Personalization Requires Equity and an Agile Approach

I am one of the hundreds of millions of people who could not have imagined in August 2019 that their lives would be so shaken fewer than twelve months later. The personal and socio-economic devastation has been catastrophic, though there may be hope that this situation will expose the inadequacies, inequalities, and injustices of a global system that does not always provide space for kindness. We can sense anti-establishmentarian sentiments take hold in ourselves, our communities, and in countries far away. No matter our political affiliations, the turbulence we are  witnessing uncovers the global struggle that gathers forces that may or may not always immediately recognize their common interests, but all come from a desire to change the world. The Black Lives Matter movement, in my opinion, shares many links to the fight against climate disruption, gender inequality, animal rights, post-colonial economic servitude, and consumerism.

Bringing the conversation down to my own experiences, these past five months have been a whirlwind of trials. My wife, two children, and I were in 24-hour lockdown for three months in Riyadh. We left Saudi Arabia on an unofficial flight to Europe and shortly thereafter we contracted COVID. We are all recovered now and have been moving from place to place as the weeks go by while we try to navigate the administrative requirements to get to Thailand. Sometimes we had to scramble for accommodations because our plans fell through hours before. Whilst this requires resilience, it also nurtures empathy, humility, and connectedness as I appreciate that so many people have it worse. 

I am most grateful for my children’s flexibility, open-mindedness, and patience during this period of transition. They’re living out of suitcases as well and don’t have much of a sense as to what next week will bring anymore than we do. For the past five months, they have had to go with the flow and have have kept their moods and spirits up. I would even argue that they have never matured so quickly, have never been happier, and have never gotten along so well. From the anecdotal evidence that I have gathered, they’re not alone. Lots of children have thrived as much as the adults who have newfound freedom in the flexibility and balance of working remotely. During this crisis, we have had to reflect upon how we interact with ourselves and others.

In schools, we are bound to come into situations where a student needs care, whether it be in regards to academic, personal, or social issues. In each of these situations, the context and the individual are unique and our thinking and approach have to be tailored to the particularities of the situation if we are to ensure equity and, most importantly, a long-lasting positive outcome for that student. We need flexibility in thinking and approach. We need to push ourselves to find the most caring and supportive solution for the child. This is, of course, also the case with colleagues. This must be a community-wide approach.

Sometimes this means pausing to understand and appreciate the context. Sometimes this means trusting our gut and doing what’s right for the child, providing equity rather than equality, whereas equality is providing the same level of opportunity and assistance to all and equity is providing various levels of support and assistance depending on specific needs or abilities.  Sometimes this means capitalizing on relationships, which we can’t do unless we have already invested the time to build those relationships beforehand. The personalization upon which so many schools want to base their pedagogy requires equity in the sense that it is about providing the learner with the experience they need to grow at the pace and challenge they need. 

Personalization goes beyond the curriculum. It is a holistic approach that sees the child (or adult!) as existing in a world where learning is everywhere and the opportunity to provide guidance (or release it!) and think about connecting interests, challenge, and opportunities, never stops. The approach that I have had with my children for the past five months is the reflection of the particular circumstances in which we live and is organic, within the boundaries of our family culture. We are being agile in the way we live and handle issues and opportunities. There is no set of rules, we have to adapt with what comes at us and adjust accordingly.

This has been the case of hundreds of millions of people in the world. This has certainly been the case of teachers, students, and parents. Everyone has a story. The lockdown and the need to teach remotely has meant that we have had to learn and adapt in ways that are unique to us and our contexts. Similarly, we can approach a child’s learning as a journey that goes beyond the curriculum.

Of course, equity means there is some kind of consistency and flying by the seat of our pants isn’t always desirable. I am not suggesting that we get rid, for instance, of policy handbooks, which play a central role in school life. For one, there’s a question of accountability and handbooks provide security in terms of consequences. If an educator responds to a student’s needs based on their instinct and the outcome is (perceived as) less than positive, the liability issues would be tremendous—though clearly that may be less important than the welfare of the child. Policy handbooks are also, in theory, the product outcome of specialists and practitioners who have had the time to think and debate processes, which should lead to decisions with higher potential for positive outcomes than those of someone who may not have the appropriate training, thinking about how to respond to a student while under stress. Policy handbooks also help build culture and should ensure consistency, hopefully in a spirit of equity rather than equality. Policy handbooks provide consistency and communication for schools. They bring everyone together and set a purpose and a direction. They reflect values and culture. They are important as organic documents in themselves.

