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Write every day: Redesign New York City schools with teachers at the table

In the product development process using design thinking and human-centered design methodologies, the very first stage is empathize. To create empathy for the people we’re creating for, a product developer like me talks with and listens to all stakeholders, and particularly to experts in the field for which we’re designing.

Teachers need to be part of the school reopening design process
I was shocked to learn from friends of mine who are teachers that this is not what’s happening in New York City schools, the country’s largest school system. None of them have been asked to participate in the design process to reimagine our schools in the era of COVID-19. The decision to reopen schools and the potential design of that reopening is being done by administrators, government officials, and, in some instances, parents. Teachers are not in the conversation (and neither are students), and yet they will be tasked with putting these plans into action. This not only lacks empathy; it’s also dangerous, inconsiderate, and setting the stage for damaging conflict.

Teachers are education experts
Subjects Matter Experts (known in product development by the acronym SME) are worth their weight in gold. They have insights that no one else in the process has. They are the center of making our strategy and plan a reality. Without their buy-in and advocacy, a product dies. Teachers (and students) need to be an integral part of the education redesign process, not just in New York City, but in every school district in the country.

How New York teachers are personally preparing for schools reopening
Perhaps the most heartbreaking part of this process to witness is that my teacher friends are preparing wills, power of attorney, and life insurance policies, and getting their documents like the location of passwords in order. They know that the chance of them getting sick is high if physical schools reopen. They have family members and friends to consider in this process, just like all other people. They are preparing for battle with an invisible enemy, all while trying as best they can to love, care for, and teach their students. This sad and desperate situation is their reality while they wait for the government’s decision.

Unity is still possible
Imagine where we would be now if New York City schools had spent all this time since March 2020 getting broadband to kids who don’t have it and figuring out how best to serve differently-abled kids. Instead, we have convoluted plans that are nearly impossible to decipher with little to no buy-in that are unlikely to work and even less likely to protect teachers, staff, students, and families from getting sick. After all we’ve been through in New York, don’t we deserve a chance to be unified in our efforts to protect one another as the school year begins? It’s not too late. Unity and collaboration with all stakeholders, teachers and students very much included, is still possible.

An open plea for collaboration with teachers
Governor Cuomo, Mayor de Blasio, Chancellor Carranza, and members of the New York City Council, I hope you will take ownership of this process and that in that ownership you will embrace the expertise of teachers to create a school system that is safe and productive for all. Here is my commitment as a concerned community member: I would happily facilitate the product development process to redesign schools in the wake of COVID-19 and I would do it for free. How to open our schools (in whatever capacity we do that) for the 2020 school year is one of the most important decisions this city will make. Let’s pull together as New Yorkers always do in times of difficulty. Let’s listen to one another. Let’s support one another. Let’s be unified in our efforts to keep everyone safe, healthy, and inspired. It’s possible, and necessary, for the sake of all our residents. I’m here if you need me.

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