Dear Students: We Are Strong as a Community, Even When Distant

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The last six months have been tumultuous to say the least — for the world at large, for our local communities, and also for schools of education, like the one I lead, that are preparing a new generation of educators who will help respond to this current crisis. As plans have changed, academic programs have been disrupted, and we’ve grappled with worry over our immediate prospects and for the long-term health of our families, we have all shared uncertainty, fear, anger, and disappointment. But we come together at the beginning of the academic year to start afresh, to begin something new.

As you settle into your journey in education this year, know that this is new for each and every faculty and staff member, too. I urge you to consider several things that might help guide your experience this year.

But first, I’m struck by something an old friend of mine from graduate school posted on social media:

“We may limit ourselves if we stick to the notion that a university is a spot on a map rather than a group of people.”

Stated another way, we are selling ourselves short if we only think of a university as a place — a spot on a map, a seat in a lecture hall — rather than as a group of dedicated, talented people sharing a mission to improve education. So even though many of us — especially at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where I serve as Dean — may be physically apart this year, let us not be socially distant. This is the time to think boldly and expansively. Education needs us — the field needs you.

Millions of children have been out of school for months, and early studies suggest that the learning loss has been severe, especially for those with special needs. Add to that the fact that millions have gone without regular access to the food and health care provided by schools, without the safety of adult supervision and after-school programs, and without reliable internet connectivity or access to learning tools.

The effects of this will be felt for a generation. There will be no return to “normal” anytime soon. And I don’t know that returning to “normal” should ever be the goal. From our youngest preschoolers to our adult students, “normal” meant major gaps in opportunity, achievement, and success that limited potential and wellbeing for generations of learners.

And globally, while there has been a great expansion in primary education, attending school is not a guarantee of learning, and hundreds of millions of children still cannot read or write. Does that sound like something to aspire to return to?

This moment has underscored more than ever that so many have experienced exclusion, marginalization, and injustice simply because of the color of their skin or some other part of their identity. We need to do far better than what has been considered the status quo or “normal” in society.

So, what is going to be your contribution — or, better, our contribution? What are we going to do together as an education community? Many of you are already making your mark by helping those around you — what do you want to set your sights on next?

Know that anything is possible when a set of dedicated, talented people come together to pursue a common mission. The last several months have underscored just how essential education and schools are to society, and this is an especially critical time, with a flurry of new ideas, new collaborations, and renewed calls for investing in education. What if this is a time like no other — when we imagine something new for our students, their families, and ourselves?

As you embark on your journey, let’s start by considering what hasn’t changed — faculty, students, and staff are all working together and wrestling with important issues in education. But this year, when remote learning may be likely for some or all of the year, opens up new experiences and new opportunities not previously possible. When we are learning remotely, we are not as constrained by time and space. We can be much more flexible because we are not beholden to logistical constraints.

No matter where you are this year, and no matter whether local conditions are keeping you home or allowing for some in-person, if physically distant, experiences, you can still actively engage with the world around you. You are embedded in communities around the world. Bring what you see into the classroom, whether it’s virtual or physical. Bring the problems of practice you are grappling with to your discussions. Let us work on them together. Let us share research and expertise but also the lessons learned across the many communities you inhabit. Together, you represent a massive network of educators.

So what will we do together? This is the question I want you to explore, starting today. None of us alone has all the answers, but we can work together, and with those in our many, many communities, we can chart a new course for education.

Students, families, colleagues, leaders, and communities — are desperate for solutions to some of the largest problems in education, and I am optimistic, because of all of you. So let’s see what we can do to improve education and our world — together.

Dean and Saris Professor of Education and Economics at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.