Forgiveness, acceptance and flexibility. Three little BIG words I have spent countless hours instilling in six-year-olds over the past 15 years. I never would have imagined simple lessons taught in my first-grade classroom would become so meaningful during the COVID-19 pandemic. “I get to see my mom today! She’s picking me up!” Evan would shout as he entered the classroom. Evan would talk all day about mom and the fun things they have planned to do, only to realize at dismissal as time passes and each friend gets picked up; Evan’s mom is not coming.
Now more than ever, Superintendents, School Directors, and Principals recognize and understand the need for social-emotional learning for both students and teachers. The uncertainty of COVID - 19 has affected everyone in many ways, and its effects may have long-lasting impressions in education.
These days, I am constantly reminded by the elementary-aged kiddos whom I counsel (now via Zoom), each week that they want to show me their world (including their real and imaginary pets), they want me to meet them with curiosity, to connect, and they want my full presence. In the words of one of my 3rd graders, “Ms. Pam, I feel like you’re the only one who really listens to me, like, you get me”.
Teaching is a tireless act of love. Good teachers often pour their hearts into their work. It’s exhausting, and rewarding, but also, at times, painful. The 2018-2019 school year was particularly painful for me. I was teaching 7th grade science—a class where directions like “do NOT drink the hydrochloric acid” need to be frequently, and urgently repeated—and I was mourning the passing of my last grandparent.
Often the focus of the concept “Social-Emotional Learning” is geared towards our students. Most educators have acknowledged the fact that students have a challenging time learning to the best of their capacity when their social-emotional needs are not being met. What about the educators themselves? When do the educators get to process the secondary trauma that is often occurring throughout the day?
Right now our schools are closed and we are facing a national crisis that is exposing inequities in education like never before. Teachers are struggling to maintain relationships and engage students. Students are struggling to find the motivation and the resources to succeed. When this pandemic is over, schools will have to rebuild their communities, their relationships and readjust their expectations. To successfully rebuild authentic relationships, we must recognize the role race plays in our society, in our schools and in ourselves. And we must know how to talk about it.
At the beginning of the year, I asked my students - a group of 7th and 8th graders - to write about their bilingualism. Given that I teach English as a Second Language, I was expecting all of my students to dive easily into the activity. My students, however, sat in silence. After a few moments, one student shyly raised his hand and said, “Miss, I am not bilingual.” I asked him to tell me more. He replied, “I can’t read in Spanish and English is my worst subject…I am not bilingual.” Other students in the room nodded in agreement. The students who most vehemently agreed were those who were born in the United States.
Right now, it is more important than ever that we maintain open communication with our students and their families. I will admit that calling the parents and guardians of my students is a challenge for me. It’s not that I don’t want to. Honestly, once it’s over I’m always glad that I did. Maintaining open communication with parents is essential to meeting a student’s needs, to understanding where they’re coming from and what kind of support they need. But just getting on the phone with someone that I don’t know makes my heart race.
A few months ago, scrolling through Twitter, I saw a post from former Minnesota Teacher of the Year (and great Twitter follow), Tom Rademacher, highlighting a Facebook post (it’s always a Facebook post!) in which an educator was advocating for a routine for connecting with “difficult” students - that routine is to commit with that student for a 60-second hug.
I drove down the end of my street a few weeks ago, and I looked ahead to see a bunch of lanky, awkward middle school students waiting for their bus. As I slowly got closer and closer to the group of students, I began reminiscing on my own bus stop experience. The merger of the bus stop brought so many different kids together who wouldn’t always mix by choice, so it was always a time that was a bit uncomfortable for me growing up, particularly because I was forced to congregate with one particular kid who would be legally classified as a bully in today’s world. Although he never bullied me specifically, I remember the brutal uncomfortable moments in which all of us at the bus stop had to navigate those cruel words often directed at the younger kid who didn’t quite fit in or know how to defend himself.