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  • Shea Swauger

What They'll Remember

I’ve had so many conversations with parents recently who are worried about their kids’ education and not being sure what to do when it comes to online or in-person school this fall. Many of them are weighing how their decision will impact their kids’ learning as measured by some metric or another. While I’m not saying that meeting third-grade reading levels isn’t important, I am saying I just don’t care about it and neither should you, at least for a while.

You should probably let go of most of what you think is important about education.

Public health crisis aside, there are very good reasons to critique and reject learning metrics and frameworks. This isn’t about those reasons. Even if really good metrics or frameworks existed, right now wouldn’t be the time to use them.

The single most important thing you need for learning to happen, especially during trauma like we’re experiencing, is love.

I probably sound like Dumbledore telling Harry that the most powerful tool against Voldemort is love. Thank you, how incredibly unhelpful. However, I have some personal experience with education during communal trauma.

I was in seventh grade when the Columbine shooting happened a couple miles from my house. I remember the incessant helicopters and news vans with their satellite towers craning overhead. Formal teaching mostly stopped in the days after and my home room teacher Mr. Howe lead discussions about the shooting. We shared stories about people we knew there and asked questions to which the teachers had no answers. I remember the look on my friend Andy’s face as he cried. It was the first time I ever saw a teacher not know what to do or how to make sense of something. That made things scarier, but it also validated the gravity of my own feelings. It’s what I needed.

I remember other things, too. There were huge chains on the school doors for months after the shooting. Police officers walked down our halls carrying assault rifles wearing tactical gear. The chains and the guns did not make me feel safer. They made me feel afraid.

The point is that I don’t remember most of my seventh-grade curriculum. I remember Andy’s face and the chains and the guns. While it wasn’t what teachers intended, I learned two important lessons. First, my teachers cared deeply about us in a way I’d never understood before. Secondly, they were simultaneously afraid of another school shooting which meant they were afraid of us.

Children will likely remember less about what we explicitly teach them than from watching how we respond to collective trauma. The best thing we can do for our kids right now is to love them and take care of each other. We need to make spaces to talk about what we’re feeling, what we’re afraid of, or miss, or hope for, or have questions about. Children are watching their parents and teachers and are learning quite a bit, regardless if it’s what we intended. In some cases, that means they’re learning that we care more about the economy than their safety or that we care more about covering women’s bodies than masking our faces.

If we start privatizing education into pandemic pods, the kids who are in them will learn that their education and safety are more important than their peers who can’t afford it. They’ll learn that, when they grow up, caring for their kid at the expense of other people’s is okay. If they’re outside the pod, they’ll learn that they'll be thrown under the bus the moment it’s convenient. These are very important lessons.

What if we let go of our need for learning outcomes and meeting state standards and instead focused on keeping kids safe and supporting their emotional needs? What if, instead of trying to make sure college football continues, we made sure that no one gets evicted, sleeps outside, or goes hungry? COVID is shining a light on structural inequality in America, including in education, and children are learning how we respond to it by watching us.

Our children will remember love and the choices we make that center it. They will also remember fear and the choices we make at the expense of others because of it. Give yourself permission to let go of the things your kids “should” learn. Loving them and each other will be what they remember most.

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©2020 by Shea Swauger