Q&A: Rose Else-Mitchell Talks Back-to-School

 //  Aug 26, 2021

Q&A: Rose Else-Mitchell Talks Back-to-School

Rose Else-Mitchell is President, Education Solutions at Scholastic. We spoke with Rose about the big challenges and opportunities for educators, what school and district leaders should be thinking about in the new school year, and more. Read the interview below, which has been edited for length and clarity.

EDU: What are you hearing from educators about the biggest challenge they’re facing right now?

Rose Else-Mitchell: We cannot underestimate the fear and anxiety that still exists for all of us as a result of the pandemic. Teachers, students, and their families are right to have fear and anxiety about their personal safety, but their health and safety needs are intricately intertwined with psychological safety. Being so isolated from one another means that when you suddenly come together, all of that sensory and social deprivation will affect your social and collaborative capabilities.

Our worlds have been narrowed, less traveled, and have seen less movement, with less to talk about, quite literally. We've had less serendipity and spontaneity because to see somebody during the pandemic, you had to schedule in advance and talk through a device, which in itself is constraining. So, I think the kinds of fear and anxiety that are both about our physical as well as our psychological states, are real, even if we aren’t always consciously aware of them.

We should make sure that we’re not throwing ourselves right into the middle of it all, but rather gradually stepping back into socially-engaged contexts. For teachers who thrive on the social dynamics of a classroom, it will seem instinctual for them to want to go back, but all of us have had to do things differently for an extended period of time now. So, our neurobiology may need to readjust to being around lots of other people, to having a lot of social stimulation, and frankly to being more constrained, whether that’s a continuation of masks, more rules, or just not being able to have the choice of turning the outside world off.

EDU: What excites you most about the education landscape right now, and why?  

Rose Else-Mitchell: K–12 education has always excited and motivated me because it truly is the key to opportunity, upward mobility, and access to a productive life—it can be revelation and recognition. The past 18 months have shown its importance to our social fabric, not just in its aspirational goals, but also in the small day-to-day routines and habits that make up children’s (and families’) lives at school. At this moment, I think we're all much more reflective about what school is for, what it means for whom, who it’s really benefiting, and how we can make sure that school is a place of safety, sanctuary, and success—a place where every child can thrive regardless of their background, language skills, or what zip code or country they're from.

The starkness of a world without school “IRL” that so many children experienced during the pandemic has demonstrated that we need to think about school in a holistic way, not just academically, not just in measurable outcomes (although they are important), and certainly not just as acting in loco parentis. We need to rethink how school can be made up of environments, experiences, and interfaces that make children feel successful and provide opportunities for them to reflect, connect, and understand themselves. I am energized by the work my team at Scholastic is doing with the Yale Child Study Center, exploring how literacy can be used to foster resilience among children and families. Our understanding of how children’s mental health has been affected by recent experiences is vital to millions of children’s future success.

The other thing that's important about this moment is that we can examine different pedagogical models to see what works best for how children and adults will learn and flourish in this century—or at least in the next 5–10 years, given the rate of change. Over the past 18 months, as employees, we have had to learn the most useful ways we can connect, reflect, and learn new things, working remotely. We certainly got a new appreciation for being in-person! As adults living in this “VUCA” century, we must shift our thinking from expert to learner so that we can continue to innovate and improve what we do, and how we do it.

The same is true in classrooms. Our goal at Scholastic is to support educators to bring a level of intentionality to what can happen online, what can happen in whole class instruction, what can happen in small groups, what can happen with peers—all to serve the mission of supporting children to learn to read and love to read. When I meet with our partners and customers, I ask them, “What pandemic pivots and innovation and have you had to make? What pieces do you want to take forward?”

EDU: As students head back to school, what should school and district leaders be thinking about to support their students? Their teachers?

