Reflection #10 on Humanized Pandemic Teaching with Chris McNutt

By Barbara Bray

Join Barbara Bray in conversations with awesome educators, leaders, and influencers as they talk about their passion and purpose for planting seeds for change. Each podcast has a link to a related blog post with more information and resources.

Enjoy Barbara Bray’s conversation with Chris McNutt, a 9th-grade digital design and media educator and Executive Director of the Human Restoration Project, on how to build a more human-centered classroom amidst a pandemic.
Classrooms today
Education has the power to shape a new world – one that cares for all, provides equitable outcomes of opportunity, and ensures everyone is appreciated and valued. In theory, our school system should exemplify the overarching goal of students driving forward a curriculum that centers on their values and promotes these outcomes of social justice. However, classrooms are not always a humane place.
COVID-19 has brought to light and doubled-down on the carceral practices of schools. Similar to the carceral practices brought forward by the police reform/Black Lives Matter/defund the police movement, our recent foray into “pandemic teaching” has highlighted the dehumanization of students in a place meant for learning:

In an effort to maintain “accountability,” adolescents to young children are being assigned many hours of tedious work to replicate the school day at home.
To prevent “cheating,” test software companies are employing Orwellian security measures to monitor and surveil students’ households.
To ensure “no one falls behind,” schools have doubled down on faux “rigor” through grading even more.

It’s not that dehumanization started with the pandemic. For many students, coming to school is a negative experience. Earlier this year, a survey of 21,678 high school students found 75% reported school as a negative experience, signaling they were tired, stressed, and bored. The curriculum is disengaging, centered on a whitewashed narrative that doesn’t connect to students’ lives, the teacher controls (mentally and physically) much of what students can/will do, and the value of learning is centered on standardized testing. Now, as schools lockdown their classrooms in a (needed) effort to contain the pandemic, we find the doubling down of these practices.

This isn’t to say that teachers are to blame. In a system where raising standardized test scores is the pinnacle of success, teachers are expected to use whatever means possible to uphold the status quo. Challenging that status quo is an extreme risk in many cases, and we cannot assume that teachers who default to any-means-necessary business-as-usual are bad people and/or teachers. Yet, when observing a modern pandemic classroom, it’s hard to not be disappointed with the state of affairs. 
There is no one size fits all solution to pandemic teaching. The root of the issue isn’t COVID, it’s the systems in place that dehumanized education, to begin with. Why is it that we equate more work with more learning? Why do we not trust our students? Why are we believing that test scores equivocate to success? After all, when we prioritize these inhumane systems, we set up our youth for negative outcomes.
So, what can we do to counteract this? How can we build a more human-centered
classroom amidst a pandemic?
The first and most important shift is to simply ask students what they think.