Priya Parker, Brené Brown, and how a Return to Work relates to K-12 Return to School

My morning walk is my time to listen to podcasts, and one morning last week I was captivated by a conversation (part 1 of 2) between Brené Brown and Priya Parker entitled “How We Return and Why it Matters“.

Priya Parker is the author of “The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why it Matters“. In this conversation, she and Brené Brown discuss how the world is going back to work, and what that might look like.  As a K-12 Principal, it’s also been a topic at the forefront of my thinking, and I was struck by how similar our concerns are.

Access and Equity

Priya Parker and Brené Brown discuss the possibility that a return to in-person work might inadvertently be punishing those who choose to continue to work from home. Priya Parker suggests that “if not everybody is in the room, is it important to have two facilitators or two hosts, an in-person host and a hybrid host?”  She recommends that in order to not exclude those working from home, perhaps everyone has to take the meeting through their computers in separate rooms, so as to not limit power and access.

In our K-12 educational context, this is exactly the concern of our educators, who worry that a hybrid model with a single teacher will shift the focus to the teacher from the students. And they share a concern that students at home and students in the classroom will not have equitable access to resources, to the attention of the teacher, and to opportunities to collaborate and learn together.


Priya Parker shared a story about a parent who tried to protect guests to her child’s party by providing t-shirts that indicated their vaccination status. In an effort to allow her guests to make informed choices, she was inadvertently creating a caste system.

As our children ages 12 to 18 begin to be vaccinated, we will be entering our middle and secondary schools in September with both students and teachers who may be fully or partially vaccinated. I know that there will be students who will use this as an argument to push back against cohorting, masking, social distancing, and use of sanitizing processes. And I fear that those who still do not feel safe heading into our schools due to personal or family circumstances will run the risk of being excluded, both socially and physically.

Physical Distancing

In business we shake hands, and in schools there is often a culture of hugging and other forms of physical connection. Elbow bumps, bowing, and air “high fives” may need to be developed as a form of connection when we meet in person. There is a risk of “micro-moments of perceived rejection” as we develop our sense of connection, and consider physical proximity as a measure of how much or how little we are “liked”.

When working online we are glued to our seats, not moving. We cannot be moving around the room and still able to maintain connection through our cameras. Will a year of inactivity result in students who are no longer comfortable moving around the classroom, interacting with each other? Will teachers be driven to return to the 1960’s model of the teacher at the podium, lecturing to the class?

Principles and Policies

The principle behind the the t-shirts was caring, but the policy of providing shirts served to exclude. In order to get to meaningful policy we need to aim for policy that reflects people’s “deepest experiences”, through a participatory process so that people “feel that the policy is the best way to coordinate their work”.

As I write this blog post, some Ontario school boards have communicated an intent to deliver program through hybrid classrooms for the 2021-2022 school year. This policy decision has been made, often without any experience of the hybrid model. And for boards where hybrid models are in place, little attention may have been paid to the genuine experiences of the teachers, students and their families.

Policies provide the “handrails and guardrails” that Brené Brown says need to be designed from “power with and power to, not power over”. However a policy of hybrid instruction provides neither handrails, which would be created through successful models and exemplars, nor guardrails, which could only be formed from the experiences of our teachers.

Rather than impose a policy, we need to consider ourselves to be “in beta”, and continue to be creative and innovate as we remain in this period of great transition. Imposition of policy as an act of power can only be destructive to our education system, and to our students.

Next Steps

I look forward to listening to Part 2 of this podcast, and to continue my thinking about how we gather, be it online or eventually in person.

I am also interested in how the plan for hybrid learning will be framed by some of our school boards as anything other than a power and money move. In the long run, I cannot see how we can defend a system that creates worse outcomes for all participants. Will we hear from parents who want in-person-only classes, so that the teacher can provide individual attention to their children? Will parents begin demanding “paper packages” so that they don’t have to deal with technology at home?  Will teachers leave the profession, burnt out by the demands of teaching two different groups at the same time?

As a Principal of a fully virtual school I have seen how effectively each of the three remote models: fully synchronous instruction, asynchronous instruction via an effective Learning Management System, and remote learning with well-design print materials, can be for different student needs. But I cannot imagine how a teacher can do their best in all three models while simultaneously providing a rich, in-person classroom experience. We have the potential to develop the “handrails and guardrails” that we need, but not with an imposed policy based upon money and power.