CCE staff and partner reflections on our collaborative work to create schools where learning is engaging and rewarding, and every student is set up for success.
The Pandemic Inequity Nobody’s Talking About
How the shift to remote work has widened existing inequities between those who are empowered – and those who are not – to drive the process of change.
My colleague and I were recently discussing some of our “lessons learned” about professional collaboration during a pandemic. In our work to support and facilitate inclusive approaches to school change, we have both adapted our work in response to the pandemic. We’ve gone remote. We’ve doubled the number of short meetings to replace the long in-person ones. We’ve taken on more planning when educators have had to divert more energy into remote and hybrid teaching. We’ve learned multiple means of staying in touch with school leaders. And we’ve found new online tools to support collaboration in exciting, perhaps game-changing, ways.
What I didn’t really think about until later was what was lost in this shift from in-person to remote collaboration.
Before the pandemic, when I partnered with schools planning or implementing a major shift or transformation, I used to prioritize not only equity of voice, but equity in instigation. After the earliest stages of a new project, CCE has always engaged a variety of stakeholders on the central planning team, ensuring that any work to transform a school or district includes many perspectives. Rather than simply setting for focus group conversations or surveys, we ensured that these community members were part of the central team of decision-makers, helping to set agendas, drive the change process, and inform the shape of the project itself.
Including multiple stakeholders as central figures in school planning and transformation while elevating the perspective of those traditionally marginalized was an important counterbalance to the structural forces that place school and district leaders at the center of conversations. This is a real equity consideration when, for example, 80% of principals nationally are white and 86% of district leaders are male, far from reflecting a teaching force that is 72% female (see prior link) and the more than 50% of public school attendees who are students of color. In contrast, in the past year, I’ve noticed how much more frequently parent and student representatives are missing from the Zoom meetings that have replaced our roundtables. I’ve noticed how much easier it is to find a district administrator to co-plan an agenda than an overburdened group of classroom teachers. And I’ve increasingly noticed how often we, the consulting partners, are determining meeting priorities. After all, teachers and leaders alike are busy just keeping their schools afloat and trying to sustain the energy to transform; parents and community members are grappling with changed job demands, traumas, connectivity issues, and other challenges. Creating meeting agendas and catalyzing conversations has seemed like the least we could do to support our school-based partners.
I’ve also felt how much is missing with these adaptations. It’s always great to read a student’s survey response, but it’s better – much better – to watch students organize around an issue they care about. I like hearing teachers respond to prompts in a Hangout or Zoom, but I wonder how much my prompts are limiting their answers. I’m excited that I can continue to hold meetings, but I wonder what is lost without the spontaneity of in-person meetings, bubbling with side conversations that catalyze innovation.
I also know that there is a delicate balance between helping people and robbing them of agency, something exacerbated by online meetings. Online meetings require one speaker at a time to work; only one “host” controls who goes into breakouts; there’s only one screen being shared at a time. I worry that this leads to a bias in favor of top-down rather than grassroots decision-making - that this unfairly limits who has the privilege of instigating change. Afterall, if those who can most easily initiate meetings are only those with a professional Zoom account and the formal authority to convene a group, it’s harder to ensure that change work is truly equitable and reflects the priorities of the community.
I have learned some strategies that counteract the pressures of remote work to replicate inequities in this way. A few lessons learned:
- Sometimes a phone call, a text, a social media group, or an email is necessary where a video meeting leaves holes, and this is especially effective if it includes targeted outreach to those who are not in formal positions of power but who have potential to help shape the work from other angles.
- Breakout rooms without formal facilitation are a critical means of providing participants with the opportunity to initiate new topics of discussion and speak freely, building collective will.
- While I’m still doing a lot of agenda-drafting and facilitation, I’m making sure that I prioritize goal-setting and priority-making (for specific meetings and projects in general) as two areas for which I ask a wider group to weigh in, to maximize the impact of their participation.
- More heterogeneous/affinity-based meetings can help be “safe spaces” for folks to talk with fewer power dynamics at play; this works well if it’s followed by the opportunity to share and contribute to steering a more heterogeneous meeting where decisions are being made.
- In my facilitation, I’m working to talk less and enable more. That is, I am trying to handle note-taking, meeting hosting, and other technical elements while providing space within meetings for more participant voice. This takes more effort than I would have thought. And I’m using my airspace to ask questions, make observations, and restate what I’ve heard wherever possible, particularly when I can elevate the voice of someone who has been otherwise marginalized in the conversation.
I’m eager to emerge from this pandemic aware of this “inequity of instigation” and, as the world of education coaching becomes more hybrid, to marry the best assets of both in-person and remote meetings to ensure that everyone – not only the formal leaders – has a role in shaping the work. I know the work – and ultimately our schools – will be better for it.