In years past, the end of summer would find students involved in back-to-school rituals—may be shopping for new school supplies or looking forward to seeing their friends and classmates. But this year, COVID-19 has created a profound uncertainty that poses a sharp and disruptive contrast to students’ former experiences. In the past few months, students have experienced unparalleled changes in their daily routines, homes, and communities; and while school may look different this year, it can still be a welcoming space that helps them combat any traumas they have faced or are facing. As the educators tasked with making school an inviting place, you can build a positive context around this new normal if you look at this year through a W.E.L.C.O.M.E. lens.
Willing to Be Flexible
“If it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you.”Fred DeVito
As school staff return to digital or in-person environments, there will be several changes that may cause frustration and uncertainty, and individuals will have opinions related to how schools should be opened safely and amicably for students, parents, and staff. This is expected and should be nurtured and allowed. However, all adults will need to display flexibility to create space for this type of open conversation and collaboration.
One way to allow everyone to be heard is to establish and sustain a collaborative working environment where staff can voice their concerns and ask questions. Consider creating a shared online document or survey to collect feedback. Additionally, be willing to adapt where necessary so that all stakeholders—including parents, students, and community members—are informed and able to add context to decisions that are being made.
Consider making meetings more accessible for those who can’t attend in person. I had an “aha” moment as a principal this past spring when I moved my meetings to Zoom and noticed an uptick in parent attendance. This also provides the option to record the meeting so staff and parents can watch it later, further increasing the level of engagement.
Because remote meetings will be new for many, make sure to model understanding. Fear and anxiety are reasonable responses to this com-plex time, but your ability to apply a flexible perspective to the new school year will re-mind adults in the building to model a resilient mindset. Embracing the skill of listening will also serve well as you sail on uncharted waters.
It is essential that the school culture nurtures all learners. Students are more than just a data point; they need to be connected to the pathway and process of learning in order to succeed. Differentiating for students to gain equitable access is of the utmost importance this year. Gaps in achievement, school performance, and discipline infractions were evident in many schools and districts before COVID-19 impacted them. Now, these disparities are predicted to increase because of the impact of COVID-19 on BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) communities.
When leaders and teachers collaborate to provide equitable learning opportunities and experiences for learners, classmates have more equitable performances with peers regardless of race, gender, class, or ability. Consider ways to build equitable pathways that can support all learners in gaining equal access to the curriculum by asking yourself the following questions:
- Do all my student have equitable access to technology, devices, and Internet?
- Do all my students have an enthusiastic teacher who is excited to greet them and teach them every day?
- Are teachers modeling joy and enthusiasm for learning?
- Have I taken inventory of my own biases and how they affect how I teach and view my students’ abilities?
- What professional learning experiences can I focus on this year that will create more knowledge around building deeper understanding of racial constructs and differently abled students?
- How can I ensure that the Responsive Classroom practices that I implement—such as Morning Meeting, Academic Choice, and Interactive Modeling—are reaching all my students?
It’s also important to immerse yourself in culturally responsive teaching skills and strategies. Zaretta Hammond, in her book Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, writes that “culturally responsive teaching (CRT) is one of our most powerful tools for helping students find their way out of the gap” (Hammond, 2014). When teachers and schools understand that their students are different and that they learn differently, then they can increase students’ cognitive ability and allow them to take bigger risks. Culturally responsive teaching is a pedagogical approach firmly rooted in learning theory and cognitive science (Hammond, 2014). Being well versed in this work adds value to the classroom for all students.
Learning for Joy
For learning to be fun and engaging, students need to feel that they are in a safe and positive learning environment. While schools will look drastically different this year, it is the job of educators to make sure this reality doesn’t hinder students from becoming joyful and resilient learners. It is critical to students’ well-being that they feel encouraged to set hopes and dreams and believe a positive future is possible.
Morning Meeting is an important tool for creating this type of learning environment. Whether your class is online or socially distanced, make Morning Meetings a smooth and enjoyable transition for the day. Use the greeting, sharing, group activity, and morning message to help students feel connected to you and to each other. Make your morning messages bright, engaging, and academically aligned with the rest of the school day so that they can act as a bridge to learning.
Create and sustain healthy learning environments by following social distancing rules when greeting and guiding students through group activities. Share your personal stories of joy and comfort with your students, along with what is motivating you to have a successful year. Allow them to share their pandemic stories but also get them thinking about what they will be looking forward to academically.
A welcoming school environment is one that looks, sounds, and feels calm. Calmness creates power; when you can take the time to breathe, focus your feelings, and center yourself, you become more productive and effective. Having a calm and predictable learning environment also helps students to feel emotionally, physically, and mentally safe.
