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“Why didn’t you list that among our assets?” –Pandemic Education and Mindsets

It is tempting these days to focus on the challenges to learning in a pandemic. They are real, significant, unequally distributed across families, and all the more reason for people to keep the masks on, wash their hands, and make it so that educators and families all over the country can go back to our pre-pandemic level of exhausting, rewarding effort on behalf of our kids.

Yet the forward momentum we seek in education will come from a disciplined focus elsewhere: on our assets. And in recent weeks, we’ve had several sources of inspiration remind us how important this mindset is.

First, it may be helpful to review this important text on assets:

Lots of educators and parents can probably identify with Westley, the strong hero hobbled by circumstances beyond his control, needing to storm a castle and rescue his love. Against such odds, encouragement to look on the bright side can warrant a well-aimed side-eye, as when Fezzick notes to the temporarily paralyzed Westley, “You just shook your head! That doesn’t make you happy?” And Westley replies, “My brains, his steel, and your strength against an army of 60 men and you think a little head jiggle is supposed to make me happy? Hmm?”

Yet–spoiler alert–rather than cower in the face of daunting obstacles, including his own physical weakness, Westley keeps identifying assets that might help. And with a wheelbarrow, a creative plan, and a little luck, Westley and his sidekicks pull off the save.

The ability to seek and identify assets where others focus only on liabilities isn’t just the stuff of the Princess Bride; it is the essence of how progress happens. And as one of our guiding lights, Trabian Shorters, explains, how we think about our communities’ assets from the start is essential to the just outcomes that organizations like ours seek. “Our premise is that defining people by their aspirations and contributions is essential before acknowledging their challenges and investing in them for their continued benefit to society.”

Education is, at its core, people. It is students and parents, teachers, leaders, and policy makers. Awash in new vocabulary and modalities–synchronous, asynchronous, remote learning, hybrid–as well as the challenges they bring on, we must continue to see the people in the midst of these processes–the “aspirations and contributions,” as Trabian puts it, that all bring to this moment of building a future we cannot see.

Partnership parents are reminding us vividly about “asset framing” one snapshot at a time. Together with our teachers and leaders, parents are navigating some hurdles to establish powerful remote learning routines in those households not yet ready to join us for in-person instruction. While social media is full of exhausted parents across the country venting about learning at home–and we’re still working on refining it too–Partnership parents are also showing off the work spaces they have created for kids, and with it their determination to focus on the learning that parents, kids, and our schools are together making happen, one repurposed space at a time:

This week, The New York Times talked to Partnership parent Valerie Cruz about the travails of online learning. While Ms. Cruz faced obstacles–getting internet access was a significant struggle for her in the spring–what comes through in the article is a mother determined for her son to maximize both his health and his education, digging deep to make it happen, and determined to move forward with positivity even as worries linger.

As reporter Shira Ovide notes, “Like many parents, Cruz is dealing with a tough situation and making it work. She said that the school had been supportive, and that Brian liked the independence of online learning.” And as Ms. Cruz also notes, “His teachers are in constant touch.” Like efforts to storm a castle, remote learning takes the efforts and skills of many.

It’s not just parents’ and teachers’ solution-seeking that reminds us to focus on assets. BlocPower is a Brooklyn-based tech start-up installing high-speed, modest-cost internet access in South Bronx neighborhoods like Ms. Cruz’s that do not have the same high-speed access as other parts of the city. We profiled their efforts, along with community organization South Bronx Churches, in this Partnership Post.

When we spoke to co-founder Keith Kinch, Business Development Manager Ian Harris, and VP of Engineering Dash Abhishek a few weeks ago, the network they are building in neighborhoods where Partnership families live was our focus. By now, it’s easy to forget the technical details of the conversation. But one element of their work has echoed louder in the weeks since.

Keith, Ian, Dash and the rest of the BlocPower team were even more eager to talk about the neighborhoods’ assets than they were about the network they are building there. They see workers eager to find employment, and needing better online access to do that. They see future technicians for building networks like the one they’re installing. Neighborhoods like the South Bronx have been passed over for high-speed internet because the nation’s largest internet service providers see only a profit risk when they look at them. BlocPower sees opportunity.

BlocPower’s mindset–to see valuable people and opportunities where others see only risk–is the kind of vision crucial for making progress. It is the kind of vision that made Church leaders build schools in immigrant neighborhoods over a hundred years ago. Indeed, bishops like New York’s “Dagger” John Hughes called for schools to be built before churches–a recognition, among other things, of the most powerful asset for the future of an entire community.

While the challenges all schools face with both online and in-person learning are significant, they are dwarfed by the inherent dignity, fierce and creative effort, and vibrancy of communities. Disciplining ourselves to keep seeing that incomparable worth is as important in coming months as ever.