Educators Need to Deal with Reality by Facing, Analyzing, and then Changing Reality:
The Damage Done When We Ignore, Lie About, Misinterpret, Sugar-Coat, or Surrealize Reality
“Happy” New Year. . .
If you work anywhere near Education, I’m not sure how “happy” it is.
Indeed, if you read the popular press. . . alongside the educational press. . . we are starting 2022 with any number of potential, continuing, or daunting challenges.
- The Pandemic continues to affect whether schools should remain open, and how to best educate our students in this context. . .
- Student attendance remains down, and students’ social-emotional engagement (at school or virtually) is tenuous at best. . .
- The need for racial equity and social justice remains, but now there are “controls” over who can say what about race and related issues in the classroom. . .
- Many students have academic readiness and proficiency gaps, and the debates persist relative to how to accurately measure and effectively close these gaps. . .
- Teachers’ (and their colleagues’) health, mental health, and wellness is stained, creating administrative challenges that undermine the continuity and effectiveness of instruction. . .
- Even in the presence of emergency federal funds, the personnel, supports, and interventions to ensure positive school climate and safety, effective classroom discipline and management, and multi-tiered social-emotional services are not available to match the need of students (and staff).
And just this week, adding more pressure to our “educational crockpot,” the CDC publicized another confusing, mixed-message guidance on COVID exposure and quarantining, and our country marked the one-year anniversary of the insurrection at the Capitol complete with the ongoing denials by some in the media and our communities that it actually occurred.
And this latter situation is the topic of today’s Blog: the potential damage when we ignore, lie about, misinterpret, sugar-coat, or surrealize reality.
The Impact on Students and Staff When Reality is Ignored or Altered
With all of the issues above, and our collective experiences over the past five years, it is still mystifying that reality and objectivity continues to be so strained.
I addressed this relative to students earlier this week (January 4, 2022) in a radio interview on Education Talk Radio with Larry Jacobs.
In a session titled Discussing Race and Individual Differences with Your Students, the primary thesis of the program was that—when you directly talk with and listen to students of different cultural, economic, political, religious, and gender identification backgrounds—they too are mystified that:
- Their need to discuss and understand the similarities and differences of the students taking notes in the desks next to them is so controversial at a national, state (legislative), and local level; and
- This need has been dismissed in some states and districts across the country and, therefore, has been unaddressed in their schools and classrooms.
Jacobs promoted the radio program with a very nice endorsement saying, listen to “our resident expert in school psychology, Dr. Howie Knoff, with his incredible insights on what matters to students and teachers in these crazy days, and how to deal with it all.”
You can listen to this 35-minute program for free at the following link:
[CLICK HERE to Link to our January 4 Education Talk Radio Interview]
The “take-away” from the radio program is that when we, as educators, ignore (or are forced to ignore) the realities in the Introduction to this Blog and as discussed during the program:
- Our students feel invalidated and also ignored;
- They miss discussing and reconciling difficult issues—some that do not have simple or single solutions; and
- They are potentially unprepared to address these issues now with peers and, later, in the community and at work after graduation.
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Relative to adults and educators, there are similar and additional outcomes when told to ignore, lie about, misinterpret, sugar-coat, or “surrealize” objective reality—for example, about the Pandemic, race relations and individual differences, politics and history, and school and schooling processes.
Some of these outcomes include:
- Students receive no, diluted, inaccurate, or biased information in the classroom.
- When told to ignore or sugar-coat reality, some educators feel professionally slighted and disrespected, and/or they become anxious, conflicted, or defiant as they, nonetheless, decide to still share different realities accurately in classroom or school discussions—regardless of state legislation, district regulation, or administrator declaration.
- When told lies or misinterpretations that match their attitudes, beliefs, or expectations, some educators may become (further) empowered or emboldened, and/or their beliefs may become even further entrenched and resistant to change.
- When “alternative realities” are promoted or endorsed—especially by respected colleagues, some educators may be thrown into a surreal state of confusion or crisis that tests their professional (and/or personal) grounding, equilibrium, objectivity, moral compass, or ethical interactions.
None of these outcomes are positive or productive.
And some of these outcomes help explain why so many teachers, administrators, and support staff are resigning from their positions and leaving education altogether.
