Creating Space for Children and Adults To Be Their Best Selves

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There have always been inequities within and between schools in the United States. Now, as education is disrupted by COVID-19, previously existing inequities are more apparent and new inequities are developing. For example, in Colorado, families who can afford it are hiring skilled teachers to teach a small “pod” of six or seven children in their homes, thus providing a high-quality learning experience for their children every day. Independent schools are putting resources into safety measures such as efficiently functioning building ventilation systems, effective masks, no-touch hand sanitizers, and larger-sized classrooms with fewer children. The students in these independent schools continue to have an active and interactive in-school experience. Meanwhile, families who have limited resources do not have this option. Instead, they are sending their children to the school cafeteria, where they sit in physically distanced carrels at a computer screen monitored by a nonprofessional adult, having at best a lonely learning experience. Or their children learn virtually from their home, logging in to their classroom for part of the day and then spending the rest of their day watching television or supervising younger siblings. Finally, there are the children who must attend school as they did before the pandemic, putting themselves, their peers, and their teachers at risk. Many children are in need of support, including those without sufficient electronic devices for virtual learning or without enough to eat.

This is a stressful time for everyone—children, their families, and educators. Children need predictable routines in order to stay calm and learn. Instead, many find themselves in the new environment of virtual learning. In addition, sometimes children churn through several different environments in quick succession. They might start out learning in an in-school environment and then abruptly find themselves at home because of a COVID-19 outbreak at school. After a time of learning from home, they’re back to school again until someone else becomes infected with COVID-19.

Children need positive support to manage this stress, and I am continually impressed by efforts my fellow educators are making to support their students and reduce inequities. Educators are taking the time to create virtual classroom expectations with their students so that students will care about the rules. Educators are modeling respectful behaviors and expecting students to treat classmates respectfully. Private chats are scheduled with students to help them feel safe and provide an opportunity to be listened to.

Before the pandemic, I frequently noticed that when educators established expectations, children understood how these expectations applied to their classroom but they often did not understand that these expectations also applied to the cafeteria, the playground, or the school bus. To address this, we created a bridge for children, asking questions such as “If our rule says to be kind, how will you be kind to all in the cafeteria?”

Children need this type of explicit instruction for each new setting. For example, when a class of children who have been learning in school are suddenly sent home to learn virtually, they will need guidance. Questions to discuss include “How were our rules working for us in school? How might we make changes to help everyone feel comfortable and safe as we learn virtually?” Even if the learning environment has not been altered recently, having such bridge discussions now will benefit students should they need to go to a hybrid or virtual learning situation.

We need these bridges even when we make small changes within the learning environment. For example, when we teach a new virtual math game, it’s important to introduce it and then add, “Our rule says that we will treat others kindly. How might you be kind to your partner today as you play the fraction game?”

No matter how carefully we set our students up for success, they are sure to try out all sorts of stress-related misbehaviors. Our job as educators is to figure out where these misbehaviors are coming from and how to respond to them in positive and supportive ways.

Mr. Hernandez notices that one of his third-grade students, James, often has his camera turned off during virtual direct instruction. Mr. Hernandez wonders if this might be a sign of disengagement. He decides to try more partner chats in the chat room and small groups in breakout rooms to make his lessons more engaging. The students enjoy these efforts toward engagement but James still has his camera turned off.

Mr. Hernandez wonders what other reasons James might have for keeping his camera off. Perhaps James is embarrassed that his classmates are viewing his apartment or his family. Mr. Hernandez reflects on what adults do on virtual platforms when they don’t want others to take a look at their homes; they use a virtual background. Mr. Hernandez teaches using a virtual platform that has a background option. He takes some photos of places that his students might miss while staying at home—the façade of their school, the playground, and the nearby park—and sends the photos to his students. He adds some high-interest curricular pictures as well such as pictures of the planets. Then he teaches a lesson on how to set up your virtual background. James responds happily and begins to use the façade of the school as his go-to background.

Ms. Smith reads a short story aloud to her sixth-grade class and then sends her students off to randomly chosen breakout rooms with some reflection questions for discussion. As she drops in on each breakout group, she notices Savannah with her head down as June shares an idea. After class, Ms. Smith reflects on the incident. Savannah has been in this school for a few years and in this sixth-grade class all year. June is new to the school and to the class. Ms. Smith knows that sixth-graders enjoy working with familiar friends and sometimes reject students who are new to their class. She also knows that rejecting a new student can be a gateway behavior that can escalate into bullying, a behavior that is best stopped before it gets out of hand.

The next day Ms. Smith has a private meeting with Savannah. In a matter-of-fact tone, she tells Savannah that she noticed her putting her head down when June was speaking and asks Savannah what she noticed. Savannah tells her teacher that she really didn’t want to work with “the new girl.” Ms. Smith points out that one of their classroom rules is “Be friendly to all.” She asks Savannah if she has ideas about how to be friendly to June. The next day she sees Savannah posting friendly messages to June in the chatbox.

Polly hasn’t participated in virtual learning since early December. It’s mid-January and Mr. Caldwell is becoming concerned. He’s sent some emails and also tried phoning Polly’s family. He has received no answers. He knows that Polly’s guardian works long hours. He decides to try texting her. Polly’s guardian writes back and explains that they have only one electronic device in their home, a cell phone. Because she’s currently working a day job, she needs to take the cell phone with her to work.

Mr. Caldwell follows up by contacting the school social worker and asks her if the school can provide any devices to Polly’s family. The school is able to obtain three tablets for Polly and her two siblings. Polly is now able to participate in virtual learning with her classmates.

For each of these examples, the teacher first reflected on the source of the behavior from the student’s point of view. They next thought of at least one possible solution to try. If the first solution didn’t work, they explored another potential source of the behavior and linked it with another possible solution. This cycle continued until the teacher figured out a solution that met with success.

Children come to school wanting to do their best. In a world where children are not provided with optimum resources—where the world around them is full of illness and stress, and where change comes frequently, rapidly, and unexpectedly—it’s our job as educators to help lift up our students so that they can be their best selves. This, in turn, helps us to be our best selves, the type of teacher we aspire to be.