Rose Else-Mitchell: Administrators are first and foremost focused on public health and safety and how to make decisions for their entire community. During the summer months, many have been focused on the process of creating community through significantly over-subscribed summer programs; almost every district administrator or principal I've talked to has increased, sometimes doubled or tripled, the number of kids who are in summer school, tutoring or enrichment. School and district leaders should consider having a practice in place during back-to-school for troubleshooting some of the social issues and challenges that will happen when everyone comes back into the classroom. I think the most important thing that I would do if I were an administrator is to be very present in building a sense of security and safety in the school or district for teachers, children, and families. This can include very regular, accessible communication at the school gate, in the buildings, or using video, tweets, and a feedback loop, as well as ensuring clear go-to places for information. When the world is uncertain, steady, consistent leadership is essential.

Secondly, it is critical to ensure that the school environment, beyond its physical space, is a place of belonging where children and their families can come, be seen, and be part of a community again. The role of leadership at all levels, including teachers, is to lead whole communities through change. This requires being able to create a space where everyone can, over time, talk about what happened to them, where they can get help, and to make progress.

An AP-NORC poll shows that roughly one in five Americans has lost someone to COVID-19, and for families of color and low-income households, these numbers are worse. That doesn't even account for all of the people who already had trauma in their lives, or all of the families who've lost their livelihoods, or even their homes. Creating space and providing support services are going to be top priorities this school year, and perhaps for many, are going to be essential before diving into unfinished learning or acceleration programs.

EDU: We know that you’ve had a varied career in K–12 education, starting with working as an English teacher in Australia, working for the Children’s Book Council, holding leadership roles at Scholastic and at HMH, and most recently serving as a teaching fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. How has your experience as a teacher shaped your approach to understanding the needs of students, educators, and families?  

Rose Else-Mitchell: When I first started as a teacher, I remember the fear of facing a group of students, high school seniors, who were only a few years younger than I was—it was pretty intimidating. I can’t imagine how a new teacher must have felt if this past year was their first year of teaching—it would have been daunting. I have empathy for teachers on all ends of the experience continuum. This past year would have been equally challenging in a different way for teachers who've taught for more than 20 years, because they know how to do what they know how to do in pretty specific ways, and that may or may not have included an emphasis on technology. Empathy with educators is a touchstone that I return to again and again in solving for new challenges.

I taught high school students in the mid-90s. I have often thought over the past decade, with the introduction of the iPad and iPhone, about how different high schoolers’ experiences are today than when I taught. How much more they know about the world thanks to the Internet; how much more we know about the brain, about learning, about learning variability and neurodiversity; and how many more pathways through school there are to a productive life. When I think of the impact of COVID-19 on different kids at different levels within the education system, I think high school students have experienced an extraordinary set of opposing conditions for what is necessary for their healthy development. As the process of becoming an adult takes place around that age, our brains start developing with a goal of becoming more independent and separating from families and our homes, or our places of comfort. I believe that the isolation that teenagers have felt during the pandemic is very palpable. If I were teaching a high school class today, I would instinctively want to create a very open space for them to be together without too much discipline or structure initially.

As much as my past experience as a teacher helps me in my role, visiting classrooms and talking to teachers to understand what their more contemporary challenges and issues are is even more valuable. Teachers today will tell you so much more about what they're able to do and what they need if you listen. I always want them to be honest with us.

EDU: Lastly, we want to know: What are you reading right now?  

Rose Else-Mitchell: I am reading a book called Bring Your Human to Work by Erica Keswin. It's about the notion that work can be a depersonalizing space, even more so, when people think about their Zoom, Google, or Teams lives and what it means to really connect with people. It’s about how to really bring your whole self, including qualities of kindness and empathy and connection, to the workplace. I think for a long time, we've tried to keep work and our personal lives separate. While those boundaries can be helpful and, in places, appropriate, and we want to respect confidentiality in certain matters, there's no reason for us not to be our whole selves in terms of our identity and the qualities that make us human. The diversity and creativity we need to innovate doesn’t just come from our skills or our “work self.”

I also am partway into former President Barack Obama’s first volume of memoirs. It’s interesting reading a history you have lived through so recently. Lastly, I'm about to dive into a book on “the Stoics.” People often think of being stoic as tolerating and putting up with something or someone, but there’s an entirely different definition that rests of the notion of gratitude for what we have. So, I'm going back to Marcus Aurelius to read some of the original precepts of Stoicism.