More on the Sugar-Coating of Reality: The Impact on Staff
As an international presenter, one of my primary goals is to give the individuals in my audience the knowledge and skills needed to strengthen their confidence and motivation, so that they can return to their professional settings with the plans and ability to change their behavior and interactions on behalf of students and colleagues.
And while I hope I am motivational, I do not:
- Pump my colleagues up into a false emotional frenzy;
- Ask them to blindly, idealistically, or unrealistically take actions that are unproven, unattainable, or uncertain relative to their success; and
- I do not avoid, ignore, or sugar-coat reality.
Too many conference (and in-service) speakers present simply to be inspirational, motivational, or aspirational. They are more interested in enhancing the “emotionality of change,” rather than the functional steps and processes that result in change.
In the end, any “results” they accrue are short-lived. Their presentations often turn out to be exercises in escapism.
Unfortunately, some educational leaders—in their districts or schools—practice the same way. And when their emotional (but largely substance-thin) “can-do” messages are over, they sometimes leave staff members worse off (or more jaded) than when they started.
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In fact, over the past few months, articles in the professional press have discussed and applied False or Toxic Positivity to the educational arena.
False Positivity occurs when, for example schools experience challenges that are inherently stressful or emotional, and their respective leaders “put on a positive or courageous face” in order to help (or manipulate) staff to (a) cope and maintain emotional control; (b) plan and act in behaviorally beneficial ways; and/or (c) change their perceptions of reality in an attempt to actually change reality.
All things being equal, however, False Positivity can be organizationally, interpersonally, and even psychologically harmful.
Indeed, when I have seen district and school administrators practice False Positivity with their staff, students, and parents. . . they are often concurrently ignoring the reality-based issues, emotions, and stressors embedded in the challenges. This results in heightened or more intense emotions and stress, because (a) needed interventions are not provided; (b) people’s feelings are invalidated; and (c) those who “buy-in” to the False Positivity feel even more incompetent or hopeless when things (predicably) do not change.
Toxic Positivity, meanwhile, works at the extremes. Here, we not only ignore stress, but we also reject or deny the stress and our emotions—telling ourselves to focus only on the positive.
In schools, this occurs—for example—when administrators remind teachers to “take care of themselves,” but then (a) evaluate staff on where they are on pre-Pandemic academic pacing templates, and pre-Pandemic benchmarks of student proficiency; (b) load teachers up with extra meetings and responsibilities (to address some of the challenges discussed earlier); (c) micro-analyze how teachers are covering topics that relate to race, culture, and politics; and (d) once again, arrange professional development sessions led by “motivational” speakers who encourage, in essence, a toxic positivity mindset.
Parenthetically, these presenters often have no clue as to what teachers and other educators have experienced (and are experiencing) due to the Pandemic and the current political zeitgeist, or they believe that their presentations will have some kind of long-term positive impact on their ability to cope and move on (which, we’ve established, they do not).
What Do We Need to Do?
Metaphorically: Educational leaders need to take the “NASA (yes—the National Aeronautics and Space Administration) Approach” to planning and executing strategies to address some of the present challenges that have breached the schoolhouse door. . . especially those described in this Blog message.
The NASA Approach to strategic planning has four important component parts:
- Consider and plan for what needs to happen so that everything can go right, and consider and plan for all of the possible things that can go wrong so their impact—if they occur—can be isolated, minimized, and quickly resolved;
- Build back-up or “redundant” systems into your “hardware and software” so that safety nets are immediately available to seamlessly close any gaps if a primary system falters or fails;
- Train staff, before beginning an initiative or intervention, in the implementing both the primary and secondary systems, and how to effectively respond under conditions of emotionality or emergency; and
- Know your available resources and assets—especially when your primary resources or assets have not succeeded or are not available.
To expand briefly. When planning and training, NASA spends equal amount of time identifying and planning for what might go wrong during a mission than on what needs to happen to make everything right.
Given this, they build their hardware (e.g., rockets, satellites, telescopes, space capsules) with back-up or redundant systems in case one or more primary systems fail. They also have back-up software or redundantly-programmed computer systems in case a computer goes down, is hacked, or becomes incapacitated due to system-level problems.
Next, NASA runs its astronauts, technicians, and other support personnel through never-ending trainings and simulations—to ensure absolute readiness before they are ready launch. Clearly, in the case of an actual emergency in space, all of the primary and secondary hardware needs to be on board, the primary and back-up software needs to be immediately available, and all personnel need to be prepared to instantaneously coordinate their efforts in fluid and productive way.
