Completing this post for The Virtual Conference on Humanizing Mathematics was supposed to be a short evening of writing and turned into a week-long journey. It began while watching the video of Rochelle Gutierrez being interviewed. The whole interview was great, because everything she does is great. However, I had trouble paying attention, as I do when there’s a lot going on at school. As she described what teachers need to do, I thought about my teaching and then my school, and then my role in the school this year and without realizing it I was totally lost in my thoughts. During my 4 years as an administrator my mental state is too often in “emergency response” mode. Constant fires to put out, non-stop situations to resolve, so many deadlines looming. Thoughts about all these little emergencies keep popping into mind even when I’m trying to do normal stuff, like watching a youtube video. The video kept fading into background noise as thoughts rolled in about onboarding new staff, or how people took last years observations, or the kid who failed summer school. I thought I wasn’t going to be able to write anything for this, and then Rochelle’s responses to one section cut through the cloud of mental chatter and suddenly was fully attentive. I won’t transcribe the whole section, but I’ll say the one word that hooked me. Clarity.

Why Am I Thinking About Clarity?

How often have I lacked clear understanding of the right school decision? How much of worry around any stems from different expectations about what school should is and should be that are held by every entity in the school. My role, it seems, is to interpret all of these demands and create a decision about my class, computers, math assessments, operations and other stuff as well. But there are murky grey areas where quick, clear decisions can’t be made or should receive special care. A kid is late on the day the project was due, does it count? A teacher designed a class to be more interactive classes, but it still looks traditional on day 7. Parents suspects kids are selling weed in the parking lot of school. All of these situations need immediate answers, but have lots of room for subjective judgement so it makes rushing to judgment risky.

It’s not always easy to be confident you’re making the right call. It’s hard to think of a good example because every school is different, so a math example might be helpful. Let’s say I had to construct a pentagon. It wouldn’t be too hard, I’d probably use a protractor and ruler, maybe a compass, make a polygon with equal sides and 120 degrees angles. Now let’s say I had to make the same polygon with a compass and straight edge with no measurements, it would become much harder. What I end up might look like a pentagon to me and no one else, but if they can’t measure either, it’ll be hard for anyone to say it could be better. Murky situations without clear ways to measure success, unilaterally decided with little room for other viewpoints are situations ripe for introducing people’s own personal biases.

There are no clear, precise defined measurements for serving all of our students, especially kids from traditionally underserved background. Kids’ needs are diverse and changing, and the world they are entering is changing too. Sometimes it seems the world is changing in ways that directly target these young people. When I try to step in and deal with a situation, it’s like I’m trying to construct a polygon whose measurements I don’t know, with tools that aren’t precise on a table that’s constantly shifting. But I’m determined, so I keep trying, and I turn possible scenarios over and over in my head on my down time (like when I should be watching the video I sat down to watch) making this whole job seem unsustainable. How much time and mental energy would be saved if I could just be clear on the right thing to do in these sticky issues.

Specifying Clarity

A few days later I re-watched the section of the video, where I realized the specific term she used was “political clarity,” a welcome distinction. The political stuff at work is the stuff I turn over in my head they most. Every outcome in a school is the result of millions of political compromises made at a number of different levels. Some are governmental, many are interpersonal, and most are full of caveats and loop holes. Even if you are clear on something, it doesn’t mean everyone else is, and besides it could all get changed after the next election. Of course there’s always some powerful person(s) who never gets called for doing things “the old way,” despite how clear the new initiative is that gets widely ignored. Being clear about all of these things may make it easier to make decisions, and help progress move along. Luckily there was an article with more information about the Political Clarity term, and it was linked in the description of the youtube video.

Getting clear about political clarity

In hoping to learn how to regain my own some mental clarity, I sought to learn about political clarity from the article Gutierrez mentioned, titled Beyond The Methods Fetish: Towards a Humanizing Pedagogy by Lilia Bartholome. It warns educators against letting the needs of those suffering from systemic oppression fade into the background while they search for the the perfect teaching ‘method’. “A myopic focus on methodology often serves to obfuscate the real question — which is why in our society, subordinated students do not generally succeed academically in schools.” The author talks about a number of ways to deal with this “real question”, including culturally responsive instruction, and two other approaches to humanizing instruction, but the prerequisite for these approaches is political clarity. Putting these techniques in the hands of politically clear teachers offers “…the potential to challenge students academically and intellectually while treating them with dignity and respect.” Reading this in the opening of the article left me with a number of thoughts about myself, my own personal growth and my thoughts about the school year. Specifically to first try explain my own understanding of political clarity to see if it makes sense (hence this post), and then to look for applications where this can be applied in my work.

What is political clarity?

