The Engagement Ring

NYKids – Learning from the Schools that Beat the Odds

Episode Summary

A study by University at Albany researchers Kristen Wilcox and Aaron Leo, "Gendered impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic: a mixed-method study of teacher stress and work-life balance," found that female educators experienced the COVID-19 pandemic more negatively than their male counterparts. The study, which was conducted by NYKids, a research-practice partnership housed within the University’s School of Education, adds to emerging research that is finding the pandemic had a disproportionate impact on women in the workforce. Published in September 2022 in the journal "Community, Work and Family," it also lends new insight into the factors driving teacher shortages across the state and nation, with implications for policy and practice. Dr. Wilcox and Dr. Leo also discuss the mission of NYKids and a number of upcoming projects and partnerships.

Episode Notes

Visit the NYKids website.

Bio of Dr. Kristen WIlcox, Associate Professor, Educational Policy & Leadership, School of Education

Bio of Dr. Aaron Leo, Assistant Director of Research, NYKids

The study,  "Gendered impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic: a mixed-method study of teacher stress and work-life balance" published in Community, Work and Family in September 2022.

A primary activity of NYKids is to conduct research and identify promising practices in odds-beating schools.  Review NYKids' research results.

Read reflections from the NYKids team on the NYKids blog.


Episode Transcription

Transcript of The Engagement Ring, Episode 10, NYKids – Learning from the Schools that Beat the Odds 

[Lively, upbeat theme music plays as program host Mary Hunt introduces the program and plays excerpts from her conversation with Dr. Kristen Wilcox and Dr Aaron Leo.]

MARY HUNT: Welcome to the engagement ring, your connection to an ever widening network of higher education professionals, scholars, and community partners, working to make the world a better place. I'm Mary Hunt. Today on the podcast...

KRISTEN WILCOX: Little did we know that the pandemic would carry on for as long as it did and with the repercussions in the schools so deep and broad.

MARY HUNT: New York was one of the first states to be hit hard by the Covid 19 pandemic, a distinction that brought unprecedented difficulties, not the least of which was how to continue to manage and meet the educational needs of the state's three million plus K through twelve students in the midst of a major public health crisis. On the frontline in this effort were teachers, suddenly required to adopt new learning platforms and technologies and adjust to the demands of remote and hybrid instruction. 

AARON LEO: This pandemic… if we can get any silver lining from it is that it sort of offers a moment to sort of stand back and say, okay let's actually change what we've been doing.

MARY HUNT: New York Kids R and D Director Kristin Wilcox and Assistant Director of Research Aaron Leo discuss their study on the pandemic's impact on educators. Here's our conversation… Welcome to the podcast Kristin and Erin.

KRISTEN WILCOX: Thank you for having us. 

AARON LEO: Happy to be here. 

MARY HUNT: Oh, it's a pleasure. This is important work and it's important that we try to understand what we've all just been through over the last couple years as best we can and take the lessons that we've learned from it and apply them. Kristen, what question or questions did you set out to answer in your recent study related to the pandemic's effect on education and teachers? 

KRISTEN WILCOX: We had spent some time thinking about just so many things were going to be impacted. Children and youth obviously were going to be clearly impacted by the pandemic and all of the mandates for social distancing and the necessity to move their instruction to a completely remote environment at the very beginning of the pandemic. Little did we know that the pandemic would carry on for as long as it did and with the repercussions in the schools being so deep and broad. So, our team includes an interdisciplinary team of researchers. We came together and we thought about the necessity of looking at the educator workforce. Of course, things were happening to children, but these educators were oftentimes at the front lines of dealing with the pandemic's impacts. They were communicating with families who were in need of support services. They were directly in contact with children who were dealing with nothing less than an experience of trauma for many of them. So, we designed this study to really look carefully at what was happening around educators' experiences of stress and also secondary traumatic stress such as the stress you feel when you're in interactions with others who are experiencing stress. And then also we are interested in this issue of teacher shortages, particularly in particular geographic areas around this state and in particular specializations going into the pandemic and concerned that the pandemic might actually create even more of a challenging environment for teachers and may contribute to their dissatisfaction with their and potentially even their attrition they're leaving their jobs. So we had a number of questions around stress and job satisfaction and then a set of other questions we were interested in -- just how they were adapting to lots of different changes in their schools. 

MARY HUNT: Aaron, you looked at a lot of different demographic factors of the folks who were respondents in your survey but gender emerged as an important characteristic. Can you talk a little bit about why you paid attention to gender and why that seemed to be an area of interest in this study?

