Last week I wrote a post about how I don’t really think our kids are behind academically. There was one area I didn’t touch on because I think it really needs its own space: kids who are already disadvantaged.
Systemic disadvantages were already there
Since school went online, we’ve heard hundreds of stories of students not getting the technology they need, not having access to reliable internet for online learning and struggling with individualized support when they are trying to learn with autism or learning disabilities. Let’s talk about these kids.
Do we know for sure that these kids’ situations would be significantly improved without the disruptions? Was everything humming along smoothly with no gaps before? Have pandemic disruptions created additional challenges that didn’t already exist?
The pandemic shone a bright light on the barriers some students face to success. By now, we must have collected enough data since March 2020 to assess where gaps can be closed. We have clear examples for our policymakers and can influence change in a system that had problems when it was running “properly.”
I’d like to think someone will study these issues in depth in the months to come.
The disability pity party
Raise your hand if you ever felt sorry for someone you saw trying to cross a street in a wheelchair or with a white cane. That was past you. Current and future you will stop doing that because it’s time to end the pity party.
We form many assumptions about those who live with visible and invisible disabilities, and the glaring one is that we assume that our fully-abled lives are so much better. An able-bodied person is the “ideal” and the “norm.”
First, there have been upsides to online learning from home for plenty of students. Some with social anxiety feel more comfortable sharing in class, because they can turn their camera off while they speak. Students with mobility issues or chronic pain don’t face daily struggles just getting to class. Assuming that all students with disabilities are having the same experience is incorrect and devalues each person’s lived experience.
In the world of work, this pitying attitude translates into fewer employment opportunities for people with disabilities. I spoke about this in a recent conversation with a couple of colleagues. How can you ever believe someone can obtain meaningful employment and contribute positively to the work force if you see them as lesser than you?
I believe many kids are getting a version of this. We keep asking how they can succeed with the entire deck stacked against them. But what we should be asking is: what adjustments can we make that will allow them to perform at their best in any situation?
We have this inherent belief that obstacles are bad, but obstacles are simply obstacles. It is our interpretation of situations that assigns “good “ or “bad” to it, not the event itself. A tree blowing down and knocking out your power is simply a tree blowing down and knocking out your power. The tree or the wind had no malicious intent in its actions.
Yes, our kids have faced disruptions to their education and no they have not received the same level or type of instruction they might otherwise have. Does that mean catastrophe 20 or 30 years from now? Will we have no more CEOs? No more scientific breakthroughs or feats of engineering? Doubtful. In fact, it might just be the opposite. Perhaps we’ll see extraordinary creativity and achievement because our kids were forced, at a young age, to work under extraordinary conditions.
What are we teaching our children if we consistently present the mindset that a challenge is a bad thing? Are we giving them tools to manage and overcome those obstacles? Or are we giving them a reason to give up and sulk in the corner?
Life inevitably brings chaos. How can we use this period of chaos to teach our kids to face adversity with courage and resilience?
At the end of the day, I think the “our kids are behind in school” narrative simply reinforces the idea that university is the only way to be successful. (It’s not.) And that anyone who does not pursue university directly out of high school is a social pariah. (They’re not.) It also ignores the incredible amount of creativity many educators have demonstrated in engaging their students using new ideas, technology and methods.
I think continuing to tell our kids about how they’re living a lesser life because of the pandemic is exacerbating the negativity. Maybe if we reduced the narrative that they’re “missing out” and “falling behind,” they might have a chance to grasp the positive and make the best of a shitty situation.