"Pivotal." "A portal." "Adaptive optimism." "Emboldened," but at times also "defeated," "beleaguered," and "perplexed."

At a January 30 lead educator retreat, dozens of teachers and administrators who are part of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights’ Speak Truth to Power education program gave candid assessments of their mindsets during the “long haul” COVID-19 pandemic, explaining in detail what has helped them sharpen their focus and steel them for what’s to come. 

Educators from around the country and as far away as Spain came together virtually to discuss how those implementing a human rights curriculum will collectively move forward in the year ahead. Among the key questions: What will our new normal look like? And, importantly, how can we help create that space with purpose and intention? 

Richard Iannuzzi, a past president of the New York State Teachers Union, noted that any “new normal” depends on various school communities’ ability to acknowledge the realities of systemic racism, what he calls a “real reckoning of what role we’ve played in where we’ve been before we can address where we want to go.” 

Chris Buckley, a social studies teacher at Brookfield High School in Brookfield, Conn., agreed. “We need to recognize there are real inequalities for our kids and the way we look at our teachers and colleagues and how this all plays out,” he said. The pandemic is “highlighting both the good and bad of how our systems work. They’re broken to a degree.”

Amalia Schiff, a teacher at the Bronx School for Law, Government and Justice, said COVID-19 offers an “incredible opportunity” to expand the STTP program. Prior to the pandemic, students wouldn’t have connected virtually to the program’s speaker series, for instance, but now they are now more able to engage in this type of work because of their experience and exposure to platforms like Zoom. Previously, she said, it was a struggle to reserve laptops for students, and to teach them to navigate online. “I really see us being able to take advantage of [this] time to expand the programming,” she said.

What’s more, Tudy Jawanda, a high school social studies teacher at Hunter College High school in New York City from Brooklyn, N.Y., said she’s noticed that both her students and her own children have become “so connected to being actively involved in the constrained ways they can be right now. They’re very receptive at the moment [to] thinking of themselves as defenders.”

Adnan Karim, RFK’s managing director of human rights education, gave teachers a sneak peek at some of what the program has in store for them in the year ahead: many more speakers and events, a new training manual, a “Becoming a Defender” toolkit, and some new online lesson modules that will bring traditional lessons to life in a self-guided framework. 

“2020 presented us with so many challenges—deep, painful, personal, hurtful, at times all-consuming challenges,” said Karen Robinson, STTP program director. “So I settled and I centered and I focused on my simple truth: Human rights should be, need to be, our foundation. Our work to educate, inspire, and activate each other, our students, and our communities is needed now more than ever.…At the center of this learning, which is the critical first step, is you—the educator, the school administrator, the union sisters and brothers—all of you on the front line protecting and preserving a fragile educational ecosystem.”