Dean Charles Martinez — No, This Is Not Our New Normal

April 17, 2020

In this time of enormous global change, many people have referred to what we are experiencing as our “new normal.” Charles R. Martinez, Jr., dean of the College of Education at The University of Texas at Austin, explains why he challenges the use of that phrase, how the pandemic is shining a spotlight on education and health disparities, and how the college is positioned to disrupt those disparities and help people move toward a healthy, equitable society.


M. YVONNE TAYLOR: Hi, and welcome to Talking Eds, the podcast for all things education, produced by the College of Education at the University of Texas at Austin. I'm Yvonne Taylor. This is our first podcast recorded at the time of coronavirus, and it's our first time using Zoom technology to record. It's also our first time to interview the College of Education dean, Charles Martinez. Dean Martinez, thank you for joining us and welcome to Talking Eds.

CHARLES MARTINEZ: Thank you. It's great to be here even under unusual circumstances.

M. YVONNE TAYLOR: How are you doing?

CHARLES MARTINEZ: I'm doing great. I think we're all adapting to these uncertain times. I will tell you, I've had this little chronic cough for almost six months now, and so if you hear me cough, I'll try to control it, but know that it's not related to coronavirus. It's like life in Austin, it's getting used to that. But my doctors are monitoring it, but it's been going on since way before COVID, but I wanted to make sure you knew that if anyone heard me cough.

M. YVONNE TAYLOR: Thank you. I really appreciate that. This is a time of enormous change and challenge, and it's happening on a global scale. A global pandemic is something that hasn't occurred in a hundred years. We wanted to talk with you today because many people have referred to this experience as our new normal, whether in their lives or at schools, how they're working, shopping, or how they're going about interacting or not interacting with others. This is language that you've pushed back against, and we think it's a perspective that people would be interested in. Can you tell us a little more about why and how this is not a new normal?

CHARLES MARTINEZ: Well, I guess I'll start by saying I understand why often, we find ourselves using this language.  I think it's reasonable that we reference this being the new normal. I think that comes from two places. One place is just a challenge for us to understand that we are forever changed. So by saying this is the new normal, it reminds us that life before COVID-19 is not the same as life after COVID-19. Then I think the other reason why that is said so many times, I have heard it referenced over and over again, this idea of it being the new normal, is I think there's some comfort we take as humans in getting used to stability at a time when there's such great instability, calling this the new normal even though that might create worry. Also says if we can just get used to this, we'll be okay. I think the reason I challenge this is because, honestly, there's nothing about the current moment that is normal. This is not the way humans interact with each other. This is not how we're built, and if we think about this as the new normal, we lose sight of what comes on the other side of this. Our lives will forever be changed by what we've experienced with this COVID-19. There are some lessons we'll learn about how to support each other more strongly as a society, and there will also be things that remind us about how human we are, and I've seen that at these times. So I  challenge this being the normal because this isn't normal. What's normal is that when we have fear and anxiety, we connect to each other, we touch each other, parents will hold the hands of their children again, loved ones will touch and hug, networks and  community will be bound together because that's how we're built as humans, and this experience is not normal. We will return to that, and we will also return to a sense of optimism about the future and not just the reactivity of crisis. I think that's why the language troubles me when I hear it because it doesn't put context around it as if this is what we should expect indefinitely. Humankind has faced many challenges including pandemics, and we robust, we rebuild our communities, and we become closer and more bound together, and I'm very optimistic about the future and if I accepted that talking to people I care about on Zoom or wearing mask all the time, that was the new normal, it would be a very hard concept to take in.

M. YVONNE TAYLOR: Dean Martinez, can you talk a little bit about your research interests and background? You're dean of the College of Education, but you are also a clinical psychologist and you are professor in Education Psychology. How does your background and your research interests inform your perspective on this?

CHARLES MARTINEZ: That's an interesting question. I'm a clinical psychologist and a public health researcher. So these days certainly resonate with me. What I think deeply about in my work, particularly my work with vulnerable populations of immigrants, and Latinos, and other minority populations is how often they encounter disparities in access to services. Many populations are more vulnerable at times of societal distress. So a lot of what's going on right now resonates really strong with me, and I think very deeply about how the experience of coronavirus, COVID-19 is impacting diverse communities and the things that we need to unpack and unbury that often stay in the shadows in the face of a global crisis like this. I also, of course, see, as a prevention scientist, opportunities for us to engage in protective factors and resiliency in these moments, and I am seeing that all around me as well. Those are levers to support one another, that if we think deeply about them in the right ways could actually improve the public health in the aftermath of what we're dealing with COVID-19.

