Written by Natalie Walrond, Director of the national Center to Improve Social and Emotional Learning and School Safety at WestEd.

Has it been six months or six years? Navigating the crises of a global pandemic and a national reckoning with centuries of racial oppression has left educators feeling disoriented and vulnerable. Each day seems to bring a new twist, often compromising the things we considered to be bedrock in our lives: our economic resources, our sense of community, our physical safety. At the Center to Improve Social and Emotional Learning and School Safety at WestEd, we see the profound implications that these deeply personal experiences have on how educators serve students in our K–12 education system.

Educators are finding new clarity about the deep connections between equity, excellence, and well-being in education. In this moment, practitioners can see what research and science have been telling us for some time: the concepts of equity, excellence, and well-being are an interrelated sequence of efforts. When leaders understand these connections, the path toward a better education system becomes clearer. We hope the ideas here help leaders at every level find their way forward during this challenging time.

Create or Clarify a Vision of Excellence

We begin with the vision — an excellent education for every child — and work backward from there. In order for any effort to be strategic and coherent, it is important to have a clear vision of the end goal. The Center understands excellence as much more than proficiency in a set of academic standards. Rather, an excellent education also encourages students to be curious about the world around them, gives them the tools they need to explore and discover the things they are curious about, promotes their agency to affect change, builds their sense of self-worth, inspires their personal purpose and place in the community, and equips them with the knowledge and capacity to have economic and social success as adults. We want that for every single child. What is your vision of excellence? Use your notion or vision of excellence to guide your work with students, families, teachers, staff, and community.

Make Well-Being Not Just a Priority, But a Prerequisite

Excellence starts with well-being. This fall, every member of our school community is returning to the school year profoundly changed. Some will be coping with grief, rage, or anxiety. Others will have discovered new identities as activists, leaders, or caregivers. Many leaders feel an urgency to return to academic learning — perhaps as a familiar ritual that could provide comfort to teachers and students alike.

However, schools and districts should address the well-being and connection needs of their students and staff, both as a first priority before academic teaching and learning and in an ongoing way throughout this and every school year. Scientific evidence suggests that well-being and connection are prerequisites to effective teaching and learning. Children, youth, and adults need to first feel regulated — that is, feel physically and emotionally calm and settled — and then feel emotionally connected in safe and responsive relationships, before they can be ready and able to engage effectively in formal instruction.

Further, rest and recovery are not anathema to excellence and high expectations. Science shows that rest helps humans to be more innovative, more creative, and more productive.[1] When we allow ourselves to rest, we invest in our sustainability.

Cultivating Well-Being for All

But who gets to be well? Leaders at every level should take an unflinching look at which students we serve well and which students are being left behind. Many schools have never been the sanctuaries for some students that they are for others. They have not been places of belonging or connection. They have not been places where every student knows that the adults believe in them or hold high expectations for their futures. In short, they have been places that perpetuate the same systems of oppression often found in other aspects of their lives. Working toward well-being in schools must be done hand-in-hand with the work of transforming schools to be anti-racist. To truly know, value, and serve all students, schools must embrace the primacy, strengths, and self-determination of the children, families, and communities they serve.

Schools achieve these conditions for successful teaching, learning, and thriving by authentically embracing the values, histories, and relationships of all students, their families, and their communities. They sustain these conditions by engaging in a continuous cycle of self-reflection; authentic and open partnership with their families and communities; and a willingness to share the resources and power to lead and operate their school.

To achieve equity, educators must truly value Black and brown students and their communities, and act to dismantle racist, homophobic, xenophobic, and other systems of oppression. They must address their implicit biases and embrace culturally responsive teaching practices, so that every child knows that their identity is valued and has a sense of agency and belonging in school. They must create systems and policies that allow all students to learn, grow, and achieve their highest potential.

Planning for a Better Tomorrow

What if, five years from now, we look back on 2020 as the year that K–12 education took the first real steps toward becoming a truly equitable, sustainable system that gives each and every child the education and care they need to develop a sense of personal purpose, the ability to sustain healthy relationships, a sense of place in the community, success in school and the workplace, and engaged citizenship?

The benefit of so much uncertainty is that so much more looks possible. Despite our chaotic context, it’s important to stay focused on the azimuth of our aspirations. This moment brings with it an opportunity to set ourselves on a path toward creating the conditions for every person in the school community to teach, learn, and thrive.


The Center to Improve Social and Emotional Learning and School Safety at WestEd, funded by the U.S. Department of Education, works to build the knowledge and capacity of state education agencies (SEAs) to support their local education agencies (LEAs), so that LEAs can in turn support their schools. Visit the Center’s website for more information and resources.

[1] Pang, Alex Soojung-Kim.  “How Resting More Can Boost Your Productivity.” Greater Good Magazine.  May 11, 2017.