A variety of emojis over the landscape of Oakland, demonstrating the different levels of engagement among students during remote learning.

COVID and the Urban Classroom

The pandemic heightened the challenges that teachers face in urban schools. School of Education graduates are well-prepared for them.

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The Mills School of Education had already adjusted its program to better prepare teachers for the challenges of urban schools. What happens when that intersects with a pandemic?

By Rebecca Bodenheimer
Tomás Galguera

Professor Tomás Galguera is the bridge between the School of Education (SOE) faculty from before and after the turn of the millennium. Early childhood education used to underpin most SOE programming, he said, but once his older colleagues retired around the mid-2000s, there was a shift in the school’s priorities to focus more on teachers.

Galguera, who is now the chair of the SOE’s Teacher Education Department, said the faculty realized that the program “assumed a certain level of privilege, because it asked people to suspend everything they were doing for a year so they could become a teacher.” In that sense, it had a tendency to favor prospective educators who could afford to take that kind of break.

More recent faculty members have committed to making the program accessible to teachers who reflect the makeup of Oakland public school students. “We have a pretty unstable workforce in our schools, teaching primarily students of color [and] families that are grappling with financial, food, and housing insecurities. It’s such a wide conflation of challenges,” said Wendi Williams, dean of the SOE, who came to Mills in 2019. “We need schools to be places of stability, which means that we need a workforce that’s going to be there, and that can afford to be there.”

Wendi Williams

Equity is a key philosophy at the SOE—particularly issues of race, class, and cultural specificity. This dedication contrasts with a more traditional education curriculum, both for would-be teachers and their eventual students. And along with other aspects of making the program more accessible, such as offering weekend and evening courses to accommodate students with other obligations, the SOE was already planning to make the program more of a hybrid between in-person and online learning. Then, of course, the pandemic hit, and virtual learning became a necessity across the board.

In a way, the challenges the field of education has faced over the past year mirror the issues of accessibility being encountered across all levels of education—especially those that teachers find in urban K-12 classrooms, such as those that surround the College’s East Oakland neighborhood. SOE graduates reported that the same issues they were trained to handle during a regular school year have been heightened during this virtual one.

Learning from Home

One of the biggest challenges during the pandemic has been inequitable access to technology required for remote learning. (The same is true at the collegiate level; a program to help Mills students obtain iPads at steep discounts was wildly popular.) As Galguera noted, in the beginning, many K-12 families didn’t have the means to connect to the internet, and some had data plans that didn’t allow them to use video. Even now, although the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) has distributed Chromebooks and provided families with access to WiFi, some of those free internet services have expired at a time when many are struggling to put food on the table. There is also a lot of variation among teachers, Galguera added, regarding their ability to use technology—older teachers have struggled more.

At United for Success Academy, the OUSD middle school where L’aurelei Durr ’14, MA ’18, teaches, many families have struggled to obtain reliable internet access, and getting ahold of others has been difficult: “The biggest challenge was just emailing and calling kids and trying to figure out where they were,” she said.

Lauren Ashton ’13, MA ’14, currently an assistant principal at West Portal Elementary in San Francisco, pointed out that many students in urban districts like the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) and OUSD have parents who can’t necessarily sit next to them and help with homework. “They’re on their own while the parents are working,” she said.

Student engagement during remote learning is another challenge Ashton mentioned, particularly for upper elementary school students: “Those kids are smart enough, they know how to mute their mics. They know how to turn their cameras off,” so it’s difficult to keep them engaged. Similarly, Durr said, “On campus, I used to just put them in groups all the time, to work with whoever they wanted, as long as they got it done. But now, you put them in breakout rooms, and they go silent, because they don’t want to talk on Zoom.” Many students, she added, are self-conscious about showing their faces or unmuting themselves—which is a major challenge for English language learners, who need to practice speaking.

“It’s so important for kids to be talking and interacting if they’re going to develop language [skills]. And what I worry about is that distance learning can be very transmission focused,” said Laura Alvarez ’01, MA ’03, an assistant professor of bilingual and teacher education at St. Mary’s College of California. “I think that it’s really hard to figure out how to create those rich interactions.” Overall, one of the hardest things for her credential students right now, she said, is developing relationships with their own students. Since many students have their cameras off, educators are “teaching to little boxes, [so] they don’t know who’s there and who’s not there. And relationships are so central to teaching,” Alvarez added.

This overall disengagement with school is something that concerns both Durr and Galguera. As Galguera said, “A lot of kids are just sad about not hanging out with their classmates.” Without the social element, a number of students might say, “To hell with all this,’” he added.

What does an urban school district look like?
Every year, the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD)
publishes statistics on its student body. The information
below is from the 2019–2020 school year, reflecting
OUSD students before the pandemic set in. Out of:
35,938 students
902 are homeless
679 are unaccompanied immigrant youth
32.9% are English language learners
50.7% speak a language other than English at home
13.5% receive special education services
31.8% are chronically absent
71.2% are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches
72.6% graduate from high school in four years
*Source: OUSD.org

From Classroom to Classroom

Before returning for graduate work in education, Durr spent time in the AmeriCorps program, which did not emphasize the equity issues that were the hallmark of her master’s program at Mills. At the SOE, “there was a heavy emphasis on making sure that all students get what they need to succeed,” she said, adding that the College’s focus on racial justice and centering student voices has deeply influenced her teaching to this day. Durr also found the attention to inquiry and action research to be a novel method she hadn’t been exposed to in her undergraduate education.