M. YVONNE TAYLOR: What you're saying leads to another question I have for you. I heard you speak earlier this year coincidentally about the spread of cholera in London. I see parallels in what happened then and what we're going through now. I know that for me, I find myself reflecting on that story because it gives me a great deal of hope and faith in what science can do and what we can learn even in this time in order to take better care of ourselves and each other. Would you mind sharing a bit of that story and the parallels that you might see?

CHARLES MARTINEZ: Yes. So I told the story about The Ghost Map stories of cholera outbreaks in London in mid-century and the 1800s, because it's so telling about both the way we think about the spread of disease and illness and often the fact that we lose sight of causal mechanisms that exist in communities. What that story really does is it unpacks all of the ingredients that are required to really understand how disease progresses, and sometimes, what we learned confronts false theories we have about it. So in that story, we had a view about the cause of disease like cholera that we thought it was foul odors. So when the cholera breaks out, if that's your theory of what causes it, you do things that really don't help the problem but are consistent with your theory. What the father of modern epidemiology did, John Snow, is try to understand at a community level where the cases of cholera really occurring and what were the common ingredients in those communities, and what he discovered, and it's a much longer story, but what he discovered was that there was a concentration of deaths that were really organized around where the community water pumps were. That knowledge was incredibly important and it defied the theory as he said it might be the water, he defied the theory that the disease was caused by foul odors. But it also led to a very quick and effective intervention by understanding the community levels. So as I think about the parallel with COVID-19, I think we're now starting to understand, for example, the disparities in hospitalization rates, in death rates, and we're starting now just to get hints, unfortunately, of replications of health disparities that we know are already existing. So there's emerging data now showing, for example, that African Americans are hospitalized vastly disproportionately to their rates of infection. So that means that there may be greater severity. Latinos, depending on where you are, might be hospitalized less looking at some CDC data. But then there's all things around this. Are some of those folks not getting hospitalization because they're not seeking treatment? Because of things like barriers to access to healthcare? For those that are hospitalized, is it because they are not seen early enough? Or because of the co-occurring risks for COVID-19? We also know there are health disparities around things like diabetes, and asthma, and a variety of other health conditions. So to me, that is an opportunity for us to understand much more deeply what's happening at the community level so we can begin to address these disparities. I'm very concerned that our most vulnerable populations are also overrepresented in, for example, the essential workforce right now. The essential workforce isn't people like me who are deans of colleges of education, administrators in higher ed or professors. Often, the essential workforce are the people who are cashiers in the grocery store, or who are working in gas stations, and delivering food. We know that there's vast economic disparities that affect different populations. So you end up with people on the front line because of economic circumstances and they become more vulnerable. So these are the things that we have a chance to understand if we take them seriously.

M. YVONNE TAYLOR: Right. When this first came from Wuhan, and we've had some rhetoric about the virus and the describing of it as the Chinese virus. As we've learned, and this reminds me of the cholera story that you told as well, what we've learned is that, like in New York, the spreading of the virus actually happened from people who came from Europe. What am I trying to say here? I think the more information we're getting, the more scientific information that we're getting, the more we're able to learn what kinds of things we can do to protect ourselves and also not fall into myths about the disease and how it spread, and who spreads it, which I think is important as well.

CHARLES MARTINEZ: Yeah. Those narratives of labeling this, something like a Chinese virus, are so problematic because they reinforce isolationists view or even attributional error like it's the faults or to be blamed on a particular community or population that a disease like this exists. So I understand the anxiety and fear that sometimes causes this isolation and how do we protect ourselves. But if we've learned anything from this so far, it's really that we're vulnerable. We are vulnerable as human beings and diseases like this, they have no national boundaries. It's a global problem and responding to it is a global necessity. We can't solve this in a single community, in a single state, in a single country. As humankind, we have to think about it in global terms. I see hope in that, the sense that we're in this together, I see connected hope in that. But I also see rubbing against other narratives about what is effectively become a strong isolationist mentality, not just in the US, but in many ways all over the world.

M. YVONNE TAYLOR: Dean Martinez, in this extraordinarily unique and uncertain time, how do you see colleges of education like ours tackling those daunting disparities and working to eliminate them? How can we help communities thrive during what is undoubtedly a time that is going to be a huge transition into our new normal way of life?