AARON LEO: Sure. So yeah, so as Kristen said, we were interested in sort of the differential impacts across the workforce and gender. We were interested in whether people of different genders were impacted more or less severely by the pandemic -- educators of different genders, I should say specifically the workforce. So, teaching has historically and continues to be a feminized profession. There's much more women who enter the teaching profession and work as teachers than men. And so we wanted to know if there were also inequalities across lines of gender. One of the questions we also asked in the study was whether respondents had childcare duties during the week. So we kind of folded in that question of not only just about gender but also whether these people were parents as well, whether they had children in their care during the week and how that might have impacted their stress levels. 

MARY HUNT: Who were the respondents in your study? How many folks did you work with? How did you design the study? Was it qualitative? Was it quantitative research? Can you talk a little bit about that? 

KRISTEN WILCOX: Sure. Yeah. We designed this study to be conducted in two phases. So, the first phase we were looking for kind of getting a broad understanding from as many educators as we possibly could around their experiences of stress and job satisfaction and adaptation and this was done during that first year of the pandemic, closures and hybrid learning environment. So that was from March of 2020 through March of 2021. We were looking for educators to give us some responses to questions around the “stressed-out/satisfaction/adaptation” questions. And that was done through a skilled survey instrument that was based on other validated instruments and some questions we designed ourselves. And so, we captured those data approximately one year after the beginning of the pandemic-induced closures of schools so that people could reflect back on what they had experienced during that year, how their experiences of just working with each other, working with children and families had been impacted. After that initial survey was conducted in that first year. we had about 900 -- a little over 900 -- educator responses from 38 schools. So it's not representative of all schools in New York State, but it was enough of a survey response that we were able to run some analysis on the data to look for where we saw patterns and statistical significance. And so, in the second phase what we did was we ran statistical tests on the survey responses to identify schools where educators were indicating lower levels of stress -- or lower levels of change in stress and lower levels of change in job satisfaction over the period of the beginning the pandemic in the first year. And that's where in that second phase we used a qualitative multiple case study design. And we were really looking to answer questions like, “Okay, how did this happen? How did you deal with stress? How were you supported by your community or your school or district leaders or each other to make it through? What kinds of things did you experience in terms of family interactions and student interactions that that kept you kind of motivated in moving through the pandemic in a more positive way?” So, that's what we call a positive outlier study where we identify a set of either a school, some unit of analysis that is unique in a positive way. And ultimately, we were trying to discover how did these people get through this. 

MARY HUNT: Were they just teachers that you interviewed? Were they teaching assistants, psychologists, guidance counselors? What range of educational professionals were involved in this study? And specifically, what kind of stresses did they experience?

KRISTEN WILCOX: Yeah, so I'll just speak to the first phase, which is what is in this paper that we just had published on the gendered Impacts which was based on the first phase of the study. So, in that survey we ended up having, well mostly classroom teachers respond to that but we also surveyed specialists. So, these people are considered support staff specialists though they often carry the titles of like a school psychologist or a counselor or a social worker. And we thought those were a very important frontline educators to include in that survey. So those are some of the people we got the survey responses from. In addition to scaled items, we also had an open-ended response on our survey that just asked them to share anything that they had experienced during the pandemic with regard to stress or job satisfaction or adaptation. That was what the dataset was. 

MARY HUNT: Teaching is a stressful profession to begin with? I'm just curious what stressors seemed to rise to the top of their… what kind of things did they report, or did they score high in terms of affecting their satisfaction or dissatisfaction with their jobs?

AARON LEO: So, on the survey, on the first phase we had kind of as Kristen mentioned it was a lot of scaled items on like a Likert scale of one to five, typically of less stressful and more stressful. So, we added a number of questions. Some were related to the change to remote learning. Some were related to sort of what we talked about in the in the paper -- the gendered paper -- which is maybe you could kind of classify work-life balance, how those sorts of issues were affecting teachers stress levels, which were certainly significant. Other issues were related to the virus itself, concerns about safety, health, which were again significant. And some were related more to just workplace issues, decision making, whether some educators felt maybe they were kind of left out of the loop. There was a lot of uncertainty about how to proceed. what was going to happen. Some teachers had concerns about their job security in the face of the pandemic. Layoffs might have been looming, things like that. So, there were a lot of issues that we asked about in the first phase of the study. The second one was a qualitative study, so we had interviews and those kind of probed a kind of more specific range of questions, especially related to how teachers kind of adapted and innovated. 