Alvarez agreed with Durr, saying that her time at Mills was foundational, particularly the emphasis on social justice and student-centered education that is responsive to the needs of students and their community. While Alvarez now mentors educators-in-training at St. Mary’s, she also taught in OUSD schools for 12 years.

As a 2003 graduate with her master’s in teaching, she caught the very beginning of a broader shift in the School of Education’s philosophy and curriculum undergirding both the undergraduate and postgraduate (credential and master’s) programs. As Galguera noted, the guiding principles of urban education are “our serious and genuine concern for social justice and an almost obsession with an antiracist and culturally and linguistically inclusive kind of approach—one that really questions the dominant ideologies and paradigms—as well as a sincere love and caring for the kids.”

At the heart of this equity-driven approach, Galguera added, is an inquiry stance and practice, i.e., using empirical evidence to guide decisions as educators: “You really have to gather data and find out how your teaching favors some students over others.” As an example, he feels that code-switching, or the way in which those from non-dominant cultures switch back and forth between different dialects to accommodate their circumstances, is “an oppressive and deficit mindset because the way [they’re] speaking is not acceptable in the classroom.” Instead, he encourages “code-meshing,” explaining: “These kids have such amazing linguistic resources. Why don’t they tap into some of them and create a hybrid, something different that is even better than just ‘academic language’?”

Nonetheless, Galguera is a realist. He recognizes that teachers have to balance cultural inclusivity with the real-world constraints and needs of mainstream education, and that they’re going to have to deal with this contradiction: “Do you teach your students to be successful in the rotten, unfair, biased world we live in, with standardized testing and all of those things? Or do you teach your students to change the world into something that’s better, more democratic, more caring?” The answer, he said, is both.

The teaching credential program has now been revamped as “Educators for Liberation, Justice, and Joy” and is designed for teachers who have to work while earning their credential. “We feel like joy has been really left out of the conversation with regards to learning, particularly when we talk about ‘urban schools,’” Williams said. “We have to bring that laughter and joy back.”

Faculty members also want to make explicit their commitment to addressing racism and anti-Blackness, and issues of gender and class. Thus, they have decided to integrate urban education better into the undergraduate major, and to rename it “Critical Studies in Education,” which will incorporate critical race theory and other approaches informed by experiences of marginalization. And, Williams added, they want their programs to center on the fundamental humanity of both the teachers themselves and the children they teach. She views this move as counteracting the “technocratic perspective” of education that sees students and teachers as interchangeable widgets.

What Happens After?

There has been some preliminary research on the predicted long-term effects of the pandemic and remote learning on educational outcomes and academic achievement. English language learners and Black and Latino students, who are disproportionately represented in large, urban school districts, will likely face the highest toll.

While both Williams and Ashton echoed this concern, Ashton said, “I would hate for that to be what teachers focus on when we come back in person,” feeling that the social-emotional toll is a more important long-term effect. Alvarez also noted that a myopic focus on learning loss would be harmful: “I’m worried that what’s going to happen is a really back-to-basics remediation for kids of color, for English learners, for students who are seen as ‘struggling.’” She predicts that testing will focus on how many months of school a child has lost, and the solution will involve “a bunch of really boring, disrespectful, non-compelling curriculum thrown at [them] instead of something that’s rich and rigorous and inviting.”

And then there are the economics of schools’ recovery from the pandemic, Ashton pointed out: “I know that based on the amount of money SFUSD has spent on distance learning, we’re probably going to see some really big budget cuts, which is not what we want to see when we’re hoping to hire a reading or a math interventionist to support us with coming back from distance learning.” Beyond the problems students are facing, Durr is also concerned about teacher burnout because of how difficult and time-consuming the challenges of remote learning have been, as well as the safety concerns of going back to school in-person.

Williams and Galguera are somewhat hopeful about other lasting impacts of the pandemic. Williams noted that teachers and unions have successfully emphasized how difficult teaching was prior to the pandemic—something that has simply been made more visible to the wider public: “I feel like it’s interesting that they have been called essential, because we just haven’t treated them like they’re essential. We’ve treated them pretty disrespectfully.” She hopes that when the pandemic is over, policymakers and the public will be more responsive to the needs of educators.

I feel like it’s interesting that [teachers] have been called essential because we just haven’t treated them like they’re essential.

-School of Education Dean Wendi Williams

“Kids will be happy to be back in school, and that will make for some good initial times, but then things could go back to normal,” Galguera said. He hopes some of the online innovations that teachers and school districts have been forced to implement become a more regular part of pedagogy. Describing education as a conservative profession, he said, “You’d be surprised how many chalkboards there are still out there in schools. The ways we do teaching haven’t really changed much at all for centuries.” He hopes the use of technology will now be more normalized.

Finally, he worries that the educational inequities that have been made visible during the pandemic, and how they affect the students themselves, will be forgotten: “Unfortunately, humans have a sort of a collective memory that resembles how we deal with chewing gum. You know, we chew it for as long as it has flavor, and then we spit it out.”