Lessons learned & next steps
A little over two years ago I started Better Together Educator Collaborative as a way to become a Chicago Public Schools vendor and use my school counseling background to support a variety of staff and student needs all over the city, tapping in to counselors, social workers and teachers along the way to share their expertise on everything from PD on trauma and self-care to curriculum development and document rendering.
I never could have anticipated some of the other opportunities that sprang from BTEC: working with the Illinois Safe Schools Alliance to lead trainings all over the Chicago-area to ensure educators are best-supporting LGBTQ+ students; teaching five different courses in the counseling program at DePaul; creating a podcast to highlight systemic inequities and influences on education and young people in Chicago; and working with A Knock at Midnight NFP to fulfill the tutoring and enrichment components of their Upward Bound grant.
As we wrap up Chicago operations, it only makes sense to think about how we can take what we learned and best support Madison-area schools, students and communities, best summarized in three categories:
(1) Embedding SEL and social justice - This comes first because social/emotional learning (SEL) and social justice education form the foundation of BTEC and the core of content we deliver, whether that's in the form of a staff training, lesson plan or full summer school curriculum. In this era of high-stakes testing where arts, music and play are disappearing more and more from the school day, it's even more important to embed opportunities for young people to get creative, explore their multiple, intersecting identities, learn strategies for communication and conflict resolution, explore healthy relationships and consent, and learn more about their communities and tap into their potential for community activism and advocacy.
SEL isn't something that exists in isolation - these are skills that we can embed into what already exists to bolster young people's self-awareness and connection to one another. It really is all about those relationships. Employing collaborative learning techniques allows learners to do just that while learning more about themselves in the process.
(2) Assessing need - I will forever approach every problem I face, personally and professionally, as a school counselor would: defining the problem and assessing need; developing and implementing intentional interventions to address that need; evaluating whether or not these interventions were effective. (And along the way, trying to hone in on what "effective" actually looks like, but that's another blog post!) This process is important and ensures we don't fall into the trap of making assumptions or allowing our own privilege/bias to inform our practice instead of community needs.
I have seen firsthand examples of the "parachute" or drop-in model of mentoring and nonprofit work. (I know better; my sheer presence alone is enough to help you.) This plays out all the time in urban school settings, too (see: white savior complex). But who am I (well-meaning white educator) to come in and think that I know best what you (or your community) needs? Instead, educators need to slow down, ask questions and get to know students, their families and communities. We need to familiarize ourselves with community assets instead of zooming in on what we perceive as problems or deficits (look to Mikva Challenge and Asset-Based Community Development for more on this).
(3) Narrative - We can talk about data all day but until there is a human connection, a story that incites emotion, we'll be talking in a vacuum. Like it or not, facts alone typically won't change a strong opinion. So if we want to directly address the inequitable systems that are disproportionately negatively affecting students of color, we can't throw statistics at a constituent or policy-maker and expect the veil of ignorance to be lifted. We need narrative to build opportunities for perspective-taking and empathy-building.
And this doesn't even touch on the positive impacts from empowering young people to tell their stories, allowing them to step outside of themselves and look more objectively at the causes and effects beyond the individual - the systemic influences on their own intersecting identities, and how history informs their stories. This narrative framework falls under a larger constructivist lens, recognizing the unique experiences each individual brings to the table and tapping into that expertise to make connections, provide context and educate others.
So, Madison-area people: how can BTEC support your work?
What are your needs? Are you a parent, looking for tutoring or enrichment opportunities for your child? Or a school administrator, searching for support that exceeds your staff's capacity? Are you a nonprofit director looking for a partner to develop or deliver training? Browse our website and reach out to see how we can help. Since we're new to Madison, we're more focused on building relationships than making a buck. So, let's connect and see how we can work together!