CHARLES MARTINEZ: It is interesting since I've been in the college and we began talking about the college's strategic future. We've become so bold and visionary as a college, and it's the voice of our faculty and our students and our champions that really have allowed us to leverage the strength and think in a much sharper way about the impact we can have in Texas, the nation and beyond. So our re-imagined education goals push us out into the future in these bold ways. They focused on equity, which we've been talking about so far, and disrupting these longstanding sources of an inequities in health and education. They focuses on how to respond to place in context. So this is the idea of understanding what's going on at the community level, and both assets and resources of resiliency and then also some of the challenges. Then they also focuses on how to thrive through life's most difficult transitions. It is interesting if you had to create a roadmap in advance of the challenges we're facing. This would probably be a roadmap, although we had no idea that that strategic direction would suddenly become more salient right now. So I think where the college has oriented itself puts us in a really strong position that to contribute in a deep way to our collective, both the current response to this crisis, but more importantly, maybe to the future and the lessons we can learn. We have learned so much in this country about, for example, what educators do. I've seen more social media posts about, like teachers should be paid a million dollars a year in the last two months than I've ever seen in my life. Caregivers, parents are having to adapt to becoming more engaged in a real direct way with their kids' education. I think as they start encountering the same kinds of challenges that educators encounter, they realize why the skill set is so important, and not everyone can be a teacher without the proper training, knowledge, pedagogical background, all the things that we provide in the college, the value of educators. We're seeing it, of course, all over the place too. Educators in K12, educators in higher ed have all moved in the last two months to entirely reconsider how they're delivering curriculum and what the instructional designs are and how to respond to students' unique needs in a moment where we moved everything to this virtual context. It's very dangerous in certain ways because it's a big experiment. But it's also an adaptation to trying to do what's best for students. So we're going to work our way through this. It's probably never more important for a college of education like ours to help lead those discussions about what we can use in terms of the evidence-base to inform the best practices right now and how what we're learning right now might allow us to understand more deeply how kids learn, how adults learn, how to think about technology and instructions. So from that angle, there's just so much that we have to contribute. I think this virus itself also is right at the intersection of education and health, which is what our college is about. So we're doing a lot of social emotional health work, and we're thinking about our physical health, our connectedness, anxiety and depression, our physical activity. All these things are bound up as well currently right now in this discussion. So our college is in a really unique position to contribute in a bold way to what Texas needs right now and in the future, but also I think for the country.

M. YVONNE TAYLOR: Dean Martinez, is there anything else that you would like to add? I know you've talked about things that you've noticed during this time, this extremely challenging time, ways that people have been in community with each other and those kinds of things. What are some examples of human spirit that you've seen that have really inspired you during this time?

CHARLES MARTINEZ: I'll give you a few examples of those. I will say I'm anxious and worried and I'm having the same experiences I think that all of us are having right now. But I'm so aware of extraordinary acts of kindness and caring. Sometimes, they're small and unnoticed, and sometimes, they're big. But they're happening constantly all around me. As a leader, I often talk about how I've long pushed back against this idea that as leaders, we're supposed to have these thick skins and immune from our human connection because this is not how I'm built. I think deeply, I care so deeply about what I'm doing and I've, a long ago, given myself permission to be moved and touched by it and just be a person. Right now, we're all doing that with each other. On Zoom, we have these little glimpses into each other's worlds. I've had more meetings in the last month with interruptions from kids and loved ones and pets. It reminds us that beyond all the moves we make as leaders or as colleagues, that we are also human and that's allowable and doesn't require apology. It's an extraordinary moment. I've seen more nimbleness in our systems than I've ever encountered in my career. Higher ed or K12, these big health systems, you don't think of them as being nimble because they're not, they are these big slow moving machines and bureaucracies that can change course, but it takes a long effort to get them to change. I think we've learned that that's not necessary, that's not inherent, that they can be nimble. At UT, we went from teaching a few hundred online classes to more than 9,000 in two weeks. Those aren't easy and they're not all going perfectly. That's what giving grades requires us to understand that everyone is doing their best. But that kind of nimbleness gives me hope and optimism that if we set our mind to things, we can really make a change. I see our faculty reaching out to one another, our staff reaching out to one another. I see putting students in the front on an everyday basis in a very deep way in the college and at UT and in my personal life. I think those little feets and sometimes, major acts of kindness are quite breathtaking. If you're looking for sources of inspiration, I don't think it's that hard to find, even in the face of what we're all dealing with right now.

M. YVONNE TAYLOR: Dean Martinez, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us today. We'd like to thank our audience for joining us on this episode of Talking Eds. Talking Eds is produced by the College of Education at the University of Texas at Austin. You can find more episodes via our online magazine In Context at Thank you and stay safe.