Schools have opened for in-person instruction within the past two weeks in virtually every corner of the country. With a sense of relief, and a degree of unease and genuine concern, students are entering brick and mortar schools for the first time in approximately eighteen months. They are sitting with their peers, in the presence of teachers that they may, or may not, have a personal connection with. But, they are back in the anticipated, and much hyped, suggestion that the only place to learn is in a physical school environment.
Before I go further, please allow me to be abundantly clear. I am a firm believer in instruction that occurs in a common, physically connected, moment. The energy that learners can tap from each other, while in the presence and guidance of a compassionate and relationship focused educator, is not only remarkable; it’s essential. We learn best when in the proximity of like learners that we share the opportunity to collaborate with while engaging in the fundamental human need to explore to better understand our world.
Speaking with educators over the past few days has confirmed a suspicion that I have long held. Simply opening the school-house doors, while critically important to the intellectual and emotional wellbeing of America’s children, is fraught with problems. In a rush to return to normal, we have overlooked some key issues that make “returning to normal,” as we knew it, impossible.
Over arching of these issues is that school communities are simply out of practice when it comes to engaging effectively with in-person instruction. Consider:
Most kids have been learning from their bedrooms for the better part of a year and a half. A current sixth grader was last in school in the second portion of their fourth grade year. No prom or homecoming last year for a current high school senior. Their entire junior year was nonexistent, except for the expectation of learning virtually. And that first grader? They have zero experience to rely on. Kids are out of practice when it comes to receiving instruction in a common physical learning space.
Children have not been expected to conform to a set of rules, norms or expectations that are required of them in school. They are in the habit of visiting the bathroom when nature calls. They have been eating lunch on their preferred schedule, not at a time designated by their class schedule. What’s the point of raising your hand when you’re the only person physically in the room? They’re simply out of practice.
Kids are not accustomed to functioning in social settings due to the recently imposed isolation. Sure, they have interacted with siblings and a small number of pals. But, coping in an environment with thirty other children is something that feels new again for many because they are out of practice. Then, successfully navigating crowded corridors is a real challenge for some kids. And for those with a short fuse, an accidental bump can lead to something far more serious.
“Zoom dysphoria” is a thing for some students. Psychologists explain that people have relaxed into the reality of being seen only from the neck up for most virtual activities. Now they again face judgement from having their full stature on display. It appears that this is a source of real anxiety for some kids, especially those who struggle with body image issues, eating disorders or experience the desire to present themselves like the “cool kids” do.
It’s not just children who are out of practice. While teachers and administrators were excited to again have kids on their campuses to engage in face-to-face instruction, their arrival and the challenges they bring with them caught many off guard.
It is totally unrealistic to have expected, as many did, that simply by opening the doors, schools could pick up where they left off. They couldn’t. And, they didn’t. To accomplish that expectation would require the assumption that the culture of a school, the mores that govern it, would survive intact: even across the expanse of a year and a half of absence. In most cases, that did not happen.
We have forgotten how to “do” school. We are out of practice. The playing field has changed. So must we. Schools are faced with starting from scratch, going back to the beginning of defining and communicating:
This is who we are,
This is what we value,
This is how we co-exist,
This is why we do what we do.
The culture of a school community, and the relationships that exist and flourish within that culture, are everything in the equation of what defines a truly effective school. In its absence, we are fooling ourselves in believing that anything meaningful can occur within the boundaries of any instructional campus.
So, this new reality suggests (mandates) the following priorities:
Safety first. Everyone must feel safe in the “new” school environment. This will happen more quickly for some members of the community than others. Expect that it may be messy. Be willing to adapt appropriately to predictable variances while systematically working toward a climate of physical, mental and emotional safety.
Focus on establishing (re-establishing) meaningful, trusting relationships: adult-adult, adult-kid, kid-adult, kid-kid.
A willingness to prioritize the re-creation of culture over the constraints of the curriculum is essential. Let’s remember that education is first, and foremost, a human enterprise. A focus on curricular expectations, a mechanical focus, may be premature and simply shouldn’t be the primary concern. We’ll get there, eventually, but, first things first.
Clearly communicate the expectations of the school, while allowing a degree of grace for the unique needs of each individual to successfully adapt; to re-enter something once familiar but recently cancelled and suddenly new, successfully.
A heavy hand may prove less effective than time, compassion, personal recognition and targeted, personalized interventions. Cumbersome? I get that. Appropriate? No question.
My hat is off to the champions who are doing their personal and professional best to re-engage kids in face-to-face instruction. It’s the right thing to aspire to. It’s a goal worthy of chasing. That said, it is also a prospect that represents an uphill pull. What seemed to be so manageable is providing to be quite complicated. That’s okay. The system, and the children it is designed to serve, will survive this trying time if schools realistically anticipate a wobbly attempt toward defining a new normal: one again based on relationships and school culture.
I repeat: A new normal, one again based on relationships and school culture. We’re simply out of practice with what we knew previously.