MARY HUNT: Did they say… I mean was there any way… whether it was something that they indicated on a scale or in an open-ended question they indicated, “I'm stressed out because I can't talk one-on-one with the students, or I'm not in the room with the students, or I'm not in the room with my colleagues so I can't troubleshoot with a colleague or I can't see a parent face-to-face. I mean specifically what aggravated. Frustrated, frightened, worried them that was different because of the pandemic or that was heightened because of the pandemic. 

KRISTEN WILCOX: There were a lot of things and things kind of converged to make things quite unmanageable for some people, not all. And that's where the gendered impacts piece really kind of tried to tease apart where were the stressors really coming from. Was it childcare responsibilities, was it just feeling of being disconnected from colleagues? Was it the work-life balance of having to take care of children at home? So, one quote from one educator in our study… this is from the open-ended response in the survey, it said, “I loved coming to work prior to the pandemic. I felt like I was a fun, engaging teacher and looked forward to working with my students. I was a happier person both at work and at home. Now I'm miserable and I leave work in a bad mood.” Another educator spoke to a whole group of things that we saw as patterns in other responses, and this educator said the job of being an educator is stressful even during quote/unquote “normal school years.” But “this year has taken it to the extreme. It has taken a mental, physical, and emotional toll on all of us. I don't sleep well at all. I have had shingles due to stress. I had to have a dental procedure performed because I was grinding my teeth and my sleep. The only constant is change and that has never been more true than this year.”

MARY HUNT: It's interesting because professionals from all areas of the economy, I think, reported feeling increased stress in their jobs. That’s anecdotal. I have no evidence to prove that. I'm just curious. Were educational professionals hit harder, do you think? Did they seem to suffer as much as anyone in the workplace cause of the changes?

KRISTEN WILCOX: Yeah, it's hard to speak to what other people have experienced from our dataset and our experiences of the second phase of our study being in the schools. I think the educator workforce benefited from a few things but also suffered some pretty severe negative consequences as well on the positive side. Because schools are so central in their communities there tended to be a sense of like, oh, thank you. You're frontline workers. You're so important to our community. You're so important to our children. I think the childcare responsibilities of educators became even more highlighted and recognized when it wasn't available anymore to parents and to the community. So, there was that sense and that appreciation. We also noticed that as the pandemic kind of continued on and prolonged for such a long period of time there were many times that we saw exhaustion coming through and what people were expressing that it was kind of the constant. This last quote that I shared is constant churn and change. That was just really exhausting for people, very difficult for them to sustain effort over long periods of time. And from the side of where we saw differential impacts in different places, I think in some places the community really tended to rally around community members and they were very supportive in other places. There was a certain amount of fraying of that support over time and frustration about social distancing and masking mandates and we've heard about Board of Education meetings getting very hostile in some cases. And so you saw some really positive things happening where people were pulling together around educators. And educators were really taking on a caretaking role of their community. And then as the pandemic continued to prolong for a long period of time, you saw some of those tensions kind of rise and become much more difficult and in certain places more than others. 

MARY HUNT: And you found that female educators experienced more -- or reported more -- maybe is a better way to say it. I'll let you phrase it properly, but they seemed to feel more dissatisfaction with their jobs than their male counterparts. Is that correct?

AARON LEO: Yeah. In our survey data we found that educators who identified as female, yeah, they experienced, or as you say, reported higher levels of stress than their male colleagues.

MARY HUNT: What do you attribute that to, or are you able to say? 

AARON LEO: Yeah, so that was one of the things that we found in the paper. We ran some sort of statistical analyses and what it showed was it was related more to the questions about workplace characteristics and work workplace issues and COVID issues. And so, that that touches on a couple of the questions we asked but we had sort of hypothesized that this might have been more related to childcare duties because there was other research that suggested that, In situations like this women are going to sort of have to take on more domestic duties, childcare duties because of this sort of stereotypical division of labor that women are expected to sort of perform these tasks. And we thought that this would was going to create more stress among the female teachers that we surveyed. That what was happening at home was going to ????? their responses on the survey and really disrupt that work-life balance. And so, what we found was actually even though women did report increased levels of stress, more severe increases than men, it was actually related to issues at work, workplace issues, and Covid-related issues not childcare responsibility.

