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This School Year, Who Is Shaping Our Children?

November 30, 2020

When successful people share the stories of how they reached the pinnacle of their professions, it’s not uncommon to hear about influential mentors from their formative years. Oprah Winfrey said that she owes her talk show to her fourth-grade teacher. John Legend said that his high school English teacher made him believe in his ability as a writer. Outdoorsman Steven Rinella’s 10th grade English teacher also took notice of his way with words, which he now uses to teach people about conservation.

My kids appear to have some different role models these days: Lazarbeam, Flamingo, Charli D’Amelio. These stars of TikTok and YouTube echo in the background of our home for hours on end.

One of the underrecognized consequences of the pandemic is the disappearance of the people who shape our children -- their mentors, teachers and coaches. When our team at KI interviewed students about distance learning, many said that one of the things they missed more than anything else was interacting with their teachers.

As children, we are molded by people who see the best in us, even when we see the worst in ourselves. These “molders” tend to see something in our children that we, as parents, often miss. As such, they have a unique talent for developing agency and independence in our kids.

What Can We Do?

The shift to online learning has been challenging. Many parents are struggling to make sure their children tune in to class without stunting their ability to learn how to do things on their own. That struggle takes on even more meaning now, given that kids aren’t getting the same dose of agency-building from their mentors this year.

So, what do we do? When I see a promising moment of passion or agency in my own children, I’m tempted to snatch up their iPads in hopes they’ll follow that lead. But there’s no guarantee this will help them develop agency. And I know it won’t stop them from watching Lazarbeam and Flamingo.

While schools are closed, perhaps we can encourage our children to pursue their passions at home.

Do we know someone working in a career they’re interested in? Maybe we can set up a chat in the backyard or over FaceTime.

Are they obsessed with TikTok dances? See if there are any outdoor or virtual dance classes they can join.

We can also consider how our children can safely interact with their peers. After all, friends also see the best in each other. Sometimes, the best way for parents to foster agency is to allow kids to collaborate, or resolve conflicts, with one another without intervening.

Teachers can also search for small ways to form meaningful connections with their students remotely. Perhaps they can schedule 15-minute one-on-one meetings with their students while others are working on a group activity. Or they can use Zoom chat rooms to recreate the experience of walking around the classroom, moving from one group of students to the next.

Finally, we can appreciate the interactions that occur in hybrid models, where students learn in-person a few days or hours per week and where we witness the energy that teachers bring to our children’s lives. In these uncertain times, getting to celebrate those moments reminds us how important these connections are and how grateful we are for the hard work our teachers do.

Focus on Resilience

There’s only so much we can do when our children’s “molders” outside the home are on TikTok. This year has been difficult in part because it’s full of unfamiliar experiences: first school year in a pandemic, first sports season in a pandemic, first family holiday in a pandemic.

It’s our hope that soon, we’ll have made it through most of those unfamiliar firsts, even if some are bound to keep coming. Let’s find ways to encourage the best in our children along the way.

by Jonathan Matta  Education Market Leader

Jonathan Matta is KI's National Education Leader, supporting organizations in their pursuit of solving complex challenges by applying the power of design. Matta previously served as the Vice President of Design at RXBAR, where he led a design team that applied a variety of design strategies, chiefly Design Thinking, to a multitude of organizational challenges. Jonathan holds an altMBA from Seth Godin's program, along with completed courses from Stanford University's "d.school" and IDEO-U. He received his undergraduate degree from DePaul University.

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