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As a high school teacher, I already struggled with trying to get freshmen out of the “middle school mentality” long before this pandemic. Now, we have a new generation of students who not only have never set foot in our high school but ones who have missed out on that crucial transition period where they are trying to understand that F’s and credits are a very real thing that can keep them from graduating on time! And what about the younger ones? Middle School and Junior High students have spent part of their seventh-grade year and all their eighth-grade year online. Elementary School kids have spent the last year and a half of school online, and now will be thrust into the foreign new world of Middle School. And what about our babies! My God! The poor first-grade teachers will now have a class of kids who have never even set foot in a school at all! Instead of getting the typical summer “itis” out of kids, first-grade teachers are going to have to teach the fundamentals of going to school in general, a skill typically learned in kindergarten. So, what can be done? I interviewed a few educator friends and got some great insights. I learned a lot from just these few questions for my educator friends. I also took some time to reflect, turn the questions to myself, and think about how I would answer them from a high school teacher’s perspective.
What advice would you give to teachers who are in the major transition years, for example, those coming to brick-and-mortar schools?
“We need to take time to actually address needs! It is imperative to be intentional about taking the time needed to help students integrate back to in-person learning. We are not returning to business “as usual”. We need to be very conscious about being in tune with the kids’ needs and focus on the Socio-Emotional needs of both students and staff. We are all entering with some type of fear of the unknown. We must acknowledge these concerns, and develop procedures, programs, and systems that will help to address them. (Felicia Bridges, Elementary School Principal, Pittsburg, CA).
“What I have learned, even more so this last year, is to slow down and take everything in. Breathe and take one day at a time. Have fun and really be present. Your students feed off your energy so much that they can turn your sad day into a happy one and you can turn a child's bad day into a loving one. So, the best advice is to be present and breathe” (Patricia Rogers, Kindergarten Teacher, Pinole, CA).
“Give yourself space to fail. As a teacher, you will experience failure, but having a growth mindset is incredibly important at every stage. Use failures as stepping stones to success” (Ricky J. Nutt, Middle School Educator, Vallejo, CA).
I think that we all need grace more than ever, for students and for ourselves! By grace, I mean all that can be implied by that word: compassion, mercy, understanding, and most of all patience! I think that at the beginning of the school year, we so often rush into learning, that we forget about the actual “transitions” and severe “shifts” that occur in education from one year to the next. In no year can grace be needed more than this one!
Will you change or add to your use of socio-emotional learning or lessons?
“Our school is embedding thirty (30) minutes of Socio-Emotional Learning (SEL) daily through the Mindful Life Project and Purposeful People Curriculum from Character Strong. This will have components for students, staff, as well as resources for parents to do at home. We will also have a dedicated person on site who will be able to go into classrooms to be another yet source for SEL, supporting both students and teachers’ needs” (Felicia Bridges, Elementary School Principal, Pittsburg, CA).
“I've always worked on a growth mindset from day one twice a week, but I feel that it now needs to be every day. I also feel like I need [the school psychologist] to come in and support me with weekly exercises for the kids [the same way he did during distance learning this year]” (Patricia Rogers, Kindergarten Teacher, Pinole, CA).
“I think the simplest place teachers can start is to begin from a place of compassion. Too often teachers approach the classroom with a legalistic rigidity. And for many of our students today, as our culture has shifted, that rigidity just won’t cut it. We can still teach children discipline and push them toward success by approaching those we serve in a compassionate way” (Ricky J. Nutt, Middle School Educator, Vallejo, CA).
I feel like I was fairly good at being in tune to my students’ SEL needs, but this past year taught me that without a purposeful emphasis on SEL, focusing on teaching content alone will be much less effective. If a student’s SEL needs are not being recognized and addressed, we will not be able to ensure that students are even in the “headspace” or have the bandwidth to be ready to learn.
How do you, as an educator, plan on changing as far as taking care of your own well-being and mental health?
“I plan on continuing to attend therapy, spending time (in person) with close friends, tapping into my support network, going back to things I love to do like paint nights and traveling, and most importantly, protecting my peace by maintaining some clear boundaries” (Felicia Bridges, Elementary School Principal, Pittsburg, CA).
“I have purposefully planned [vacations]. I plan on stopping all my work at 3:00 pm and coming home to hang out with my family and neighbors. Self-care in general has always been my downfall. I'm the type of person who is/was go-go-go…After this past year, I have really embraced my personal time” (Patricia Rogers, Kindergarten Teacher, Pinole, CA).
“My goal is to do my best to take as little work home as possible. Seems like an impossible goal, but as teachers in a society that doesn’t properly value our profession, that doesn’t compensate us fairly in many cases, and expects us to work hours beyond our duty day as a sign of our commitment and devotion—each teacher has to set boundaries that help delineate work-life from home-life” (Ricky J. Nutt, Middle School Educator, Vallejo, CA).
Like many, I am planning vacation and “mental health” days well in advance. I am securing substitutes ahead of time and being much more purposeful in my self-care.
The transitions in education can be overwhelming enough as it is, but when we think about the extreme shift we are about to embark on this upcoming school year, it can be anxiety-inducing to say the least! The most important advice I would give as we transition back to post-pandemic education is a common saying: “relax, relate, release”. Relax in knowing that we are all in this together, try to show the students that we can relate to so many of the emotions they are bringing into this transition, and release as much stress as we can by taking care of ourselves as much as we strive to take care of our students. We all have gone into education because we have a genuine heart for kids, so if we make sure their hearts (emotions, minds, and spirits) are healthy, we can better educate their minds. As Aristotle so eloquently stated, “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.”