AARON LEO: So, actually women with childcare and without were pretty similar in their responses, so that was one thing that we kind of found a bit surprising, I guess given some of the other expectations and some other research that was coming out about just mothers across the country and what they were experiencing.

MARY HUNT: Other findings that you might want to share?

AARON LEO: Yeah, I mean that was really the big thing, kind of trying to figure out, okay it might be sort of unsurprising that women would be experiencing higher levels of stress than men but what was the cause behind that? And so that was one of the big things we were interested in and that we were able to kind of demonstrate. I would only just add also, and I'm sure maybe Kristen has something else that I'm missing, but it wasn't also that men experienced stress or increased levels of stress. It was just only that women’s stress increased more. Their stress levels were more severe. The increases were more severe so it was disproportionate. So that was one thing too that we wanted to emphasize that everybody -- all the educators in our study -- pretty much did demonstrate some increases in stress. It was just that women were affected a bit more severely.

MARY HUNT: What would you expect the results of this increased stress level on teachers or dissatisfaction with their work might lead to ultimately? How would this affect the teaching workforce? 

AARON LEO: I think even before the pandemic I mean issues with recruitment, recruiting teachers, having college students pursue teaching as a career, or young people I should say, pursuing teaching. I think retaining high quality teachers making sure that these positions are staffed. I think all of those issues were already kind of significant before the pandemic. So, I can't imagine they've been lessened. I can only imagine they're even more pressing now. So even some of the things that Kristen touched on with sort of community tensions, the politicization of certain issues around teaching. I think all have influenced the stress levels that educators face in their jobs and I can't imagine that it's… I would imagine that it’s going to definitely increase levels of burnout or we definitely saw responses about early retirement people who said, “I can't do this anymore. I'm going to retire early.” And I'm sure there are people who are maybe even thinking twice about entering the profession, unfortunately, due to these sorts of things. So, I'd imagine in terms of teacher shortages it has to definitely being affecting that.

KRISTEN WILCOX: I'll just start to piggyback a little bit off of what Aaron was saying too. I think like in a lot of different kinds of workplaces throughout the pandemic we've heard this term of “soft” or “quiet quitting” where people just cut back the level of their work. They don't quit per se, but we could expect that educators have entered this school year with potentially less motivation or desire or even just if you want to say bandwidth to engage in new initiatives, to do difficult new kinds of things, like curriculum revision needs to happen or implementing a new program in the school because of them coming out of a period of time that was so disruptive and so exhausting. So, we could expect that, to your point Mary, particularly in schools that are under-resourced that do not have the depth of support services that are needed. So we know that from other research that children… many of them have experienced some very difficult setbacks in their own social emotional development. And that has implications for how they behave in school. And then it has Implications for how teachers experience kids in their classrooms when they're trying to teach content and if they don't have the depth of support services from social workers, school psychologists or counselors to help them with just helping kids learn how to re-engage with each other learn how to attend. There's been a whole lot of talk about just. Children and youth not having built up their muscles to sit and work in a classroom environment for longer periods of time because they spend so much time out of such environments. So if they don't have the depth of support, and don't have the depth of support for support staff to work with children who are struggling, whether mental health or behaviorally… whatever it might be, you can expect that they'll be experiencing a greater level of stress, greater level of job dissatisfaction. And those are all predictors for them leaving their jobs. So this is what we have in front of us right now. And in my position as director of New York Kids I work with a whole group, different people in the education sector including… I'm a representative on the principal's board and when I listen to school leaders talk about their struggles right now in trying to fill positions, it's an imminent issue right now. They are barely able to staff their schools to the point that they can meet these needs. And so it puts extra pressure on those teachers and support staff that are still working. 

MARY HUNT: Kristen, the research raises the question of how educators can be better supported in school settings, particularly women. Did the research offer any recommendations? 

KRISTEN WILCOX: This particular analysis about the gendered impacts of the pandemic on educators really highlights some of the unique needs of the educator workforce. And I think when we think about supports for teachers to be able to make a living wage and be able to pay for childcare at home, for women in the workforce to feel as if they have some decision-making authority, it’s also important because we ask questions around how much control do you feel over your situation. Obviously when you feel out of control you feel more stressed and this is where the women who are responding to our survey… we're indicating on those sets of questions that were around control were indicating that they needed to have more voice in what they do in their school and how they do their work. So these have implications for how women are treated as fellow decision makers in their roles as teachers and support staff members, and also to the bigger issue of just the childcare crisis that we have not only in our state but across the country, and making education a field that people can have dual incomes and pursue that field of work. It’s unfortunate, but we're at a point right now where the pandemic may have prompted a regression where women who are in the teaching workforce just don't feel that they can justify going to work every day and needing to pay for childcare for their own children. So those are those are big implications for policy and for practices within schools to help women be able to make this a viable career choice. 

