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It’s time to end catch-up culture in American schools

The late bell hooks, author of ‘Teaching to Transgress,’ laid the groundwork for fully supporting student growth and teachers, too

School students in Michigan City, Indiana, return for in-person instruction after two months of remote learning to start the new school year, Oct. 19, 2020.Kelley Smith/Associated Press

The COVID-19 pandemic halted education as we have always known it, presenting an opportunity for us to reimagine learning. But we didn’t do that, did we?

Instead, school systems largely wasted resources trying to re-establish schools through a traditional design we know hurts students and teachers. We doubled down on educational practices that maintain what the late bell hooks, a Black feminist, teacher and author, deemed the White supremacist capitalist patriarchy.

hooks, who wrote “Teaching to Transgress,” envisioned education as a practice of freedom. She called it “teaching that enables transgressions — a movement against and beyond boundaries.” Schooling for millions of public and private school students could actually foster collective care and liberation in our communities. We still have a chance to get it right.

Before the pandemic, the intensity of the school day required a tight allocation of minutes. This manufactured timeline expected students to move from task to task and class to class with little opportunity to pause, process, or reflect. This rigid use of time quantified student productivity and established a hierarchy of skills and knowledge, leaving insufficient flexibility to nurture a student’s holistic development.

Academic skill-building was prioritized and measured through the breadth of content covered and amount of student work produced, devaluing meaningful exercises to cultivate introspection and build community within the classroom. A typical English course, for example, might emphasize the number of books read and mastery of the traditional academic paper, while relegating creative writing and personal reflection in dialogue to the margins for the sake of “rigor.”

Disruptions to academic work during the pandemic were met with a renewed urgency to maintain these priorities. Upon returning to the physical classroom, educators and administrators fixated on students’ “learning loss,” rather than their developmental gains. The transition forced classrooms into a breathless game of catch up.

These patterns in American education have long mirrored cultural norms derived from a capitalist worldview that reduces our value as individuals to what and how much we produce. In such a system, it is challenging to locate a sense of self-worth in activities and relationships that bring us joy and enable us to tend to our wellness without tangible, quantifiable outcomes.

The result has always been harmful to students but especially during this transition when students need to re-establish interpersonal connections and heal from the collective trauma of the pandemic.

bell hooks at home in New York City, Dec. 31, 1999.Joe Tabacca/Globe photo

But hooks, who died a year ago this month, offered a timely reminder: “To teach in a manner that respects and cares for the souls of our students is essential if we are to provide the necessary conditions where learning can most deeply and intimately begin.”

When so much of students’ days are consumed with meeting arbitrary deadlines for assignments that feel divorced from their personal lives and identities, well-being and learning suffer. Spaces in which students are encouraged to care for themselves and one another as whole beings foster deep learning and take time to establish. We can’t frame that work as peripheral to “academics.”

For students to prepare for meaningful engagement in the world, they need to learn and practice how to holistically take care of themselves, collaborate with compassion, and critically examine forces shaping our sociopolitical reality. They must exercise creativity to transform injustice.

Now, this is demanding work. The structure of the academic day and teaching of discipline-specific content must facilitate the development of those skills, rather than pose a challenge to their acquisition.

For students’ needs to be met, teachers’ needs must also be met, hooks said. Yet, as the burden placed on teachers to drive the unsustainable pace of learning reveals, teacher well-being — characterized by a teacher shortage — is even more elusive.

When teachers voice their struggles to meet unrealistic demands, they are often told to stay student-centered. This response puts teacher and student needs in competition, diminishing the possibility of building a genuine learning community.

Teachers are expected to compartmentalize themselves in a way that leaves “in place only an objective mind, free of experiences and biases,” hooks explained. But the idea of “objectivity,” has long been a core fallacy of Whiteness, positioning White perspectives not merely as dominant but as “objective truths,” rather than the product of lived experiences, according to hooks. This dangerous framing paves the way to erasing and invalidating the perspectives of Asian, Black, Brown, and Indigenous people under the guise of prioritizing “fact-based” knowledge.

hooks argued that students need teachers who are willing to model vulnerability, use their teaching as a vehicle to engage their students in the work of social justice, and show up as their full selves in the classroom every day.

Amidst the distortion of critical race theory by politicians seeking to secure the stronghold of White supremacy in curricular standards, some schools have tried aligning themselves with the concept of antiracist education. Still, the persistence of traditional academic structures, curriculum, and norms is drenched with irony.

If we are to commit to antiracist education in earnest, we need to dismantle the White, capitalist structures and premises American education is currently organized around and replace them with approaches to teaching and learning that enable folks within a school community to care for one another in a genuine way.

Making space for healing and fostering a culture are essential to student success, according to hooks, and when well-being is nurtured in the classroom, learning can reach greater depths.

Olivia Poulin is pursuing a master’s degree in education for equity and social justice at Boston University, where she also works at the Center for Antiracist Research and the Howard Thurman Center for Common Ground. She was a high-school English teacher for five years.