In the year before the COVID-19 pandemic, two of my grandparents died, both of whom were pillars in different branches of my family. On the fourth yahrzeit of my grandfather’s death a couple of months ago, my stepmom shared Maya Angelou’s poem, When Great Trees Fall, in his memory. I had never heard of the poem before but have returned to it many times in the weeks since as I reflect on the losses, silences, and birth in myself, in our educational systems, and in our society over the past few years.
Keep our children in school and out of the school-to-prison pipeline: A parent’s concern about COVID-era school discipline
As a parent of two African American boys, I am concerned as we begin to navigate our way back into the school building. I am worried that this new era in education could make my children and other BIPOC children vulnerable to disproportionate school discipline, especially exclusionary discipline. Schools are under increased pressure to keep children and teachers safe, and removing a face mask or breathing on someone could spread sickness; this undoubtedly makes for a more tense learning environment. With new rules in place, it concerns me to think that BIPOC may bear the brunt of these new consequences and be subject to exclusionary discipline practices at higher rates than other students.
As schools and districts across the country continue to pivot, adapt, and recalibrate to address the challenges posed by COVID-19, collecting feedback from students is critical. This can be done in both formal and informal ways, ranging from casual conversations with students or advisory groups to administering a school-wide climate survey. To bridge the divide between these formal and informal feedback mechanisms, semi-structured conversations with diverse groups of students can serve as an opportunity to learn more about students’ experiences and dig deeper into opportunities to boost school climate. Student climate data can illuminate key areas of success and opportunities for growth, allowing school leaders to understand, reflect, and act on feedback. Whether virtual, in-person, or hybrid, consider the following tips for planning, running, and reflecting on conversations about students’ experiences and perceptions of school climate.
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.
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.