Finally, even when an unanticipated emergency occurs, the astronauts and ground personnel need to know what resources are available so that the right professionals can be deployed and the right solutions can quickly be identified and implemented.
Here, from the movie Apollo 13, is what I mean.
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While I know that some schools and districts are stressed because they do not have the personnel available to address their most critical needs or problems, administrators still need to use the NASA Approach to best address their needs on a short-term and long-term basis.
But, to circle back to some of this Blog’s primary concerns, some of these needs or problems—especially those related to (a) students’ social-emotional support; (b) students’ desire to learn about and discuss issues related to race, politics, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, and mental health; and (c) schools’ need to address issues related to racial equity and social justice—do not exist due to personnel gaps or the unavailability of funds.
Indeed, in many schools, there are enough people—the gap is in how they are used. And with federal funds available to address the Pandemic, in many schools, the money is there—the gap is in how it is allocated.
Ultimately, one outcome of not facing, analyzing, and changing the challenges and realities in our schools today is that staff—due to the poor quality of their professional lives, and how this impacts their personal lives, just give up. In fact, teachers and administrators are leaving (or want to leave) their jobs right now in devastatingly record numbers. As this occurs, the staffing problem worsens, student challenges compound, and the change process becomes more convoluted and less likely.
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These issues will not be solved by avoiding reality, playing safe in how and what we prioritize and target for change, and being timid relative to strategies and solutions.
We need to be courageous. We need to have high and realistic expectations. And we need to plan effectively for what needs to go right, and for what might go wrong.
With all of the polarized political, Pandemic, and pressurized issues and challenges facing education right now, this Blog encourages districts and schools to analyze, prioritize, strategize, and recognize that these issues will not go away or be solved by putting our collective “heads in the sand.”
From a “formal” political perspective, educational leaders need to follow state law, but they also need to read those laws.
Education-related laws, many times, are written in such vague or open-ended ways that districts tend to interpret them conservatively—to avoid any chance of questions or audits, for example, by a state department of education.
At other times, the laws are interpreted inaccurately—sometimes due to naivete, inexperience, or to conform to pre-existing biases.
From an “informal” political perspective, educational leaders need make student-centered decisions that are based on sound science, equity, and the common good— even in the face of small pockets of parent, school board, or community pressure. But this, once again, sometimes does not occur.
Either way, when reality is passively ignored or actively manipulated, students can be negatively impacted. One example of this was discussed earlier as students shared their frustrations when they were not allowed to formally discuss issues related to race and individual differences at school.
This Blog also discussed the impact of false and toxic positivity when staff are asked to help implement strategies and solutions for significant student, staff, school, and system challenges.
To this, we briefly added the importance of educational leaders having high and realistic expectations.
When educators have high and unrealistic expectations, in addition to using false or toxic positivity to “motivate” their staffs, success is unlikely to occur.
At a first level, success is unlikely because the expectations are unrealistic right from the start. But at a second level, the additional layer of toxic positivity typically creates staff stress, frustration, and even helplessness—especially when they go “all in” to an initiative, project, or intervention that eventually crashes and burns.
When educators have high and realistic expectations, use the NASA Approach, carefully plan the stages and steps needed for success while simultaneously preparing and training for how to respond when initiatives get off-track, everyone knows that they are going “into battle” prepared and with their “eyes wide open.”
In the end, we do a disservice to students and staff when we ignore, lie about, misinterpret, sugar-coat, or surrealize reality. Educators need to deal with reality by facing reality.
Clearly, given the challenges in education today, this is not going to be an easy journey. But let’s load our backpacks with the supplies needed for progress, productivity, and proficiency. But let’s also avoid those who want to load our backpacks with rocks—making the journey far more treacherous than it ought to be.
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As we begin this new year and start a new semester, I hope that these thoughts are helpful to you. Significantly, we are only half-way through the school year. There is plenty of time to make the mid-course corrections needed to make this an incredibly successful school year.
If I can help you in any way, please do not hesitate to contact me. Please also feel free to review the many resources on the Project ACHIEVE website (www.projectachieve.info). These resources are the result of work that we have done in thousands of schools across the country over the past 40 years. Please use the lessons that we have learned over time to benefit your students, staff, schools, and other professional settings.