I am suggesting that we appreciate every interaction as a unique chance to guide a student through their own opportunities and problems. In fact, more often than not we should let the child guide us. I am suggesting that, without breaking the rules or violating equity, we open our minds up to creative possibilities. Not only may this have an immediate positive impact on the child, but it is that from which relationships are built and trust established. If the student feels the adult has their best interest in mind, anything is possible. This is where an agile approach come in.

Other than Charlotte, the educator who has had the most impact on my life was Cary R. I had the fortune to attend a workshop that Cary led and I overcame my shyness to introduce myself because I felt his talk answered many questions I had had for a while. We kept in touch as we were setting up our program at the school and, to make a long story short, Cary agreed to teach and be an advisor at our school. I was very excited at the time, but didn’t realize then how much I would learn from Cary as an educator and as a human.

Cary cared about the students and he was all about relationships. He made them feel respected, listened to, and cared for. He took the time to get to know them in the informal spaces of the school, mentored, and cracked a joke or two. The students loved him as an advisor and teacher. He provided the most effective differentiation and personalization because he knew the students and was able to adjust his lessons and advisory to meet their specific needs. They responded well because not only did they feel safe and work themselves to cultivate the relationship, but they were challenged at just the right level with the right ideas and content and were inspired to learn and produce thinking. Sure, it wasn’t all roses, but even when students didn’t rise to the occasion, he took those opportunities to reflect on why not. 

Cary had one student under his care who developed a bad reputation for what were believed to be anger issues. There were a few reported incidents where she lost her temper and slammed tables or punched walls. When word spread, unfortunately, she was labeled a potential trouble-maker and perceptions influenced others’ actions and reactions toward her. This led to a downward cycle and her behavior became even more troubled as she sensed the injustice and knew she was treated differently. 

Cary was determined to end this spiral. He didn’t give her a generic pep talk or dish out ingenuous advice. He thought deeply about how to provide care. He used his empathy to see things through her eyes, understand her reactions and the causes of her turmoil. Cary was the presence that reassured. I once witnessed him dart from his chair to run outside immediately upon hearing that the girl had gotten into a scuffle out on the field. He was there. He was always there no matter. He took the time to listen, console, and did not judge. He treated her like a human. 

Cary was like that with every student he encountered. He approached relationships with a sense of equity in the sense that each child had access and received personalized attention, with approaches to solving problems that made sense for that student and their specific contexts.

I am reminded of another high school student who was not tremendously academically inclined, but she had many other talents and qualities. She was an expert baker and one of the most kind-hearted and generous teenagers I had ever met. She was also resilient in spite of coping with depression. She needed to feel successful and when I witnessed the way she connected with elementary school children, we put together a plan to use elective blocks to be assist with the teaching in Grade 2 as part of a school internship. We set up a schedule to work around her commitments and support her and the teacher to make it work. This was a huge success for this young woman and the Grade 2 students, both of whom found joy and confidence through the interactions. I want to share appreciation for teacher for being so open-minded and supportive. 

As I write these lines, my children are playing together on the floor, living in a world of action figures created by their imaginations. The complex stories and rich characters that emerge organically from their play are the result of their flexibility within the uncertain and unsettling circumstances that our family has lived through over the past five months, living out of suitcases and being in our fourth domicile in as much time (and getting ready to move again). We have had to adapt to their needs and they to the situation. None of this would have existed without the context—clearly—and in every situation we have encountered, every bend we have had to negotiate, we have thought about how to move forward in ways that nurture joy and caring. It has been far from perfect, but we try to take those not-so-great experiences and learn from those too.

Relationships based on caring and kindness are built on considering the needs of others first and there is nothing formulaic in this approach. Yes, there needs to be equity, but this only means that we treat each student, child, and person as a unique being existing in particular contexts, doing what is necessary at that time and place using our empathy to consider the situation and possible steps forward. We hope to be flexible and adaptable and use tap into our own humanity. Why do we constantly talk about a complex and changing world if we don’t consider children to be equally complex and changing and require the same amount of unique consideration? If we bring a bit of an agile approach to our relationships, the benefits will go well beyond any immediate hard and fast traditional rules

The current situation is showing that administrators, teachers, students, parents… we are all agile. The move to online learning has been difficult for some and even more difficult for others. It has also, I hope, been rewarding for many and educators and students alike have found new ways to cultivate relationships even at a distance. The women and men of all ages, gender, and color who were moved enough to go express their disaffection with certain aspects of the system have followed their heads and their hearts to do what they think is the right thing. The billions of people who have had to adapt to uncertainty of—and this is not hyperbole—historical proportions have had to think and re-think the way they live. There is much hope in the world right now because there is a sense that we can connect with one another in ways that are what we need now, regardless of what has happened in the past, caring for ourselves, our neighbors, the sick, and those we don’t know.

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