On the sun-glazed African continent, the most storied warrior people, incomparably formidable and sagacious in war, is the Maasai. It is perhaps unexpected, then, to learn the traditional greeting that passed between Maasai warriors: “Kasserian Ingera,” meaning, “And how are the children?” For the Maasai, the well-being of the community is the well-being of the children.
As we approach the task of cultivating classrooms and leading schools amidst the intersecting crises plaguing our nation since March—systemic racism and the public broadcasting of white supremacy, jocose politicking and democratic suppression, and a skyrocketing death toll of Americans as a result of COVID-19—I wonder how it might affect staff professional development if we took seriously the question: “And how are the children?” Imagine if at every weekly huddle, if at every data day, if at every grade team meeting, and if during every coaching debrief, we asked each other: “And how are the children?”
In the ninth month of this pandemic, we have had to reimagine our pedagogy, from curriculum unpacking to grade-team planning to lesson delivery. Yet, many schools have replicated pre-pandemic professional learning sessions, risking longitudinal, systemic consequences in teaching and learning. If we have learned anything as traumas affecting Black and brown students are displayed through Zoom screens, breakout rooms, and chats, it’s that our schools are desperate for an abolitionist approach to professional development. That’s an approach that begins and ends with the children.
Being committed to abolitionist professional learning demands centering the communal over the individual, imagination over preservation, and the ideals of freedom and justice over misguided notions about the meaning of rigor and standards. An abolitionist approach is framed by the query: How do we center the voices and lived knowledge of our students to improve our pedagogy? It situates us in the tradition of Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass and Nat Turner, who dared to actualize justice as a radically human enterprise that centered those who relied on their sacrifice. As such, abolitionist professional learning ought to do the following:
Black and brown students are experiencing what Bettina Love and Patricia Williams call “spirit-murdering.” They are routinely seen, heard, experienced, taught and assessed as burdens to educators, particularly white educators.
In our professional learning, we must accent the spirit of students by intentionally learning to speak well of the assets within all children—assets like hope, imagination, and curiosity. We must cultivate a courageous classroom culture where cognitive and emotional risks can be taken. We must listen for their “learning language” and decenter our pessimistic projections on them that flow from our own traumas.
For children to be well, we must speak to their spirits in ways most meaningful to them. By doing so, their spirits are nurtured for who they are, not for what they produce.
The Underground Railroad was one of the earliest versions of freedom collaboration in this nation. From “conductors” to “stationmasters” to “stockholders,” the abolitionist Underground Railroad shared such unity of purpose it was as if they breathed together.
As we plan professional learning, we must deliberately curate opportunities for folx to think, talk, question, reflect and produce in community. Through collaboration, we invite abolitionist educators to wrestle with new ways “to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly” in their pedagogy.
If grade-level teams are always together, is the highest imagination of freedom realized? If operations and support teams are always together, do we have an expansive view of justice?
For professional learning to know if the children are well, more than one voice must speak, more than one thought must be shared, and more than one set of hands must act. Professional learning is an opportunity to invite pedagogical collaboration through organized teams with varying role-identities represented.
We all want to be heard, but without intentional focus, feedback opportunities can become crucibles for injudicious venting and self-centering. We all do it.
Abolitionist professional learning must collect feedback with the intent to improve the context, culture, and conditions for the adults, in service of the student’s lived experience. Requests for feedback must be framed in terms of impact on student experiences, student work and student outcomes.
One way to do this is to lead with a student-centering question. For example, “When you think about our coaching protocols, which feedback loop method has prepared you most to guide students in making-meaning of knowledge, while also guiding students to meeting their goals?”
When we guide feedback in response to the question, “and, how are the children,” we help ourselves improve our practices as abolitionists, advance the conditions for abolitionist pursuits, and emancipate our classrooms to become alternative visions of freedom and justice.
What is data? It is everything we can learn about a person or thing that contributes to the meaning-making process about that person or thing.
Educators typically analyze quantitative data—proficiency scores, attendance rates, unit exams, work completion, and exit tickets. But abolitionist data analysis invites educators to spend weekly sessions recounting the stories our students have shared as a data dive, or listening to recordings of classroom discussions for communal leitmotifs
As early learners, we grew from the stories our caregivers and ancestors and wisdom-keepers taught us. Even more importantly, much of how they cared for us was informed by the lived data they observed within and around us.
Qualitative data, lived knowledge and stories, written and oral, are just as essential to professional learning spaces. They help us make sense and meaning of our students’ experiences. As abolitionists, we must gather and experience data in radically human ways. We need the stories that compel us to see our students as humans.
Many significant freedom conspirators and teachers are those whose witness reverberated and made a difference alongside louder voices. Douglass and Tubman we know, but what about Moses Dickson and Margaretta Forten?
Contrary to hegemonic learning where “the” expert is at the core, abolitionist professional learning creates an opportunity for many experts to emerge, each with their own freedom-pursuing contribution to the learning process; and this demands openness to redefining expertise. In spaces where each participant is as much a teacher as they are a learner, often the most meaningful conspirators for justice are the unassuming persons whose voices would otherwise be quieted by those who exhaust the space.
Abolitionist professional learning is built on shared-inquiry, where knowledge is not unilateral, but communal through probing and interpretive questions, sorting diverse data, guided discussion, and active listening. As education leaders, we must intentionally engage shared-inquiry as to decentralize knowledge, diffuse marginalization, and democratize learning.
Abolitionist professional learning provides an opportunity for every member within our teaching community to ask and answer one question—“and how are the children?”
Dr. Robert S. Harvey is an educator, school leader, community connector, writer, and public scholar. Drawing upon lived experiences, ethics, and a bold vision for the future of education, his leadership and writing has a threefold focus—love, justice and hope— with children at the heart.