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A Delicate Dance

School communities across the country are actively preparing for what they hope will be a return to full time, in-person instruction. Of course, the ensuing weeks will determine what safety protocols will need to be in place, but the preparations are underway, regardless, with an unprecedented degree of zeal and enthusiasm.

“Back to normal” is the anticipated outcome of this planning. Teachers are eager to get back to their comfortable role of “adult in charge;” in charge of the curriculum, in charge of the management of their classrooms, in charge of what gets taught and when, and how students will be expected to demonstrate that they are learning.

Kids are looking forward to “back to normal” as well. They anticipate unencumbered social interactions and leisurely lunch periods surrounded by their friends. They look forward to being in the actual presence of their favorite teachers, instead of peering at them on a screen. They can’t wait for athletic contests to resume, for pep rallies, for homecoming. Children, of all ages, are eager for the resumption of their childhoods.

Back to normal? Not so fast.

Returning to the physical school house will represent a delicate dance. Little about the experience will be normal. Why?

Socially, everyone is out of practice. Adults and children alike have spent the past sixteen months in near isolation. Any interpersonal interactions they experienced during that time were guarded and ruled by strict safety measures. Teachers haven’t had much opportunity to work elbow-to-elbow with their colleagues in designing curriculum or collaborating around assessment strategies. It may require a period of re-entry to engage in experiences that may very well seem odd after toiling alone at their instructional responsibilities for such an extended period of time.

Kids, too. They have rarely seen play dates, let alone being thrust into an environment that involves successfully navigating several hundred peers in doses of 25-30 at a time. They haven’t been required to practice their emerging social or conflict resolution skills from their bedrooms or kitchen tables. Now? Back to normal? What if I don’t remember how to do “normal?”

The emotional and mental toll of our common experience. One doesn’t have to search far to discover numerous credible studies and professional opinions from pediatricians and pediatric psychologists regarding the adverse mental and emotional impact the pandemic has had on children, not just in the United States, but throughout the world. We know that the incidents of adolescent anxiety, depression, self harm and suicide have seen a dramatic and disturbing increase over the past year and a half.

The same can be said for adults. I know from my personal experience increased feelings of helplessness, general malaise and disinterest, and a lack of motivation. As adults, we expect of ourselves, as others simultaneously expect of us, a standard of strength and resolve. We’re supposed to posses a reliable arsenal of responses to address virtually any circumstance, and to offer, through our actions, a sense of confident well being. All of this has been tested. To assume it can be reignited at the flip of a switch is unrealistic.

Take stock of what we’ve learned. Not everything about navigating through a pandemic together has been negative. Through the misery of it all, we learned some important lessons.

  • What seemed impossible is possible. When the pandemic shuttered our schools, teachers were shoved out of their comfort zone and they assumed a nearly universal reaction of “I can’t teach like that!” And yet, gradually, with professionalism and resolve they figured out how to make lemonade from the lemons of the circumstance, and they did exactly what they initially believed was impossible. Lesson: Sometimes, circumstance forces innovation and a re-examination of what’s possible.

  • Technology can be a useful instructional ally. Of course our recent experiences reinforced what we already knew: for most kids, technology is not a suitable replacement for the relationship and meaningful interactions between a student and their teacher. However, technology is a useful tool when thoughtfully applied to authentic and meaningful tasks. We need to recognize both the strengths and deficiencies of instructional technology. Lesson: Let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water. Rather, understand the difference, find the strengths of both and plan accordingly.”

  • Students will rise to the occasion when asked to engage in tasks that they find relevant. One of the approaches many teachers applied during the challenges of virtual instruction was to allow their students a degree of autonomy and choice in the design of their learning. Rather that taking a lock-step approach, these teachers created opportunities for students to engage in project-based learning, investigating specific themes that were of interest to them while still addressing the standards or learning targets of a particular concept or topic. This decision freed the teacher to assume the role of instructional guide, or coach, lessening the stress of trying to keep 30 students engaged identical expectations in a virtual setting. Lesson: One size does not, and need not, fit all.

The delicate dance of returning to in-person learning requires a realistic expectation. Kids and adults are not going “back to normal.” Rather, they will, collectively, experience the gradual resumption of a new normal. My advise, based on decades of experience, suggests the following:

  • Be patient with yourself and others in the effort to re-enter something that may feel somewhat familiar but is, in fact, a new reality.

  • Afford all participants a degree of grace in this endeavor. Success will be uneven. Some members of the school community will adapt more readily than others. That must be okay. That all are moving in a similar direction should suffice for now.

  • Listen to each other. Create opportunities for adults and children to safely communicate, without judgement, how they are coping and feeling in this period of transition. Whatever supports or resources that are reasonable and accessible must be made available to aid all community members in their quest to regain their footing in a new normal.

It would be hard enough to orchestrate “back to normal,” requiring that reality be ignored in search of something that is no longer at hand. Rather, embracing a “new normal” offers the opportunity for compassion, understanding, experience and empathy; the cornerstones of any culture with merit, to define the path forward. Further, it offers down the road, once confidence has been reestablished, moments to define exactly what a “new normal” looks like and how it may positively influence the educational experience of our nation’s children.

Anticipating “back to normal” is unrealistic. Visualizing a “new normal” is both practical, innovative and necessary.


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