Why “urgency” is harmful for kids

In this month’s thought piece, my co-founder Erin Raab describes the 5 design principles to foster human flourishing and democratic citizenship in schools. One of the 5 design principles is slack, the feeling that you have more than you need of a resource. Slack is intended to offset the effects of scarcity, or the feeling that there is never enough.

“There is never enough time in the day.” Time is commonly listed as the top constraint in schools. With an increased focus in the last decade on closing achievement gaps and “college and career ready” standards, teachers and leaders feel an increased sense of urgency to perform. In fact, a “sense of urgency” is often listed as an explicit value or mindset needed to improve low-income schools. And while this feeling of urgency is valid in many ways — low-income students and students of color continue to academically lag behind their affluent and white peers — creating a sense of urgency may actually be impeding the kind of deep learning and development that our most disadvantaged students need the most.

When I was a Kindergarten teacher, I had to prepare and execute over six lesson plans in a given day. Whole group reading, small group reading, phonics, writing, math, English Language Development, science/social studies — all of this needed to get done between 7:45am and 3:15pm. In between my lessons was a planning period: 50 minutes every day spent in a flurry of data or planning meetings, furiously making copies, and scarfing down my lunch. Every lesson had to be planned down to the minute to ensure I could fit it all in, which meant that if something took us off track (Kindergarteners getting off track…who could imagine??), I was filled with dread and panic about missing the learning objective and failing my students.

Like when one of my students, Abigail, told me that the book we were reading reminded her of when her abuela died. I stood there blank-faced, not knowing how to engage. In the moment, I quickly said something along the lines of “I’m sorry to hear that Abigail,” and then moved on with the rest of the lesson to identify the beginning, middle, and end of the story. Abigail nodded her head and stared down at the carpet for the rest of the lesson.

“Despite the fact that learning happens best when we are able to explore, dialogue, and make meaning together, we create schedules for teachers that cut time short and therefore limit the depth of our learning experiences and compassion.”

When we experience scarcity — of time, money, or relationships — our brains cannot effectively make decisions. We become less thoughtful and compassionate. Despite the fact that learning happens best when we are able to explore, dialogue, and make meaning together, we create schedules for teachers that cut time short and therefore limit the depth of our learning experiences and compassion. Moments like the one with Abigail are often called “teachable moments.” I could have engaged Abigail and the rest of the class in a rich dialogue about love and loss and built understanding around a shared experience. I think that would have been a better lesson for my students to learn than identifying the beginning, middle, and end of the story.

When we experience scarcity, we are tempted to ignore the pain of a little girl mourning the loss of a family member for the sake of the learning objective. This feeling of urgency comes from a good place — our schools need to rapidly improve at serving our students of color. However, packing more into our days and years is not the answer. The answer is creating space for authentic moments of compassion and learning so that we can create communities of belonging, love, and learning.

Believer in a more just and fair society - through education.

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