The article goes on to provide more details about political clarity. It sounded like political clarity is like being “woke,” but with a concentration in the policies and relationships that support oppression at your school, and the ability to support students facing oppression in ways that support their identities. It sounds daunting, certainly for me, who always worries that I’m not woke enough and it’s might hold a student back some day. But the key to it is that it’s a process. Here’s Bartolome’s definition:

“Political clarity” refers to the process by which individuals achieve a deepening awareness of the sociopolitical and economic realities that shape their lives and their capacity to recreate them. In addition, it refers to the process by which individuals come to better understand possible linkages between macro-level political, economic, and social variables and subordinated groups’ academic performance at the micro-level classroom. Thus, it invariably requires linkages between sociocultural structures and schooling.

Lilia Bartholome [emphasis mine]

This definition of political clarity sounds like an ongoing process of learning how things can be linked together. This means it is something continuous. A never-ending battle, or perhaps a noble “infinite game“, but this is certainly not a quick fix. Our education system consists of a complex web of interconnected parts intended to work together but the persistence of graduation and achievement disparities along racial, language, and gender lines show that parts are actually not working (as well as the fact that this article is relevant despite being 25 years old). Fixing these old systems won’t be a matter of reading an article or a book, or learning a new method, so expecting the solution to be as such would lead to frustration. Thinking about the larger structures beyond the methods is going to be a process, and we have to be constantly doing it. It’s not a thing that we are supposed to instantly be able to just turn on.

Education systems can lead students to life or death situations, so perhaps a health metaphor would be appropriate. CPR is a method one can learn to sustain the life of a person who isn’t breathing until an ambulance arrives. It’s a great method in a certain situation, but isn’t a health solution. Knowing CPR won’t help you with chronic conditions like diabetes or asthma. To address chronic, pervasive conditions you need knowledge of lots of different methods, the awareness about which is the right method, and an understanding of how to a method would fit into a long-term treatment plan that can be carried out over time. Treatment is a process of trying different methods, looking at the results, staying abreast of developments in the field all while explaining options to the family and thinking through each decision with them. The process is harder, and sounds ironically less clear, but it’s certainly the way forward. As emergencies start to pile up for me at work, I look to solve things myself, quickly, which may resemble the methods-fetish people that Bartolome is criticizing. That approach probably resembles someone trying to perform CPR on every one that walks into the ER. Breaking this habit won’t be as easy as just saying I’m not going to do CPR, it’s saying that I’m going to start a long slow process of learning, as if I was planning to take a long slow process of learning to be a doctor.

So what do I do now?

It’s still not exactly clear. The first step I think it’s realizing that I have a number of blind spots around which I’ll need to gain more clarity. There are books I can read, and chats I can join to help but that change will be long term. There are also regulations specific to my locality that I can’t learn about except for attending trainings, networking, and listening to people. All of this ‘self work’ will take time. What happens in the meantime? What can I put in place while I develop my political clarity? For starters, get more perspectives on the things I’m doing. Having students, other teachers and other parents feeling free to give feedback about what I’m doing will be huge. Making that part of the culture will help with the next step, ending decision vacuums. Having places where I, or anyone, make unilateral decisions is just opening up space for personal biases to enter a situation. Just because I’m getting started, doesn’t mean I don’t hold biases that could cloud my decision making. Our school has a democratic decision making framework, so I’ll lean on that in hopes that getting more eyes on situations will help us all see a fuller picture. Hopefully the idea will be that things like grading policies or computer policies are open for feedback and contribution. Of course I’ll have to reflect on what all gets learned regularly, which may be on this blog (but I really don’t want to talk about admin stuff on this blog).

Bartolome’s article isn’t really about political clarity, or methods, about humanizing. It describes ways to humanize students so teachers can talk about more than just what test scores and IEPs tells us about our students. We’re talking about people, not underperforming subgroups, just like hospitals treat patients, not diseases. Instead of looking to find some quick TPT PDF ready made lesson, we could begin the long work This could lead my school and I to “recreate and reinvent teaching methods and materials by always taking into consideration the sociocultural realities that can either limit or expand the possibilities to humanize education.” With all of the things to think about, and all of the macro and micro places to try to get clarity around, the thing I’ll takeaway from this article the most is the idea that I should focus on the putting our kids humanity ahead of any specific standard or goal or policy or whatever.

Sidenote: It took me a week to write this, because I thought at the end of this I would be able to say what my secret for finding clarity is. After reading more and watching the video, it seems like there isn’t going to be a nice answer, and instead I should embrace that lack of clarity as an ongoing challenge. Kind of funny how this whole week long search for clarity ended with me feeling more unclear than I was at the start. Let me know if any of this makes sense, or tell me why it doesn’t make sense in the comments below.