As schools across the country are either making plans to reopen or have already reopened, there are many feelings that families, students and educators have. This is a time to slow down and be intentional in how we are spending the first days and weeks of the start of the year. Whether you are face-to-face, online only, or some mixture, the need for connection is the same.
For many of us, we got into education because we care about learning and kids. We understand the power of relationships and the ability of a connection to change a life. Because of this, the uncertainty of what the school year will look has intensified our feelings of concern. How will we build relationships when we are online? How do we support students returning to school in a face-to-face setting who haven't been to school for 6 months? How will we ensure that our students are doing well? How can we keep pushing them forward in their learning?
There are ways in which we can build relationships with kids even in a online environment, even if we haven’t met them face-to-face yet. We can still build relationships even if we are social distancing and wearing masks for face-to-face school. Many of this is gong to require a shift in our thinking and a willingness to mourn the loss of, "the way things used to be."
The first step is to prioritize your own wellness. You can't go far if you don't fill your tank first. This can take some purposeful planning. I have at least found that if I don't set aside time or schedule my day around certain routines I will deplete my energy, patience, and my focus may not be at it's best. I tend to set monthly goals on something I hope to achieve in conjunction with my daily routines. I recently just set a goal to conscientiously take 15 minutes for myself in the morning. Sometimes my goals stick and sometimes I need to reset. If you are wondering where to start planning below are a few suggestions.
Conscientiously eat one nutritious meal a day or a week. Pay attention to what your are eating and involve all of your senses, sight (eat a rainbow of colors), sound (maybe add some crunchy vegetables or nuts), smell/taste (include something savory or sweet), and touch (include a few finger foods or different textured food).
Incorporate some movement. Take the stairs wherever you go or park in the back of parking lots.
Drink half of your body-weight in ounces of water per day. Staying hydrated throughout the day not only will help keep your brain calm but it also forces you to take breaks throughout your day.
Focus on your sleep. Recent studies have found that most Americans are sleep deprived. Think of the last time you were on vacation. Did you feel more alert and have more energy. That was probable because you were getting more sleep. Find out how much sleep you need to feel refreshed and focus you daily routine to get that amount. I now I need 8 hours and I try to protect that time as much as possible to be at my best.
Secondly show yourself grace and give grace to those around you. During this time the families and students you serve are going to have so many feelings and sometimes these feeling states may come out in forms of anger. The best thing to do in these circumstances is to show grace by not taking it personally. We are all experiencing a tough time and a little grace can build an alliance.
Nothing is going to feel or look the same. We can’t replicate a face-to-face classroom in a online environment and many of us who are returning to face-to-face instruction are not returning to environment that looked like the start of the 2019 school year. However, there are things that we can do and the first step is to give your self some grace. Give yourself grace to make mistakes. Give yourself grace to take time to learn new routines, and possibly technology. Give yourself grace to experience the feelings of frustration, anger, loss, confusion...and others. Lean into those feelings that this doesn’t feel familiar. Lean into the feelings that this sucks right now. Lean into the feeling of uncertainty. If we can acknowledge these feelings then we can make room for feelings of calm, joy, compassion, happiness, clarity...and much more!
And lastly, we need to put social and emotional skills first, for yourself and students. There will be time for academics but intentionally paying attention to the social and emotional skills will set yourself and your students up for success. Involve your students in this process. When we focus on these skills we can build resilience. Below are a few suggestions.
Explore emotions and regulation skills. Give space to share feelings and ask open ended questions. Ask your students what they think that the academic year should look like. Ask your students where they feel stress and what stresses them out and share your own appropriate feelings. Ask them when they are stressing what helps them return to baseline, a calm state, and share how you cope with stress.
Find an attitude of gratitude. Lead by example and help students find the positive even though things might be hard. Create routines around this. Offer journal prompts, put up a piece of butcher paper or use the whiteboard for students to write things they are grateful for or use the chat or whiteboard features of online tools for students to share. The more we can train our brain to look for the positive the more we can build resilience.
Give space to create and use empathy. The definition I like to use for empathy is, "Feeling the way someone else feels and understanding they way they see things." While there is no script for empathy we can help our students explore statements like, "I am sorry you are going through this." or "How can I help?" or "What has this been like?" or "I'm sorry this happened." Often empathy is not about making something better but letting someone know that you are there for them. Asking questions when our student's have big feelings is one of the best ways to model empathy.
Help students share kindness. When we show kindness not only do certain chemicals and hormones that fight stress engage but the person receiving the kind act has the same experience as well as the person who might witness the kind act. There is a ripple effect that occurs. Kind acts can be as simple as saying hi to someone or opening a door. They can also be as involved as making a meal for a neighbor or performing a chore at home.
No matter what you do at the start of the school year remember to educate the hearts of your students. It is this work that will make a lasting impression.