Associate Principal Darius Green sat down to reflect and describe what student-centered learning has been like for his school community during COVID-19. For him, building relationships is the cornerstone of a thriving school community. Leaders and educators must be honest in how they address social injustices to give each student what they need to be successful.
Tell us a bit about yourself, your role and the school you lead.
I am currently an Associate Principal at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School in Massachusetts and have been in the field of education for nearly 25 years. I started out as a paraprofessional, moved on to become a mathematics teacher, then an Assistant Principal and now an Associate Principal. Throughout each step, I always found myself being drawn to thinking differently and being different about the way we do education.
The ability to have open and honest dialogue is a student-centered practice that affords our students a true sense of humanity and has the opportunity to become a great equalizer of injustice during and after the pandemic.
As school leader, what student-centered techniques/strategies have you prioritized during the pandemic?
For me, it was about strengthening relationships with students, parents and faculty. It was assuring them that we are going to be okay and that we are going to do the absolute best to get through this together. Recently, I transitioned from one school leadership role to another in a different district. So, I really could not do anything other than build relationships with students, parents and faculty as I had to quickly learn the culture of my new community. But as I think about it, the best student-centered technique is building relationships. So, I guess this was my approach as we focused on issues of equity and “giving each student what they need to be successful.”
What has worked best to keep students engaged and motivated with their learning this year?
I cannot say that there was one thing that worked best in the format of delivering instruction. Some students learn better in a fully remote environment while others learn better in a hybrid environment, and some students learn better in a combination of the two. What I can say without a doubt is that having positive relationships with caring adults and meaningful collaboration with their fellow peers truly kept students engaged and motivated during this very weird year. So, I guess I must go back to the theme of establishing lasting and positive relationships with people as the best student-centered strategy.
As you think about your students facing injustice, what student-centered practices do you think are particularly effective at producing greater equity in outcomes?
The foundation of student agency is grounded in building relationships. The ability to have open and honest dialogue is a student-centered practice that affords our students a true sense of humanity and has the opportunity to become a great equalizer of injustice during and after the pandemic. The thing that amazes me the most is how students are experiencing true adversity and learning to deal with it. You are not always taught grit, perseverance and fortitude. Often, you must experience extreme levels of hardships and learn from those experiences to master these virtues. And I believe — for a lot of our students — this is what’s happening.
True changes would have to be put in place so that student-centered learning and racial justice is incorporated in leadership development programs, teacher preparation programs, embedded in all subject matter standards from K-12 and a culmination of a senior capstone that develops these principles.
As a school leader committed to student-centered learning and racial justice, what have been your greatest challenges?
The biggest challenge as a school leader committed to student-centered learning and racial justice are time and schedules. There is not enough time for schools to create sustainable student-centered learning and racial justice opportunities. We are forced with dealing with initiative after initiative on top of standardized testing, the college process or focusing on the overall wellness of students. Combine that with schedules that compel students to take rigorous classes, and this doesn’t necessarily afford students or adult time to really develop learning opportunities to be a lasting system in schools.
However, I think the principles of student-centered learning and racial justice should be a priority at the federal, state and local level. This way we can bypass some of the antiquated systems and policies that exist in education to help our students and teachers create sustainable change. For example, we’re just now starting to see a push based upon the last two to three years for racial justice and anti-racist teaching and learning to be incorporated in the classroom. And this is primarily spearheaded by our students. But when you look at the historical day-to-day operations of schools, this, like many changes lose momentum until it passes like a fad. True changes would have to be put in place so that student-centered learning and racial justice is incorporated in leadership development programs, teacher preparation programs, embedded in all subject matter standards from K-12 and a culmination of a senior capstone that develops these principles.
How have teachers, support staff, students, and families in your school risen to our present challenges?
I think the brightest spot for me over the past year has been the resiliency of the students in the school environment. They really have been stellar in adapting to learning in the COVID-19 environment. They have done everything they need to do to keep themselves and others safe. Their feedback has been tremendous in helping us become better at helping them. Now, when you pair that with the Herculean effort our staff has done to adapt to the many needs and demands of learning in the COVID environment, then you have a community that is thriving.
What advice would you give to other educators and school leaders who may be struggling to implement remote/hybrid learning environments while trying to promote greater equity?
The best advice that I can offer is to open lines of communications with everyone in your school. Their input is necessary in growing your community. Once that line of communication is established, create a system, something like restorative circle, where people can have open and honest dialogue without judgement. Then begin having hard conversations backed by data and look to hear the voices of people as they will tell you how things can get better.
Read more about one school's commitment to understanding the barriers to equity and how to overcome them.
Dr. Darius Green is a Students at the Center Distinguished Fellow with the Student-Centered Learning Research Collaborative. He is an associate principal at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School in Massachusetts. Previously, he was an assistant principal at Somerville High School where he helped facilitate the growth of a new student-centered model of education focused on personalized learning and performance-based assessments.