This year, due to the coronavirus pandemic, educators nationwide, and the world over, have had to adapt how they provide services to children and families. Like many of my colleagues, I too struggle with balancing how to do and be more in a world where our collective safety requires a coordinated separation.
For many, the holiday season brings faith to the forefront. So, for guidance on how to overcome, I look to my Sunday school teachers for inspiration.
Sunday school was more than just learning about the Christian faith, although that was a major part. Sunday school was about being discipled—we learned about the Christian faith and how to apply the tenets of the faith in our lives, whether in school or at home.
For those deacons and church mothers who instructed us, they were equally concerned about our formation as people and members of the community as they were with our spiritual formation. Those folks were concerned that we made good decisions in life and that our professional and personal success enabled us to become pillars of the community, with a heart to give back. Those things mattered as much as us memorizing scriptures, singing on the youth choir or becoming junior ushers.
Those elders discipled us. As educators, we must do the same when it comes to students. I don’t mean discipleship in a faith-based context but rather in a people-building and community strengthening context. What does that look like in an educational space? I am glad that you asked.
Educational discipleship is simply educators leading and instructing, in love, with building relationships rooted in transparency, trust and the best interest of students at the forefront of everything educators do. Trust in you can fill the void left by social distancing; trust comes by way of discipleship.
What Does Discipleship Look Like in the Pandemic Era?
What does discipleship look like in the pandemic era; at a time of uncertainty and confusion regarding funding, the evaluation of teachers and student annual yearly progress? How do we implement something new or different, a la “discipling” kids halfway through the school year? It is you taking the action. Here is what it will require of you, whether in-person or virtually:
Find out who your students are. I don’t mean scan social media profiles. Rather, actively engaging your young people to find out who they are as people—not just with icebreakers but with questions during your instruction that peer into their personalities. Also, take time to understand the community where you work. Understand the history of that community where you teach; understand the set of collective experiences that make that community unique and the community fibers that make up who your students are. Talk to students, parents and stakeholders and get the history to inform your pedagogy and praxis.
Become a prophetic voice in their lives. Being prophetic means speaking truth to the conditions of society and the lives of our students. Utilizing a prophetic voice isn’t about employing a tool of bizarre speculation about the end of the world or the futures of your students. Utilizing a prophetic voice is to expose our history and the consequences of decisions impacting humanity. It means telling a child who lives in a low-income area that while the circumstance of their life was intentional, they are not powerless to change those circumstances for themselves and those who come after them. Our educator voice must speak truth to power while hopeful in the face of injustice.
Base your teaching outcomes on students’ purpose. It’s not enough for your kids to gain a skill; they need to know how the skill empowers them. For example, computing percentages isn’t exciting absent a reason. But if there is a sale on an item of clothing or a video game, a lesson on percentages may garner more excitement. We must attach real purpose to what we teach students and we must exhibit that in our own lives as best we can. For example, a literacy teacher can turn instruction into a performance of some sort or an entrepreneurship opportunity. At every turn, whether instructing, counseling, or assessing, educators must make kids seeing purpose in the work and their own purpose as a result of the work a paramount goal.
Be as political as much as you are pragmatic. Educators tend to be very pragmatic. Given the constraints of the industry, we must operate in a space where we are governed by what is while striving for what can be. As we strive to obtain the latter, we must be political; being political is how we achieve the latter. For example, it requires us to explain why some children have unclean drinking water as we learn how chemicals purify water, so we can create purifiers and provide them to those who need them. Being political requires teachers to take a moral stand on behalf of common decency and humanity within their teaching. So be political.
Seek the best solution possible. Whether crafting a lesson, developing an assessment or, disciplining kids, it’s up to educators to find the best solution possible. Sometimes that means going against the grain; modifying a lesson on the fly, refusing to remove a student from your virtual room in the middle of your class, or hosting an evening review to provide students with extra help. Discipleship may require going out of your way to ensure that those under your care have exactly what they need. Finding the best solutions will require more of us than it ever has before. Meaning you must account for distracted and exhausted students and face them with compassion.
Ensuring that our students achieve good grades, move to the next grade and are prepared for college is important to our role as educators, but we mustn’t only focus on those things. We must have equal concern for our students’ lives, for the people they will become and the communities they care about. Thus, the pandemic era requires that we must not only teach; we must disciple.
Rann Miller is a director of a federally funded after-school and summer program in southern New Jersey. He spent six years teaching in charter schools in Camden, New Jersey. Rann is the creator, writer and editor of the
Official Urban Education Mixtape Blog. His writing on race and urban education has appeared in