In part 1 of this 5-part interview series on the professional development blog PLTogether, Edthena CEO Adam Geller interviews former classroom teacher, education expert, and director of the Center for Excellence in Education at Morehouse College, Nina Gilbert, about the current landscape of education and what we can be doing to support students.

Here is the transcript of that interview:

– Welcome to #PLtogether Lounge talks. I’m Adam Geller, founder and CEO of Edthena. The video observation platform that streamlines feedback to teachers. Today, we’re joined by Nina Gilbert. She’s a former classroom teacher who’s now the director of the Center for Excellence in Education at Morehouse College. Nina, thanks so much for joining us.

– Thank you for having me, Adam.

– So let’s kick it off like I’ve been doing with others that have joined us on PLtogether with some good news. Tell us about something that’s giving you energy or exciting you or inspiring you that you’ve heard about an educator or something happening in education.

– Yeah, so I happened to sit in on a class last night. It’s EDU 312. It’s a new school design. One of my professors invited me to listen to projects that were being presented by his students. And the goal of the course is to help students understand all that’s required of anyone who wants to develop or build their own school, whether it’s a homeschool, charter school, private school or an after-school program. The feedback that students gave after that was that this had been their favorite course during this COVID time, because it was hands-on, it allowed them to interact with their peers, they were able to interact with real practitioners, folks who were educators and not professors who shared just theory and philosophy with them. So I was inspired that this adjunct professor had done such a great job of engaging his students and that their projects and case studies really were engaging and exciting for them. And it was something different during this remote learning period.

– It’s interesting that you bring up this example or this anecdote from a class about school design, because that’s something that you have a bit of experience in-

– A little bit

– You’ve actually launched a school that became a network of schools. It was a single gender school in the Atlanta area. So I guess tell us a little bit about the type of thinking that goes into designing a school model that might be relevant for educators that are thinking about re-designing, what instruction looks like right now during the pandemic.

– Absolutely. So I was a teacher and an administrator in a fairly large metro Atlanta school district. And most would describe the school district as being high-performing. However, there were pockets of poverty in this district. There’re some schools, where some schools were identified as underperforming. And I recognized that some of our students in this district is very large well-resourced district, they were not having all of their needs met. And after about 10 years, I decided to leave the district and work with families that felt like they needed additional support that the school district had not provided. I didn’t know anything about starting a new school. My school was my school’s work charter schools. I knew very little about charter schools. There were no charter schools in my district, but I knew that there were families who needed something more. So the thinking that goes into that really is like, am I cut out for this, right? Can I recreate the type of instructional environment that will be beneficial for all students? And so I spent about two or three years just working through that design and ended up in a fellowship program and went to Boston for a year to work through all of the components required to get a school approved and opened.

– So it sounds like one thing you had that teachers say, maybe feeling like they don’t have when it relates to the pandemic is the luxury of two to three years to plan for how to respond to the pandemic.

– Yeah.

– But I think this idea of planning may be important. Maybe we can focus in on that, because when I think about the process of starting something new, whether it’s a whole school or maybe if you’re in another context, it’s something smaller, you may think of that process of starting something new as throwing a lot of spaghetti on the wall and seeing what sticks. And yet there’s still a plan on how the spaghetti gets thrown and on how you know if it’s sticking and how you clean it up when it doesn’t stick. So how can we translate some of that kind of planning into how we are in some ways reacting and planning for what’s ahead as part of the pandemic and our response to educating students right now?

– Well, let me go back a bit, because I kind of glossed over a lot, right? Like a lot of the ambiguity, the heartache, the fear, making sure that I understood everything that was required from a policy level, from a practice level to do this work. But what I glossed over, that I feel like is relevant now is this sense of urgency, right? I serve students who were either students with disabilities, students from disadvantaged communities, students who probably did not have equitable access to rigorous courses or college level coursework. And I felt this urgency that these students needed me and they needed the model that I wanted to design. And I also was a mother. And as a mother, I knew the type of school my own daughter needed did not exist, right? So I felt this urgency to make sure that this happened by the time she needed a great middle school. I also worked as an administrator at the Alternative school that happened to be 99% kids of color, right? And it’s not that kids of color ended up at this Alternative school because they were more likely to violate the code of conduct. They were just more likely to end up in the suspension and expulsion pipeline. And I knew once those students were appropriately engaged and supported, that they could perform at high levels like any other student, right? So I felt this passion and urgency to do something for students who I saw in this school to prison pipeline. And these were not students who were all coming from underprivileged broken homes, right? These were students who were probably some would have been first generation high school graduates or first generation college students. But I had good friends of mine. And we’d had these conversations maybe as people of color, our kids may be the first generation of students who are not more educated than their parents, because we’re finding middle class black and brown families not having access to the courses that the non-minority students had. And so for me, there was this urgency to build the type of school where they could thrive, right? And I needed to do that in time for my own daughter to attend that school. I think now during COVID, there’s still the sense of urgency around lost learning time. Like, what are we going to do until we’re able to gather again? What are we going to do until there’s a vaccine? What are we going to do while students are not in school, learning in a face-to-face environment? And so we have to re-imagine what teaching and learning looks like, how we assess students, how do we make sure that their social emotional needs are taken care of? I felt that same type of urgency about 15 years ago now, when I imagined starting my own school.

– I like that kind of a focus on urgency because as I was listening to you kind of tell the story of the urgency for starting the school and kind of my probing before about the two, three years and maybe a little bit of the elbowing I was giving you, right? But it’s really, maybe it’s the urgency brought to the scope of the solution or trying to design. And so maybe teachers should, and school leaders and district leaders think about the scope of the thing that they’re solving for as doable. Maybe it’s not two to three years of planning, but it’s two to three hours of planning on a tough problem, right? That like using that urgency to drive forward. And then within the constraints that you have, make sure that you’re bringing the best solution possible. It feels like maybe that’s where you’re pointing us to be thinking right now.

– And there’re many milestones in that two year timeframe, right? So I didn’t spend two years just on a mountain somewhere, just thinking about this. I had to, in those two years build a board, I had to do the landscape analysis and needs assessment of my community. I had to generate community support and make sure that I raised money. So although I spent two to three years planning, there was also a lot of work. And two to three years sounds like a lot of time when you tell someone how long it takes to do something, but time passes really quickly, right? And so just to think about where we are during this COVID 19 crisis, we stopped face-to-face schooling at least at my campus in March. And we all thought we’ll be out for a short while and we will be able to at least come back together by summer. No, it didn’t happen. And then we thought, surely by fall semester, we will have face to face classes again, it did not happen. And now we’re looking at starting classes again in February, face-to-face possibly, maybe hybrid well March will mark a year, so that’s a full year. And if we’ve done nothing during that year, but think about the good old days when we used to have face to face school, we’ve wasted time. So hopefully during this one year period, we’ve all been thinking about how we re-envision and re-imagine what school children could be or has to be.

– It’s a good reminder that a lot of us are feeling like times crawling by, but in fact it has been flying by. We have to take a break. If you’re listening to this conversation and you wanna hear about what we talk about next, or you’re curious about other conversations that I’ve had with other education leaders, head over to PLtogether.org for the rest of this conversation as well as others. Nina, thanks so much for joining us. We’ll be right back to continue our conversation.

– Thank you.

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