AARON LEO: Just to sort of add to that, schools are embedded in communities and states and I mean those things matter. It's not only just what can happen in the classroom or the school level. I mean I think that's obviously very important, but principals and teachers, those relationships between leaders and those things are all important and came out in our study. But also as Kristen alludes to, there's a wider context -- the relationship between the school and the community which is quite important. And then, yeah, at the level of state and federal policy those things really matter a lot. Whether again like Kristen mentioned… whether teachers again as workers, as laborers, can afford to raise a family on their salary, whether they have to decide if they're going to leave their job, or if they can -- both parents can work and can afford childcare. Those are decisions that are affected by policy. So it's things like paid leave, paid maternity and paternity leave, sick leave. I mean all those things I think affect teachers’ stress levels… whether they're going to remain in the profession and then even whether young people are going to sort of pursue a college degree and pursue the teaching profession. Those things are also affected, I think, by policy whether. Young people can be supported, whether college is affordable for them. All those things I think are present and are sort of underlying the implications of the study too. So I just wanted to add in those wider contextual factors that Kristen also alluded to.

MARY HUNT: This study is just one of many that New York kids has undertaken over it's more than 18 year history. Let's talk a little bit about New York Kids, the research practice partnership, and what its mission is and what drives it and informs that mission. Kristen... 

KRISTEN WILCOX: So we've really had kind of three pillars of our work: to inform, inspire and improve. And the informed part of our work is really about trying to get the message out about our core work about research. But we have a website. It's N Y kids dot org. And there we provide a whole lot of different kinds of information, some resources about school improvement. We oftentimes gather research around particular topics of interest. So particularly during the pandemic people were interested in some of the things they might be doing to adapt instruction or whatever it may be. So we have resources on there, us actually pulling together research for others to be able to absorb. And then we also have blogs. Sometimes we have guest bloggers and then we do blogs on our own research. So there's that part. We also have a performance tracker and it is a unique database that helps inform anyone who wants to use it about the performance of different schools, states over time by student subgroup. And so it's a very unique resource that you typically don't find in other places. On the inspire part of things really what we… our core work is around positive outlier research. So we're always looking for places where we see children, youth, and in this case with our last study educators, performing above what you would expect. So, those positive outlier studies always use some kind of dataset. Sometimes we use data like graduation rates. In this case we used educator survey responses, but it depends upon the study. We identify these schools through some statistical analysis and identifying okay this is a place that is of interest because they are getting a better outcome in some respect. And we always have had as a core focus of our work around equity, so we design our studies to look through the lens of demographic variables such as the percentages of different populations, people of color, people of different language backgrounds, people of different socioeconomic statuses. So, we designed those studies to highlight the places where you have high diversity, but we also try to make sure that we are representative of the variety of communities in New York State -- smaller rural communities all the way up to our large urban communities in our studies so that we can look at that variability of experiences. And then the last part of what we do is we have used our studies along with other research and coupled that with some of the best tools and processes we have around performance improvement that we use as a signature kind of methodology improvement science in some of the direct support services that New York kids offers. Sometimes we partner with places like BOCES to offer that support service to school and districts.And it's really about using research to inform really strategic changes within schools or districts and using the positive outlier research really to say, okay, if this is what we see our peers are doing how can we let our peers in other schools around our state really help us learn and think about how we might do things differently. Maybe not the idea of like you take exactly what they're doing and put it into your school but these are what we might call change ideas that you can bring to the fore, so New York Kids has been doing this improvement work for actually about a dozen years now. We started in 2010 and we call them Compass Institutes. And, so yeah, we've got a breadth of things -- inform, inspire, improve. 

MARY HUNT: The mission of New York Kids dovetails beautifully with both your backgrounds. Can you talk a little bit about your own academic training and your research interests?

