A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about how crucial my teachers were in helping me move through my grief after my mother died. I am the product of teachers who cared about me and a school system that prioritized my healing and safety. Through that experience, I have seen what’s possible for schools to do in order to help kids heal. I also know a lot of teachers, and in the past year, they have extended themselves in ways both familiar and new, trying to help ensure student safety and wellness.
Despite these efforts, learning has been made much more difficult by this year’s lack of connection. In some ways, I think we’ve developed greater clarity around why being at school is important, and that includes reasons like kids developing in critically important academic, social, and emotional ways right alongside reasons like parents being able to work. Heading back to school will give students, families, and school staff a chance to reset and engage in relationships differently, and we should all work to ensure that staff have what they need to be able to do careful, thorough, and thoughtful work to make schools the kinds of places where everyone can begin to heal the trauma of the past year.
I wish I could offer specific activities staff could do daily or weekly to make all kids feel safe and valued, but I can’t tell you what they would be. There are too many context-dependent factors for anyone to say, “Here’s the exact thing you can do with your students.” Instead, I’d like to suggest that school staff build routines around these four ideas.
-Listening: Before almost anything else, students will need people to listen to them. This will certainly include hearing what they have to say, but this will also involve listening to what their behavior communicates. Are they withdrawn? Do they behave in a way that might typically be understood as “acting out”? Are they so excited to be around people that their impulse control isn’t quite there? School staff will need to create routines that engage students in being mindful of what they’re feeling and communicating that as best as they’re able. Giving time each day for students to share is one approach, knowing that it might take students months before they’re ready to talk. Another possibility is having some version of after school help or office hours that’s dedicated to students coming by simply to check in. There are also protocols (like this Constructivist Listening Dyad from SRI) for activities that ask people to listen deeply to one another and not respond, and those can help create the right conditions for this kind of work.
-Being Consistent: While no activity will be the silver bullet, your consistency, awareness, and presence over time will begin to help kids and other adults acclimate to whatever our new normal becomes. There are so many rules we have been trying to follow in the name of public health. We have also had to navigate what makes ourselves and other people most comfortable, and that takes energy and effort. In trying to lessen that burden, school staff need to be as consistent as possible about the processes students need to follow and why. Making sure that students have regular times to ask questions about what is happening or what’s allowed and why those things are true can help with this. And then, you need to do what you say you’ll do when you say you’ll do it. All of us have dealt with a lot of uncertainty in the past year; knowing what to expect will help students feel safe and at ease.
-Empathizing: It’s a myth to believe that our experiences have been the same since the pandemic began. While it’s probably true that we’ve all grappled with grief and loss, we’ve done it because of different reasons and in varied ways. We’ve found contentment and solace in a variety of people and routines. Now, we need to extend ourselves and empathize. We also need to understand that there will be experiences so out of our reach that all we can do is listen and be available. Activities that ask us to switch our perspective, routines that have us explore other people’s experiences, and projects that engage our imagination are all ways to start.
-Expressing vulnerability: Individuals need to feel less alone. While we may not have gone through what a student is grappling with, we can, when appropriate, share our own struggles. Relationships aren’t real if they are one-sided. As adults, we can model vulnerability and give dimension to our own humanity. If we are afraid to share any detail of our own lives, we subconsciously tell our students that maintaining arbitrary boundaries is more important than connecting with one another. After the past year, it is more important to acknowledge our need for attachment, and in order to do that, we need to take the lead. To start doing this, school staff might start using examples from their own families in discussion (using kids names in word problems or pets as examples in diagramming sentences are easy substitutes) or they could start talking about their own experiences of navigating the pandemic in small groups.
Stepping back into schools will bring out different feelings for different people, and school staff will need to be ready to help. Both through their words and behaviors, students are going to communicate how they feel and what they need. Listen, be consistent, empathize, and be vulnerable. Teachers, you can do this.