Back in early August, as schools and colleges were putting some of the finishing touches on their return policies, I was making a transition of my own from public school educator to university contact tracer. The move away from the classroom was a long time coming for me, and contact tracing felt like a way to use some of my teacher skills like patience, organization, and public speaking in a way that still helped my community.
Coming into the field, I didn’t have much experience with the industry (my years in retail had focused more on logistics than customer service) and wasn’t entirely sure what I’d be getting myself into. I expected complaints of privacy violation and noncompliance, but also situations with people who were experiencing illness or hardship beyond my ability to offer meaningful help. Who was I to be telling people what to do?
And while my experiences conducting contact tracing for university students, staff, and faculty don’t reflect the entire picture of society, those experiences have taught me a lot about the relationship between public education and society at-large beyond what my classroom perspective ever could.
People Trust Expertise More Than Authority
Two of the primary ideas that I knew I wanted to carry over in my work dealt with building relationships. This may also be the aspect of public education that gets most overlooked by people on the outside. Many people carry misconceptions about teachers as merely transferring knowledge or maintaining order, discounting the amount of effort that teachers invest into learning names and personal details and individualized approaches to helping their students become successful citizens of the world.
Sure there’s also an amount of authority that goes into the work, but the more a teacher (or any authority figure) has to resort to demonstrating their power, the less effective their power becomes. One of the common expressions in the classroom is “Maslow before Bloom,” referring to addressing the essential features of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs before focusing on the educational features of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives.
It doesn’t matter how much good teaching you do if you’re teaching to students who are hungry or tired or abused.
Therefore, my first priority when talking through a quarantine plan with someone was to make sure they had a safe place with access to basic necessities — or to put them in contact with an assistance program to make sure their needs would be met. My access to this information made me more of an expert, but I was a resource rather than an authority in the way I shared that expertise.
The second aspect of relationship-building I wanted to use came to me from my time spent teaching creative writing. One of the rules I used consistently in student writing workshops was the reduction of “prescriptive” language (words like “should, must, need”). Prescriptive language suggests that there is a right way and a wrong way to do something; if I’m telling you the right way, then whatever you had been doing sounds like the wrong way.
I found that some of my more combative cases would anticipate this kind of prescriptive relationship, of having me tell them what they needed to do or what they had to do. By framing the call as a conversation about making a plan together focused on their safety and the safety of their community, they didn’t have as much to push back against.
My concerns about facing constant, aggressive pushback gave way as their concerns about buckling to an uncaring, brutish authority subsided. And because I was gaining the accumulated knowledge of all the varied quarantine situations I worked on, I had an increasing expertise to answer questions and resolve confusions or misunderstandings of policy. It’s that information — as well as a confident certainty that came with it — that most people were really looking for in the end. Not someone to tell them what they had to do, but someone to let them know what options were available to them and how to maneuver in this new situation.
Most people know how to ask for help in a classroom setting — it’s been drilled into them from childhood. I’ve learned that what’s less clear is how to ask for help once you leave school.
It’s not as simple as raising your hand.
Public Education Beyond the Classroom
The response that I always gave students when they questioned the importance of school was one of preparation to become a lifelong learner. Their high school diploma was a symbol that they were ready to take on the responsibility of learning for themselves. And that’s an answer that I still believe in. My focus in teaching my students was squarely on taking responsibility for their own learning.
But that’s not the case for public education everywhere, and it’s certainly not the case for public education throughout history.
Most of the people I work with are college students, and it’s easy for me to generalize their experiences and to make some (educated) assumptions about how they consume or process information. But I’m also responsible for working with university faculty and service staff, people whose experiences aren’t always as clear cut for me. Between watching what’s going on in the country on broadcast news programs and talking directly with some of the older members of my community through contact tracing calls, what’s become more clear is how many people are being left out or left behind.
Media literacy was a primary element of focus in my English curriculum. Distinguishing the features of different genres of text as well as relative strengths and weaknesses was central to preparing citizens of the world. But there are plenty of types of media that didn’t exist a decade or two ago, and plenty of older Americans who weren’t trained in how to navigate such a diverse landscape of information.
For a long time, we’ve been content to leave it to the various platforms and institutions to make their information digestible or intuitive to a general audience. But that would be like rescinding the Comprehensive Smoking Education Act and allowing cigarette manufacturers to draft their own version of the Surgeon General’s warnings.
We can produce intuitive COVID dashboards and extensive FAQs that address any level of concern someone might have…but if people don’t have the access or understanding to seek out that information, it does no good. Emails, text documents, digital application forms, text messages, terms and service agreements, waivers — the list goes on. And if you don’t know what to look for or how to look for it, much of that information may as well not exist.
There are also the expectations that people will have a personal computer with internet access for just about anything that it’s easy to forget about all the people who don’t.
My time spent working as a contact tracer has taught me just how much people want to have access to reliable information, but also just how many people don’t have that access. We have safeguards in place to make sure that our children receive a quality education and the help they need…but what about the help that we couldn’t have foreseen?
How does a country and a public education system address foundational changes to the way its citizens learn and think?
People want the assistance of experts in a way that respects their autonomy, but we have to find a way to make that assistance genuine and visible.