Grateful and Frustrated

Devin Vodicka

This was originally posted to on June 21, 2020.

I am so grateful.  I am so frustrated.  Such an odd mix and such an odd experience.  

Let me start with gratitude.  I am grateful to be alive.  I am grateful to be healthy.  I am grateful for my family and especially grateful to have been able to spend more time with my family during this era of Coronavirus.  I am grateful to have a job that allows me to be creative and supportive.  I am grateful to have a job that is focused on empowering all learners by shifting the educational system to one which recognizes and values the uniqueness of every student.  

I am grateful for the ingenuity and resilience of so many.  My own daughter, a very recent high school graduate, has been incredibly flexible and adaptable when confronted with loss and social isolation that could have been demoralizing.  My son has discovered new talents, including a special french toast recipe and cycling, which may have gone unnoticed without the disruption of school closures and normal activities.  

I am grateful for educators who have been generous and creative.  Communities have rapidly resolved device access and internet connectivity gaps that were perceived to be insurmountable obstacles before COVID-19.  It’s become clear to all that schools do much more than academic instruction, as continuity of meal service has been a challenge and a huge success across the country.  The scope of the need with so many of our children living in poverty has become apparent to many who may have previously been shielded from that harsh reality.  

I am grateful for educators who have found ways to connect with students and to reinvent traditions such as graduation ceremonies.  I am grateful that we have moved away from seat time and standardized testing.  I am grateful that colleges are reimagining admissions requirements.  

I am grateful for the recent “awakening” to the persistence of racism and racial injustice in our society. I am grateful that so many – including myself – are shifting from a passive, not-racist orientation to an active, anti-racist mode of being.  I am grateful that there was greater recognition of Juneteenth this year.  I am grateful that many are realizing that we in education must do a better job of ensuring that all of us understand how our history continues to influence longstanding inequalities that must be urgently addressed. 

And yet I am frustrated.  I am frustrated that it has taken a global pandemic to trigger many of these long overdue changes.  I am frustrated that the progress is unevenly distributed and that there are still so many children who are struggling with poverty, with a lack of connectivity that impedes their ability to connect and learn, and who are not benefitting from the creative problem-solving that we see in many communities.  

I am frustrated that the pace of change when it comes to addressing fundamental issues such as racism is so slow.  Our organization held a learning conversation on Friday where a team member led us through the works of WEB DuBois and his commentary from over a century ago remains timely and relevant.  Why, why, why does it take so long for us to be humane, just, kind, and compassionate to all? 

In addition to racial inequality, we also have massive gender inequality.  This gender inequality is particularly pronounced in K-12 education, a field in which the vast majority of workers are women and one in which the vast majority of superintendents are men.  While I have likely benefited from male privilege, I am frustrated that we are seeing very little change in the ongoing and unfair systems and practices that create uneven access and opportunities for women.  

I am frustrated – as both a parent and as an educational leader – that we still do not have meaningful plans for how we will provide a meaningful educational experience for all students next year.  While it is understandable that we are continuing to learn about the spread of COVID-19, some of the factors leading to the uncertainty have to do with financial instability and the likelihood that costs will increase while revenues will decline.  Our disjointed system, which largely relies on local and state taxes to provide the resources for education, is resulting (again) in widespread variation that is likely to increase inequality.  This disjointed system also does not include sufficient incentives for collaborative approaches that could generate greater efficiencies.  As a result, right now we see 15,000+ school districts scrambling to address monumental challenges with varying levels of support and connectedness across communities.  There must be a better way.  

The confluence of these conditions leads me to believe that we need the equivalent of a Manhattan Project for K-12 Education.  We need it right now. Why are we not conducting convenings to quickly generate collective solutions and to resource implementation across the US to reduce inequalities, thereby ensuring that future generations are equipped to address rapidly evolving challenges? I can count on my fingers the number of weeks that are left before the start of the next school year.  While we’ve done some of this organically, we need to be doing this now on a much wider scale and with much greater urgency. 

Given the funding landscape in K-12 education, it is going to take stimulus funding from the US Department of Education to fill some of the obvious gaps in schools.  The orientation of the current administration makes it unlikely that a centralized approach will be embraced that leverages some of the potential efficiencies of that model.  If so, then I would propose a weighted funding formula with multiplier incentives to shift to learner-centered models such as student goal-setting, whole-child outcomes, competency-based assessment, and authentic/interdisciplinary experiences.  

I am grateful.  I am frustrated.  For me, the path forward is introspection and learning.  For us, the path forward must be relationship and community.  We must love and respect one another.  We must be grateful. 

I will conclude with wisdom from James Baldwin who reminds me that we can love one another unless our disagreement is rooted in oppression, denial of humanity, and right to exist.  I look forward to a world where the right to exist is a given, where our humanity is recognized and celebrated, and where we understand that oppression for one is injustice for all.  Public education must be an accelerant to this better future and I am hopeful that we will lean into challenges, embrace urgency, and work together.  

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