Lucid Dreaming: Planning for a Better Future in a School Crisis

COVID-19 has disrupted education. Learn how to respond to the moment and transform the future through lucid dreaming.

By Nithi Thomas

COVID-19 has disrupted K-12 education. Before the pandemic, inequality, systemic racism, and antiquated learning models already plagued the American education system. However,  the current disruption, while undoubtedly harmful for kids, offers an opening for schools to reimagine more just high schools and re-engineer towards equity and resiliency. 

Doing so requires educators to adopt the challenging practice of “lucid dreaming”—staying present to meet the needs of today while simultaneously making space to look to the future and plan for a better tomorrow. For high schools, the stakes are particularly urgent. Not only are students nearing college and career, but their brains are primed for change, as well. High schools are also especially well-positioned to “lucid dream” because they can engage their students as active and meaningful partners.

Young adults bring experience and maturity, especially in the pandemic where many of them have taken on added responsibilities like bagging groceries as front-line workers or supporting their younger siblings with at-home learning.

While COVID has brought many pressing needs into sharper focus, it also created an opportunity for transforming the education system to work for every child. 

Being present means whiplash planning

Despite calendars rolling towards Winter Vacation, the “back-to-school” season continues to linger in the hopes that in-person schooling is possible this school year. In the short-term, as schools transition between remote, in-person, and hybrid learning models, school leaders will need to be fully present and responsive to the unique needs of the communities they serve.

This whiplash planning is headache-inducing for all involved: teachers are figuring out how to teach some of their kids remotely while simultaneously teaching others in-person; guardians are navigating unpredictable schedules; district and school leaders are struggling to make responsible decisions and please stakeholders; and students are bearing the brunt of disrupted routines, social isolation, and uncertainty about college and career prospects.

For school leaders, attention inevitably gravitates to people: how can they ensure that kids, staff, families, and themselves are physically and mentally healthy? For high schools, where viral spread appears to be a greater threat than elementary and middle schools, the challenge is exceedingly difficult. Furthermore, the complexity of high school credit requirements requires that school administrators and teachers accommodate a variety of additional factors including schedules, class offerings, electives, AP courses, and extracurriculars, the changes of which reverberate across the day-to-day operations of schools.

Given the traditional fragmentation and inflexibility of these various systems—including staffing, finance, maintenance, transportation, and communications, among others—each decision creates additional strain. Successfully navigating these changes demands that leaders be present and focused on the now. 

Dreaming of the future

Despite the all-consuming nature of the 2020-21 school year, many leaders are still making time to plan for a more equitable and resilient future once school reopen. In our work with more than 1,400 schools across the country since the COVID-19 hit, the Learning Accelerator has seen real-world examples of leaders reflecting on their responses to the pandemic and looking critically at the stubborn inequalities in student outcomes that existed prior. In considering their work over the past six months, the goal is not to start over, but to take what’s working in this moment and build on it. 

For example, districts like Indianapolis Public Schools in Indiana rapidly scaled digital learning and expanded technology access, Monterey Peninsula Unified School District in California partnered with local nonprofits to create space for unhoused students to participate in remote learning, and Phoenix Charter Academy in Massachusetts prioritized mental health in how schedules and staff time were allocated.

By doubling down on the strengths in the system, leaders can celebrate and build on the resilience of their communities. The goal is not to go back to pre-pandemic ‘normal’ but to envision and create a more resilient and equitable future. Leaders are seeking to understand what they need to change from pre-remote learning, as well as what new futures exist that policy, mindset, and inertia made impossible before—what Amalia Lopez, director of special programs at Lindsay Unified School District in California, calls “the load-bearing walls” that can now be moved.

Five steps to start lucid dreaming

School and district leaders must lucid dream: stay present and respond to short term needs while making space to design for an equitable and resilient future. Leaders are inherently forced to focus on the short term needs impacting stakeholders right now. Lucid dreaming necessitates taking time not just to put out fires but also to plan for the future. 

Here are five ways leaders can get started:

1. Meet schools where they are. 

Dramatic, systemic change can be intimidating. To get schools moving in the right direction, shrink the change and make the work more accessible. Ask leaders to share “hunches” on what a more equitable and resilient future can be.

2. Start with the community. 

All design work should begin with stakeholders at the table. While leaders may differ in their bandwidth amidst the crisis, user-centered design that includes student, family, and staff voices should be the minimum. Lean on the work of others, including equityXdesign, the National Equity Project, IDEO, and Stanford d.School’s K12 Lab, to support districts in engaging in an equitable process.

3. Build on strengths. 

Self-assessing and building on strengths will attract teachers and leaders to the work and start to build a coalition of supporters. Instead of focusing on problems, follow the old adage, “you’ll catch more flies with honey” and start by celebrating. For example, highlight what Sujata Bhatt, senior fellow at Transcend Education, calls the micro-innovations that teachers and leaders are doing every day to help them see themselves as the drivers of change.

4. Design for the edges. 

Traditional planning focuses on what works for the most students. Designing for equity focuses on what works for the most marginalized students in our schools. Making school work for the students at the edges is not only equitable but it also benefits all students. Leaders can begin by simply focusing on a few individual students, seeking to learn about their experience (through empathy interviews or shadowing), and testing a small solution.

5. Identify resource gaps.

 When trying to make shifts quickly based on your resources it is imperative to understand what your team’s strengths are and where it will be helpful to get additional support or outside perspectives. Utilizing an organizing framework can help you think about where you are aligned and plan for where you need to go. 

Dreaming of a more equitable school system 

Dreaming of a different, more equitable school system requires us to think in new, more inclusive ways. The opportunity to create a better future presents an imperative to move beyond traditional decision-making processes and bring traditionally-excluded stakeholders to the table. That means acknowledging power dynamics and inviting marginalized students and families into the process. While the work can feel messier and slower, it flips the traditional relationship between schools and the kids farthest from opportunity in our system, placing them in the center and amplifying their voice. Designing with the people closest to the problem is not just more inclusive, it leads to better outcomes for those who most deserve them too. 

We at The Learning Accelerator, in partnership with Bellwether Education Partners and other coaching partners, are exploring pathways with districts to design for the future while responding to today’s needs through our Always Ready for Learning Coaching Network and Strategy Lab. Follow along at @LearningAccel. For pro-bono individualized coaching to support you in your planning and thought partnership, complete this questionnaire.