Teacher language plays a major role in creating a calm environment for both physical and virtual classrooms. Your body language while on-line—including posture, facial expressions, and conduct—can communicate positivity or negativity. Consider the intonation and pacing of your voice and how you deliver directions. Do you engage with students’ questions and responses? Do you smile and express joy? Make sure to model calmness and patience even when you make mistakes, which will be an inevitable part of adjusting to a new style of teaching.
Appearance is also an important factor. Most school districts are requiring face masks. Make wearing one a fun and positive experience so students will feel more comfortable wearing theirs. Talk about the kind of mask you have, cultivate positive comments about them with students, and model empathy about how challenging it can sometimes be to wear them.
Develop a predictable schedule and proactively plan to catch students up who may have gaps in their learning. When students know what to expect, they will be motivated to come to school. Ask yourself: What are the prerequisites my students may have missed? How can I assess their abilities virtually? How can I celebrate student progress through focused feedback during the year?
Open the Doors
Proactively including students, staff, and com-munity members in the learning community is a powerful way to create strong relationships and can yield higher opportunities for success. Consider holding frequent town hall meetings for parents where you allow them to ask ques-tions and be heard. Establish equity in these conversations to ensure that students, teachers, and parents feel like they have a voice.
These following steps can also make the school year feel more welcoming:
- While you may not be able to hold traditional welcome back gatherings, you can add welcome banners and displays throughout the building.
- Post displays containing happy words and images of students in the hallways and classrooms.
- Hold frequent Zoom meetings with staff, students, and parents to let them see you and hear your voice.
- Film a video in the school introducing the following routines and procedures using Interactive Modeling:
- Wearing and taking off a mask safely
- Using hand sanitizer properly
- Washing hands with soap and water frequently
- Social distancing throughout the building
- Walking down the hallways in one direction
- Using inner talk to persevere through tough times
- Using supplies, computers, and books
- Playing at recess and eating at lunch
- Communicating when you aren’t comfortable
- Ask your staff to add to this list by brainstorming routines and procedures they want to see modeled.
Once students are back in the classroom, show empathy for students who have gotten used to being home for an extended period of time and must adjust to a structured schedule. Show warmth toward students who have been deprived of social opportunities. Be bold about the act of caring.
Meaningful and Memorable
Making the opening of the school year meaningful and memorable creates a positive school climate. While 2020 has been unstable and un-predictable, you still have the capacity to make decisions for your school community that will yield positive results. Consider these tips:
Take photos of teachers preparing, the first day of school, and all other “time capsule” events that will be created during the year.
Create Google slides filled with memories from both online and in-person learning.
Be creative with ways to build a portfolio of enjoyable experiences
Encourage your students to create fun names for the class and apply project-based learning experiences.
Connect with parents through newsletters and online updates throughout the day.
Try to create new rituals that can offer students a sense of meaning. Don’t forget to have a sense of humor.
Be proactive about generating new bonds in your school community. For example, my school’s theme this year is “Focus Forward.” We are choosing to focus, as a community, on our ability and willingness to move forward despite the challenges we may be facing. What new rituals can you establish this year? What new themes can you bring to the school? How can these new rituals and themes impact the rest of the school year?
Grief is real and enduring. As a country, we are still learning the scope of this epidemic’s ef-fect on children. When your students return to school, they may be experiencing one of the seven stages of grief. They could be expe-riencing shock or denial about their routines suddenly and drastically changing, pain as they realize the changes are more permanent than they realized, anger over new rules and restric-tions, or depression over the isolation they feel from classmates. The hope is that students can work through these stages of grief, process their experiences, and reach a state of acceptance.
Your role as educator is to ensure that all students are accepted, supported, and empowered to learn. This will mitigate the effects of students’ new school environment so they have the space to process difficult emotions. The appeal of school for students is that it can be a safe place to thrive and grow. Keeping this in mind will help you make decisions that will provide an alignment between rigorous instruction and a socially and emotionally safe environment. Carve out time to reimagine school with a renewed shared vision and mission. Once the vision and mission have been reviewed collaboratively, share with stakeholders, and make it visible.
I commend all educators for being on the front lines for their students. Our nation’s health care and food service workers have taken many risks to help our communities survive. Now it is our turn! Despite the current state of things and the many attendant challenges, let’s be mod-els of strength, resilience, and courage for our students. That way, when the story gets told, it will be a story about how when our students needed us, we didn’t let them down.
Be well, stay well, and always be of good courage.