AARON LEO: Yeah, so my field is cultural anthropology. I'm an anthropologist and so I completed my PhD in 2018 at the University of Albany. And so my interest was in newcomer populations. So, first generation immigrant refugee and asylee populations, people who've come to the U.S. as children or young adults and their experiences in school. And so that was… that was kind of my primary topic for my dissertation and their… the role school plays in these young people's lives and their feelings and aspirations about education and living in the U.S. That was my primary interest and still remains an important interest of mine. And I began working with Kristen around that time, a bit before, and then came on with New York Kids formally in 2018 after I graduated. And so all the things that Kristen just mentioned -- the mission of New York Kids -- fit really nicely with my own interest in terms of concerns about educational equity but also having a really strong emphasis on improving policy and practice, not just research for research's sake. It really is, I think our research is really sort of guided by what difference it can make and that it informs what might happen in classrooms across the across the state, and also policies. 

MARY HUNT: Kristen? 

KRISTEN WILCOX: Yeah, I started my career actually in the classroom. I was an E N L teacher, so English new language teacher back in the beginning of my career. And I taught everywhere through kindergarten up into higher education in the U.S. and then in Puerto Rico and down in Brazil for a while. And when I went back for my PhD I focused on curricular instruction as my area but specifically culturally responsive pedagogy was kind of at the core of my research interest. And I've been bridging into educational policy and leadership for about the last 15 years realizing the importance of seeing what happens in classrooms through the lens of policy and leadership. So that's where I'm situated right now. And most of this work that New York Kids has afforded me the opportunity to do has been really in close alignment with my concern about just how do we understand gaps and opportunity for youth, and finding really practical ways of addressing those. A lot of the work that we're doing with New York kids right now is moving into more of just trying to make sure that we bridge what we understand about curriculum and instruction what we understand about policy and leadership, and then also just make sure that we are really listening to practicing professionals in our field making that connection between research and practice and practice and research. So, opening up lots of opportunity to get lots of voices in our studies included. I think Aaron and I are both on that same page of trying to make sure we get diversity of voices included in what is… you know we primarily do qualitative research. 

MARY HUNT: You make a real point in all your literature on your website of drawing a distinction between equity and equality. Why is that important? What is the distinction between the two? 

KRISTEN WILCOX: Yeah, I think unfortunately for the last few decades many of the approaches toward addressing kind of the greatest gaps we have in opportunity for marginalized and vulnerable youth has been around this Idea of like throwing resources at it, throwing money at it, throwing grants at it. And somehow if we give equal access to these kinds of funds that we’ll get better outcomes for particular populations of people. And one of the things that Aaron and I have really used as kind of a theoretical foundation for our studies is something called social ecological theory. And it's really about looking at how… what impacts individuals is so much impacted by what surrounds them, different levels within systems. So looking at communities carefully and then beyond communities to state policies and things like that. And we know that in order for equity to happen we have to be able as researchers to identify where those barriers exist across these systems. To do that's pretty hard to do. It's difficult for us to be able to tease some of these things apart in research, but that's kind of what the goal is, to say that we need to not just throw resources at things and expect that you'll get equal outcomes, but that there has to be a much more systematic approach to identifying where the barriers are and making sure that the populations of people who are most in need of different kinds of adaptations, of different kinds of resources are getting what they need. And that's kind of where the science is right now, about just trying to get better at getting better in our education field by being much more nuanced and precise about how we address issues of equity and access.

MARY HUNT: How is New York Kids funded?

KRISTEN WILCOX: We have a funding line in the state budget. We have a small amount in the executive budget that gets funneled through the University at Albany and that's what helps us keep moving. Occasionally we work with other organizations. For example we have a study going on right now and actually a partnership going on right now through the American Institutes for Research. And they've given us some moderate funds. So, occasionally, in the past as well, we've had private donors. IBM originally gave us our first laptops back in the day to get us off the ground and running. And then the University at Albany, of course, houses us and so does a great deal of support on the administrative side… gives us offices to do our work in. So, that's kind of a… it's a combination of different things right now. We're always looking for more donors and partners.

MARY HUNT: Are you always open to new partners or accepting new projects, new research proposals?

KRISTEN WILCOX: So, I would identify partners in different ways. We have partners in the sense of advisory board organizations who I see as really thought partners and also organizations that really help us be able to do studies. For example, the School Administrators Association of New York. They helped us with our last survey study that we've discussed today. NYSCUS, NYSUT, we have a variety of different advisory board members listed. I see them as partners in terms of thinking through how to be relevant to practice when we're designing studies and when we're doing improvement work, but also partners in the sense of helping us disseminate information out to their stakeholders. We also have partners in terms of schools and districts who we work with directly to provide school improvement support as I was talking about with COMPASS. And so those are a variety of different people. We have, I think, about eight different schools right now working with us this school year and using some of these improvement resources. So I see them as partners and also just staying current with what the actual needs are in schools making sure that research isn't just done on schools but that we do work with each other to improve processes and outcomes for kids and families.

