see our value and shift the narrative that’s contributed to teachers being underpaid, schools being underfunded, and efforts to dismantle and privatize the important work we do for ALL children. When this is done, let’s work on those things. That will be the best thank you of all.

Until next time, be you. Be true. Be a hope builder.

Latoya