Decisions, Decisions, Decisions (Part 4)

Hey all… welcome back to my pink room!

Grab a seat, get comfortable…we might be here for a little while. We have a lot to talk about today so let’s get started…

Over the last couple days, we have focused our attention on the first of many choices Pink Valley District would need to make at the onset of the pandemic, i.e whether they should host any kind of public schooling. On Monday, we tried to understand what exactly we meant by “any kind of public schooling” within the context of Pink Valley and COVID. Tuesday, in “Decisions, Decisions, Decisions (Part 3)” we talked a little bit about some of the barriers that both made “not hosting school” a choice with seemingly catastrophic consequences and also the only option some districts could make.

Tomorrow we are going to turn our attention to the first iteration of Pink Valley’s pandemic schooling plan. But today we are going to focus on something a little different a kind of policy form and praxis that I have coined “institutional empathy”.

Like we said before, a school district at least during a global health crisis, like COVID, has very little power to impact an individual student’s home life or exposure to trauma. However, there is something that they can do, a school district can choose to institutionalize empathy. Although, this will not equalize by any means a child’s access to success it makes explicit the barriers outside of school and also challenges continued exclusionary practices within the confines of school. And here is where it get’s slightly interesting, I think that Pink Valley’s first iteration of schooling actually attempted to do just that. But as we will find out tomorrow, Pink Valley ultimately scrapped this initial plan so the question I want us all to be pondering during today and then tomorrow is why? Why did they scrap it?

Today we’re going to try and do two things: first, I am going to construct some kind of working definition of “institutionalized empathy” in school policy and practice and then I will try to apply this definition with one possible district policy.

Let’s get started then. So what do I actually mean when I say “a district can choose to institutionalize empathy?

I think the best place to start is with what empathy actually means. A quick google search tells us that empathy is “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another”. But empathy can also be extended to not only understanding the feelings but also the realities of another. Empathy is always hoping to understand more than to conclude. Empathy inspires compassion and not retribution. Empathy is flexible not rigid. And empathy is essential to equitable and inclusive learning, teaching and schooling.

So then what does institutional empathy actually look like? These are the kind of practices and policies that at their core embody and reflect a kind of radical empathy. They are policies that are written to prioritize the success and protection of the most marginalized within that institution. It is a culture and praxis that discourages forms of punitive control and thinks critically about established forms of “meritocratic” distinctions. It explicitly creates boundaries and limits on the power of those historically in authority over other more vulnerable groups, which in the case of a school would be teachers, principals but also its highest administrators.

Alright let’s now consider one possible example. Imagine in this online school environment, a Superintendent decides to establish a policy that would disallow teachers from creating any academic incentives (positive or negative) around attendance, perceived participation and audio/video practices.

For the remainder of our time together, we will try and explain why the proposed policy would be an example of institutionalizing empathy. Let’s get started. We said above that institutional empathy has a few clear identifiers: (1)it prioritizes and protects the most marginalized, (2)it discourages punitive control and challenges meritocratic impulses and (3)it places explicit limits on those with historical power over vulnerable groups. Now we will consider each of these markers individually and explain how they are reflected in our policy.

First up… does this policy, protect and prioritize the most marginalized students? I would say, yes. In order to prove this, we should first establish some metric to determine who should be considered the most marginalized. And then show how that particular group is being prioritized and protected.

For our purposes we will focus on the intersection of race, class and ability to describe the most marginalized student. That is a school policy that institutionalizes empathy will be written to prioritize and protect the specific needs of poor dis/abled Black and brown students.

Now we will consider how this policy works to protect poor dis/abled Black and brown students. This policy is specifically constructed in light of the fact that poor dis/abled Black and brown bodies are much more likely to be policed in school, lack necessary resources (like strong internet connection, quiet spaces, and uninterrupted time) and find remote learning particularly challenging and it actively works to protect those bodies. It gives teachers no space to punish those bodies for their apparent “inappropriate” or “delinquent” behavior. And instead assumes that students who are late, don’t participate in online class or choose not to use their video or audio are not simply uninterested in school or lazy but rather facing real barriers that make compliance with perceived “respectable” school behavior unattainable.

Next, does this policy discourage punitive control and challenge meritocratic impulses? I also think, yes. Okay, we should first define what we mean by “punitive control” and “meritocratic impulses” and then we can consider how this policy combats them.

Punitive control is relatively simple to define: any kind of control thats main purpose is punish rather than encourage or support further learning should be considered punitive. There are lot of established practices of punitive control in schooling but we can’t get into all of them now. But in particular the ability to academically penalize a student for being tardy to class or not participating “appropriately” is a well established and normalized form of punitive control. If a teacher decides to deduct points for tardiness or lack of “appropriate” participation, then he or she does not do it for the benefit of any particular student but with the sole purpose to punish students who are not obedient to the establish norms or policy.

Meritocratic impulses are a bit more difficult to describe. But this essentially describes our impulse (which tends to also be institutionalized in policies and/or culture) to draw explicit distinctions between good and bad students or hardworking and lazy students. We tend to label a student good or bad, hardworking or lazy depending on their perceived behavior. Hardworking students arrive on time to class and turn assignments in by the deadline. Lazy students come late and miss deadlines. Hardworking students keep their camera on and speak when requested. Lazy students keep their camera off and never participate in class. In a meritocracy people get what they deserve and thus the hardworking are rewarded with privileges while the lazy are punished or disregarded. Thus, if we follow our meritocratic impulses, we would establish ways to explicitly reward the behavior we perceive as hardworking and punish behavior deemed lazy.

This policy actively works against displays of punitive control and meritocratic impulses. This policy would remove a form of punitive power around respectability from the hands of teachers and other staff and instead encourage a focus on student learning not compliance. Students might be encouraged by their teachers to participate in X ways but will not be punished if they choose not to. This policy also challenges our meritocratic impulses by forcing us to evaluate the work of students who we might otherwise consider lazy with the same metrics as the “hardworking” students. It also allows us to pause and perhaps interrogate our assumptions around what kinds of behavior a “hardworking” student would display in the first place and whether or not “lazy” students also deserve to learn.

Finally, does this policy put explicit limits on those with historical power over other vulnerable groups? In the case of schooling, we can think about teachers as holding historical power and authority over a more vulnerable group, i.e students. So does this policy set up boundaries on the power a teacher can wield over her students? I think yes. It places explicit guard rails in place for teachers who may struggle to have the necessary empathy that the policy itself embodies. Many teachers might find no difficulty following a policy like this because they will have themselves considered the incredible challenges that come with schooling during a pandemic. However, it creates explicit and clear expectations to which a “wayward” teacher could be held accountable by the students and families themselves.

Given all that we have shown above, we should be able to say with confidence that the policy proposed in our example which disallows any kind of academic penalty or reward for attendance, participation or audio/video practices is in fact an example of institutional empathy.

Alrighty… that’s all I got folks! Join me back here in the pink room tomorrow to find out more about Pink Valley’s first version of pandemic schooling.

Till then!

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