• Urban Educator logo

Council Chair O’Neill: ‘Let’s Learn Better Together’

  • In his opening remarks at the Council of the Great City Schools’ virtual 64th Annual Fall Conference, board chair Michael O’Neill focused on the merits of collaboration and experiential learning – for school leaders as well as for students.

    “We are now in twin pandemics,” said O’Neill, citing the ongoing COVID-19 crisis and the specter of systemic racism laid bare by events of recent months. 

    “The challenges are widespread and troublesome. Our students do not have equal access to laptops and Wi-Fi. They struggle with staying engaged and being in the right space--physically, mentally and emotionally--to learn.” Michael O’Neill

    Teachers are struggling to teach amid fears for their own safety, he noted, and parents are struggling to balance work and the needs of their families. Educators lay awake at night worrying that “our systems are failing them” and the question is, What should we do about it?

    The chair’s advice, which he repeated several times: “Let’s learn better together.”

    O’Neill asked colleagues to consider five ideas relevant to this moment:

    • Share best practices across school districts;
    • Learn from community partners in your city;
    • Acknowledge the pain and injustice of racial inequities;
    • Find ways to expand experiential learning for all students; and, finally,
    • Tend to your own emotional health and that of your colleagues.

    He first addressed the idea of collaboration. “We are all experiential learners by now, and some [districts] are learning and adapting better than others, so let’s acknowledge that reality,” O’Neill said.

    Districts often rely on plans developed in-house. “That is wonderful in normal times, but we are not in normal times,” he counseled. Teams of experienced educational professionals need to work together to find solutions and share those findings across districts, he said, much like teams of NASA engineers responded to the Apollo 13 alert, “Houston, we’ve got a problem.” 

    O’Neill praised participation in online forums since March that have resulted in peer-to-peer networking, information sharing, brainstorming and “even mental health support” for professionals, and he encouraged broader participation in these ongoing events hosted by the Council. 

    Second, he encouraged school leaders to tap into the expertise in their local communities, saying, “All of you have partners that absolutely are crying out to help us rethink education in light of our current challenges. Our higher ed partners, our nonprofits, our foundations, our community-based organizations are all stepping up to the plate as well to innovate.” 

    On a somber note, O’Neill stated that even as schools reopen, “we must also acknowledge the pain and injustice that racial inequities have caused so many of our communities,” a reality known to educators and now acknowledged by the broader public.

    He recounted recent comments of Paul Reville, Harvard University Graduate School of Education researcher and former education secretary in Massachusetts, who described “the tide going out and exposing a seabed riddled with injustice and inequity, which once exposed can no longer be unseen or denied.”

    “So,” said O’Neill, “we need to commit together – those of us in a position to impact policy, process and practice – that we will together strive to be anti-racist in our words, our actions and our deeds. Now is the time for us to model what our youth so badly need. We cannot let this moment pass us by.” 

    Lastly, O’Neill urged colleagues to engage in self-care. “We are doing what we love, and even while we love it, these are the most challenging times we could ever expect,” he said.

    “By caring for our own mental health, we will be in a better position to care for our communities.”

    The online comment of a Council colleague counts as succinct advice, said O’Neill.

    In a word: #breathe.