MARY HUNT: What are you both most proud of that New York Kids has been able to achieve or contribute? 

AARON LEO: Well there's a lot. I mean I appreciate, I guess, that we are able to speak to different audiences. We have very practical, sort of concrete findings and implications that educators are interested in. We have the professional development workshops that Kristen was talking about called COMPASS, but we also work with educators and others and school leaders in a lot of different ways, and they're interested in the things we've found and we are interested in learning from them. So there's that really concrete level that we work at. But I also like that we do speak to more academic audiences sometimes too. We publish papers. We go to academic conferences. We have things to say at kind of theoretical abstract levels too, which I think is important to speak to with our work. So, I'm kind of appreciative. I don't often use the word “proud,” but I'm proud to work on projects that kind of operate at both levels, that we're not we're not sacrificing one for the other. And I think that's sort of… it's nice to sort of be able to work in those different spaces and speak to different audiences. And it just allows for kind of a broader range of topics that we can work on and things we can write and places we can disseminate our work to. And as Kristen mentioned, we have lots and lots of different partners and we work with different graduate students, different professors, from all sorts of disciplines, disciplinary backgrounds, and interests. And oftentimes we're able to collaborate with them because of that, that Kristen was talking about because we work on so many different things. It opens us up to so many possibilities and I think that really just makes my job a lot a lot more interesting. And, I think our work a lot more interesting too. Yeah, I guess I'm proud of the fact that we have been able to develop over time as a really hub for improvement in the education sector, and New York State has oftentimes been a leader in the education sector has had traditionally fairly rigorous standards, and our outcomes are generally fairly good in comparison to other states across the country. So I feel proud of having New York Kids having grown and been sustained for as long as it has. I'm grateful that we have been funded to do so and I think it is a unique kind of asset for our state to do this important work of not only having a vision for how to have mutually beneficial research practice partnerships but actually follow through with that in action to see outcomes through our research of positive outliers, but also through the outcomes that we see with those schools that we are directly partnered with. So I feel really good about having developed that kind of just infrastructure for this kind of work to happen. And I think it's a powerful example for other states across our nation.

MARY HUNT: What's on your short list of upcoming research topics? What do you want to get to or know that’s coming soon that you're anxious to kind of dig your teeth into? 

KRISTEN WILCOX: We are digging right now into the dataset we currently have on a few different, in a few different areas and we're very interested in the differential impacts as we were saying of the pandemic. And one of the areas that I think is of high concern and of interest… we're meeting actually with the advisory board in a couple of weeks to just discuss… talk through which one of these study foci we might want to pursue in our next study. But social-emotional learning and mental health are very much at the center of lots of discussions right now. I think it's a huge concern of how this generation of young people has navigated this pandemic and what kinds of new designs and resources need to be offered within schools to meet their needs. So, the social emotional learning and mental health is one area we're interested in, where also Aaron is leading up analysis right now on family and parent engagement. So, really thinking about how do we pull together our communities, make those connections between what kids are learning in school and what kids are learning at home and out of school? How do we build more of a sense of community and partnership between families and parents and people in their schools? We're also really interested in what's happening in different pockets of communities around our state. We know that the pandemic really impacted one of our analyses, actually it’s showing the particularly negative impacts in communities with high poverty. And so we're very interested in digging deeper into, for example, what's happening in higher poverty communities… what we can expect or need in the future in those communities to pull out of this pandemic hopefully stronger… and also in communities that are different in terms of urbanicity… our rural communities across the state are many and they come in many shapes and sizes -- very small rural communities to very geographically large rural communities. They encountered a unique set of challenges with, for example, broadband access. These are issues that have differentially affected those communities so we're interested in digging into even those differences in experiences by urbanicity. Those are a few topics that we're thinking about right now.

MARY HUNT: Interesting. It occurs to me that as adults and educators we just expect that students will take what they've learned and apply it to their schoolwork or apply it to their lives. But are we doing the same? Are schools, districts, states taking what they've learned from the pandemic and putting that to use or learning from those lessons? Are we learning and applying them as quickly and as adeptly as perhaps we should or are we reverting to our old ways?

