Distance Learning as a Window of Opportunity

-by Tamela Thomas, Ph.D.


Ideally, PBIS functions as a school-wide prevention model dedicated to proactively improving a school’s ability to prevent disruptive behaviors by creating and maintaining policies and procedures that positively impact the way adults engage students in learning (Bradshaw, Mitchell, & Leaf, 2010). Unfortunately, a consistent critique of the PBIS framework is that it is culturally neutral and ignores the racial, ethnic, and cultural identities of students and has appeared, to many, as less effective for minoritized student populations (Monroe, 2006; Vincent, et.al., 2011).  To address this critique, Leverson, et.al. (2019) add a dimension to PBIS by explaining culturally responsive PBIS as including: (1) Identity, (2) Voice, (3) Supportive Environment, (4) Situational Appropriateness, and (5) Data for Equity. The first dimension, Identity, is a point of reflection for me during quarantine. 

In March, traditional schooling was drastically changed in the face of a global pandemic. Many schools changed to a distance-learning platform.  However, for all of the challenges distance learning presented, there was also a unique opportunity offered. Teachers gained an actual window into the lives of students with virtual learning. Synchronous distance learning turned students’ computers into new information streams.  This window provided a chance for educators to truly see students’ cultural contexts.  Distance learning highlighted the gap existing between what Leverson, et. al. (2019) refer to as Practitioner Personal Identity and Student and Family Identity.  I asked myself, how might I responsibly use this opportunity to learn from my students when they have homecourt advantage?

A Personal Reflection on Practitioner Personal Identity

I started thinking about this question by reflecting on how my professional identities and experiences as a science teacher, academic coach, and secondary administrator shape my interactions with students, families, and colleagues. I also considered how my personal identities and experiences in the context of my race, gender, age, political views, and all other things I embody also shape the way I work with the same people.  Taking time to observe my current beliefs, reflect on how my beliefs situate themselves in the broader community of students, and adjusting some of my existing frames has been invaluable in successfully navigating many of the educational challenges I faced at the intersection of my professional and personal identities. 

One of the practices I found extremely helpful was listening to other’s stories around identifying and addressing bias. Listening to the experiences of people from diverse contexts supported me in opening my mind to different perspectives beyond my personal lens. The TedTalk link below is one of those stories. I believe that it is extremely important for me to listen to folks who do not share my identities, but equally important to listen to people who present in similar ways to me in race, gender, political, or socio-economic background. There is no such thing as a monolithic representative of any identity. 

A Tale of Two Teachers, Melissa Crum

The work of addressing conscious and unconscious bias begins with taking time to deeply explore my own identity.

The work of addressing conscious and unconscious bias begins with taking time to deeply explore my own identity and then make space to truly listen to others who do not share my identities.

-Tamela Thomas, PhD.

The work of addressing conscious and unconscious bias begins with taking time to deeply explore my own identity and then make space to truly listen to others who do not share my identities. This is never to mean disregarding my own knowledge, skills, and dispositions that grew out of my identity-shaped experiences. It is the critical practice of understanding that people can experience the exact same situation differently based on an array of ways in which an individual can identify. 

Teacher Leadership for Culturally Sustaining PBIS

Distance Learning-A Window of Opportunity
Dr. Thomas is Assistant Professor of Teacher Leadership at Kennesaw State University.

The unique opportunity I mentioned in the introduction is that teachers are seeing into students’ lives in a whole new way with virtual learning. Teachers have the opportunity to observe (after personal bias work) students and families in their homes.  This is not meant to spy or infringe on the privacy and autonomy of our families. But, with the chance to see, hear, and/or experience students learning in their homes, teachers might truly make decisions around how systems like PBIS can escape the culturally neutral frame in which it currently exists. Teachers and administrators must use our expertise in child development and working with families and communities to, without intrusion, take a moment to see what families value. Understanding what is valued can completely change the way we look at the extrinsic reward systems we use in PBIS stores and prize boxes across PBIS world.

I believe classroom teachers leaders with dispositions grounded in culturally relevant and sustaining pedagogies will guide us into the next educational configuration.  We cannot  continue to add to the alphabet soup of programs and systems that already exist blindly, but we can use culturally relevant data to monitor and adjust existing systems like PBIS to better serve our children by intentionally supporting teachers in how to positively impact the way they engage students in learning. Teachers have the chance to gather data in ways that were impossible from the confines of a classroom with students. This information can be essential in broadening how funds of knowledge and cultural context inform creating culturally relevant and culturally sustaining school-wide systms that proactively improve how schools define disruptive behaviors. In order for a system like this to work, I believe increased cultural awareness, collaboration to create policies with students and families who have not been historically included, and sustaining policies and procedures that foster student well-being beyond management of misbehavior as it is narrowly defined are critical. 

Bradshaw, C. P., Mitchell, M. M., & Leaf, P. J. (2010). Examining the effects of schoolwide positive behavioral interventions and supports on student outcomes: Results from a randomized controlled effectiveness trial in elementary schools. Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions, 12, 133-148.

Leverson, M., Smith, K., McIntosh, K., Rose, J., & Pinkelman, S. (2016). PBIS cultural responsiveness field guide: Resources for trainers and coaches. Retrieved from http://www.pbiscaltac.org/resources/culturally%20responsive/PBIS%20Cultural%20Res ponsiveness%20Field%20Guide.pdf

Vincent, C. G., Randall, C., Cartledge, G., Tobin, T. J., & Swain-Bradway, J. (2011). Toward a conceptual integration of cultural responsiveness and schoolwide positive behavior support. Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions, 13, 219-229

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