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Educators as First Responders

In a conversation with Dean Bridget Long, Geoffrey Canada describes a call to action for educators and a vision for what school might look like this fall.

Calling the pandemic a “break-the-glass emergency” for educators, Geoffrey Canada, Ed.M.’75, warned that anyone who cares about education cannot sit idle and let impoverished communities that have made progress slip back to where they were 20 years ago.

“It’s a challenging time to be an educator but [also] a time that we need the best and brightest working on this problem in real time today,” Canada said, inspiring educators to take action in response to the pandemic. Canada, who spoke with Dean Bridget Long in the last episode of the HGSE Leadership Series, encouraged educators to see themselves as first responders — equally prepared as healthcare workers — and take on things that weren’t in the job description, like altering the school schedule or using summer as a time to keep students from falling further behind.

Canada has long been committed to improving the lives of children in urban settings through education and services. As current president, and former CEO, of the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ), a nonprofit geared toward helping low-income children and families in New York City, he launched a full-service community organization, comprising charter schools, preschools, afterschool programs, parenting education, and employment and technology centers for children and residents, now serving more than 13,000 children and adults. Though Canada retired eight years ago, he told Long about recent plans to abandon retirement to help organizations scale community efforts with an education focus when the pandemic hit.

Considerations for school leaders

Share best practices now.

There’s no time like now to begin sharing the best practices in and beyond your district. “This is uncharted territory,” Canada said. “I want everyone calling other folks and saying, ‘Hey guys. What are you doing? Is it working?’ Let’s be transparent.”

Accept that mistakes will happen, and be open about them.

“We are going to make mistakes, but we can anticipate what’s going to happen when we open up schools,” Canada says. Part of his work at HCZ has been about creating a culture where it’s okay to try new things and admit that maybe it didn’t work to the school leader. Keep trying new things until something works and moves things forward. “There’s no way you can do this work without making errors,” he says.

Think with a “whole child” approach.

One of the hallmark successes of HCZ was its emphasis on fulfilling the “whole child,” something Canada says is vital when it comes to working in poor communities.

Now is an opportunity to build systems that are comprehensive, providing academic, health, mental health, arts, sports, tutoring, and employment. “This is the time to scale that effort. Put education at the center…. We can’t put it all on schools,” he says.

Canada also shared realistic and forward-looking advice for leaders thinking about reopening schools — including the need to respond to evolving scientific findings and to reimagine everything from classroom space and schedules to school ventilation, in order to reduce transmission and protect the vulnerable.


The latest research, perspectives, and highlights from the Harvard Graduate School of Education

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