KRISTEN WILCOX: I would say there may be a combination of both and it depends upon context. So I think on the one side reverting is not necessarily always a bad thing. There were things that we found about just trying to maintain very dear traditions in schools like proms and things like that that are really community building and they're so important for young people… that those kinds of things to revert back to… some of those traditions, those kind of warm, fuzzy connecting things were super important. And those are good things that people are trying to do. Then I think there's also this side of it that. Some of the things that the pandemic forced us to do, to learn new technologies, to use them in different ways, to really disrupt the way we think about teaching and learning have been really difficult for some practitioners to adapt to and want to continue to do. And I think it's an interesting time right now where people are making some decisions. It really worked for us to have an app for example that parents and kids could access 24/7 to get information. We don't want to lose that. These are important things that I think people are making decisions about that these things really worked really well during the pandemic and who knows what kind of disruption is down the road. We might want to make sure that we're more ready next time. If something else happens, whether a pandemic or it could be a climate related event, something that causes a disruption… that these kinds of things are very much on the radar for keeping them and making sure that you have staff that are technologically savvy ready to help with any of these kinds of changes in the future. 

MARY HUNT: One last question for you both. If you could look into your crystal ball informed by your research, of course, what does the future of the teaching profession look like? 

KRISTEN WILCOX: I think we've definitely moved past the model of teachers only as transmitting knowledge with the changes in our environment whereby we can access information from millions of people at any time of the day and through all sorts of different sources and social media and otherwise the transformation of the teaching and learning field is fully underway and will continue to move in the direction where teachers will need to be considered not just specialists in their content but people who are able to engage young people in what they call 21st century skills. That means thinking critically about information, not just receiving information… thinking critical about information and how it gets applied to real world problems. So I think this… where the education field is headed now is engaging in those critical thinking skills, those higher order skills, making sure that young people know how to continue to learn across their entire lifespan with recognition… that preparation for a particular position or job from the time you enter kindergarten into the time you might graduate from high school could look very different. And so having these kinds of skills that will translate over time and be able to be moved or used in different kinds of ways is going to be super important. 

I don't have too much to add. I think just some of the things that Kristen mentioned before I think are going to become even more important or sort of foregrounded. I think the sensitivities to how out-of-school factors, extra-school issues, community issues play a role in what happens in the classroom. I think more attention to that, more sensitivities to that. And I think these are probably things that teachers know and have known, that it's not anything new to them but I think that these things are just going to have to be taken a lot more seriously, perhaps like even the emphasis on social emotional learning, students' mental health. I think there's just no way that can be overlooked anymore. Perhaps it hasn't been, but I would imagine that there has to be more formal training and formal programs to really focus on these things now because I don't think it can be sort of backgrounded anymore. I think those things are just so important and I would hope to see it sort of take a more central role in schools but also we want teachers who are training to become teachers learn what they learn in college classrooms, what teacher education programs are doing. I think that hopefully those will also catch up with what teachers have been experiencing in the classroom. And so that teachers are ready to take on those new challenges. And then lastly, I would just say to what we talked about in terms of equity and equality, I think issues of equity and that difference between those two words I think is something that hopefully, at the policy level, I think will have to be grappled with… the fact that different communities, different student groups have different needs and are best supported in different ways. And that we can't really just have these sort of blanket accountability programs and all these sorts of standardized things that are just not seeming to be as effective and again I think this this is stuff that teachers probably already know and have been saying for a long time but I'm hoping that this pandemic, if we can get any silver lining from it, is that it sort of offers a moment to sort of stand back and say, okay, let's actually change what we've been doing. And I think a focus on equity would be one place to do that.

MARY HUNT: Kristen Wilcox and Aaron Leo of New York Kids, thanks for your important research and thanks for being my guest today on the podcast. 

KRISTEN WILCOX: It's great to be with you. Thank you. 

AARON LEO: Thanks, Mary. 

MARY HUNT: Dr. Kristen Wilcox is director of research and development for New York Kids and an associate professor in the Department of Educational Policy and Leadership at the University at Albany's School of Education. Dr. Aaron Leo is the assistant director of research for New York Kids. For more information on New York Kids visit N Y dash kids dot org. The Engagement Ring is produced by the University at Albany's Office for Public Engagement. If you have questions or comments or want to share an idea for an upcoming podcast, email The Engagement Ring is produced by the University at Albany's Office for Public Engagement. If you have questions or comments or want to share an idea for an upcoming podcast, email us at UAlbany O P E at Albany dot edu. 

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